This weekend, the world is celebrating the 70th anniversary of the United Nations. While indeed an opportune moment to praise past achievements, this anniversary must also be a time for introspection and self-improvement.
Nowhere is this need for progress more compelling than in atrocity prevention policy. In response to the global refugee crisis and an uptick in violent conflict, the international community has rightly returned to a recurring discussion about the UN’s role in preventing, mitigating, and responding to global mass atrocity crimes.
The UN, established in the wake of the Holocaust to maintain international peace and security, has consistently failed to prevent mass atrocity crimes–which include genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing. Within the UN, the ultimate decision makers are the Security Council’s Permanent Five (P5) members: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. As such, they are expected to robustly detect, aid, and respond to these dangers.
Yet countless resolutions to prevent and address mass atrocities have been blocked by one or more of the P5 members’ vetoes. This inaction gives rise to a dangerous culture of impunity for gross human rights violations and hinders the UN’s ability to provide global safety and security.
The deadly conflict in Syria is one of many telling examples, raging into its fourth year of entrenched, multi-party warfare. This one conflict alone has resulted in the deaths of over 240,000 people, a devastated regional economy, and the largest refugee crisis since World War II.
To date, four individual resolutions on mass atrocities in Syria have been vetoed, each time by both Russia and China. These vetoes prevented the Security Council from condemning confirmed war crimes, increasing humanitarian assistance to victims, and responding to escalating violence in a timely manner. After each veto, civilian casualties at the hand of Assad’s regime significantly spiked, presumably due to a lack of enforced accountability for the crimes. This case aptly illustrates the exacerbation of conflict caused by the P5’s failure to fulfill its duties.
Tragically, Syria is not the first country where UN inertia or dysfunction has cost lives. In 1994, the UN’s reluctance to reinforce and expand the mandate of UNAMIR, its peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, resulted in the unhindered mass killing of hundreds of thousands of Tutsi in front of UN-stationed blue-helmets. Other incidents, like ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in the late 1990s or the case of Sudan from 2003 into the present, tell similar stories. Each horrific tragedy is followed by the promise of doing better next time. But, while “next times” come and go, these words have never sufficiently been transformed into action.
As two young people in the USA and the UK, we have grown up believing in the strength and legitimacy of the United Nations to safeguard global peace and security. We respect the UN’s successes, power, and potential, as well as the roles of the UK and the USA as global leaders within it. Yet in our roles as young activists with the Aegis Trust in the UK and STAND: The Student-Led Movement to End Mass Atrocities in the USA, we have become deeply disenchanted by the UN’s shortcomings in preventing and addressing the world’s most heinous crimes.
We refuse to accept the broken UN system as the status quo.
Fortunately, today, on the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, two emerging policy proposals provide hope for responsible, comprehensive, and just atrocities policy in the future. The two proposals, one issued by the government of France and later championed by the government of Mexico, and a second submitted by the 25 nations comprising the Accountability, Coherence, and Transparency (ACT) working group, both provide guidelines for enacting atrocity prevention objectives.
The French proposal calls for countries to encourage P5 members to voluntarily restrain their own veto power in mass atrocity situations. This process would not require an amendment to the UN charter as it is entirely voluntary. The ACT proposal is a broader Code of Conduct set forth to guide individual countries’ mass atrocity policy. It also argues for voluntary veto restraint by the P5 members on mass atrocity-referencing resolutions and encourages the P5 to approach these resolutions with respect for peace and justice and without political bias.
These two proposals are a clear step towards desperately needed reform within the UN. They are both quickly gaining traction and momentum within the international community. The UK and the USA have both signed the ACT initiative. We applaud this demonstration of commitment. However, no other P5 member has signed on to France’s proposal. There is no excuse for the UK and USA not to do so. In fact, they should be taking a leading role and encouraging others to do the same.
By successfully accepting, enacting, and refining the suggestions put forth in these proposals, the United Nations can fulfill its responsibility to protect civilians, restore its credibility, and send a powerful and deterring message that perpetrators of mass atrocities cannot expect to act without consequence.
It is imperative that each member state pay significant notice to the content of these proposals, and ultimately re-commit to the fight against global atrocity crimes by signing on and enacting the initiatives. The UK and the USA must assume leadership roles and encourage fellow P5 members to do the same.
After countless years of failure and missteps, these proposals will allow our generation to be the one to actualize the long-empty promise of “Never Again.” There couldn’t be a more appropriate date for these advancements than the 70th anniversary of the UN’s inception.
Savannah Wooten serves on the Student Managing Committee of STAND: The Student Led Movement to End Mass Atrocities. She currently attends both the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University through a collaborative scholarship program called the Robertson Scholars Leadership Program. She is majoring in Public Policy and Peace, War, and Defense and is pursuing a career in U.S. foreign policy and international conflict resolution.
Alicja Polakiewicz works for the Aegis Trust Youth Department through the European Voluntary Service (EVS). She finished her A-Levels in Germany and looks forward to attending university in the UK after her gap year in London.
(Title image via).