Why should only the P5 have an obligation to act on atrocities?

By David Bosco

For several years now, French diplomats at the United Nations have been seeking to create a new norm of behavior on the Security Council. Specifically, they have argued that the permanent members should accept an obligation not to veto measures designed to prevent atrocities. Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations elaborates some of the key problems with the initiative:

First, proponents must decide the criteria to determine when the threshold for “mass atrocities” has been crossed—and who gets to make that determination. Inasmuch as any violent conflict is, sadly, likely to include some atrocities, there should presumably be at least some rule of thumb for when the RN2V principle kicks in. Is it a question of body count? Of the stated intent of perpetrators? There should also be provisions for decision-making when the P5 disagree. The initial French proposal would give the secretary-general such authority. This is legally innovative but problematic. The secretary-general is not a judge and it is unclear whether (s)he has (or should be given) the standing to make this determination.

Second, proponents must persuade skeptics that the “vital national interest” caveat is not a crippling loophole that P5 states can casually invoke. In the case of Syria, it could be argued that Russia and China have already defined coercion against the government of Bashar al-Assad as contrary to their national interests. From Moscow’s perspective, the Security Council’s failure to act in Syria is not evidence of its failure but of its working as intended, by allowing permanent members to veto coercion that is contrary to their perceived interests.

As I’ve argued before, I tend to think that these issues would rob the initiative of most meaning. Even if the norm somehow had bite, however, there could be troubling unintended consequences. Specifically, wavering P5 diplomats might be buffaloed into supporting well-intentioned but ill-designed “action” that they otherwise would not. The Council’s record provides ample recent evidence that plenty of action to address atrocities can be ineffectual or even counterproductive. And yet the French proposal would appear to bind a P5 member to support even a misguided initiative that commands broad Council support.

I’ve also been puzzled by the French insistence on marketing this initiative as one that applies only to the P5. If the P5 shoulder an obligation not to oppose measures in certain contexts, shouldn’t the rest of the Council membership as well? The French undoubtedly see this plan as one that could help remedy the legitimacy questions that plague the P5. But in proposing a special P5 obligation, doesn’t the initiative reinforce the Council’s caste system and the marginalization of its elected members?

About David Bosco

Assistant Professor at American University's School of International Service. Contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine. Author of Rough Justice: The International Criminal Court in a World of Power Politics and Five to Rule Them All: The UN Security Council and the Making of the Modern World
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