The diplomatic initiative which recently averted, at least temporarily, a limited U.S. military strike against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for the use of chemical weapons near Damascus evoked a range of reaction across the domestic political spectrum and within the international community.
The Aug. 21 attack reportedly killed 1,400 people, many of them children, and constituted a clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits their use and production and provides for their elimination and subsequent oversight. Apart from Syria, every country recognized by the United Nations except Angola, Egypt, Israel, Myanmar, North Korea and South Sudan has ratified this treaty.
Although the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, its accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention and a renewal of efforts to convene a peace conference to reach a political solution are critically important objectives, the Syrian conflict also presents a compelling opportunity to underscore that those who violate international law will be held accountable by the global community.
For example, referring such matters to the International Criminal Court (ICC), an independent institution established by the Rome Statute to investigate and prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, would represent an important step toward that end.
Assad continues to deny responsibility for the attack and asserts culpability lies with the opposition. However, a report released by the U.N. indicates likely Assad regime involvement without specifically assigning blame. The Obama administration previously concluded evidence of the regime’s culpability was strong.
Because Syria isn’t a party to the Rome Statue (nor is the U.S.), consensus among the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (U.S., Russia, China, France and U.K.) essentially would be required for ICC jurisdiction, which thus far has proved elusive.
Despite the U.N.’s remarkable history, the international system is still a work in progress and is periodically paralyzed by obstructionist tactics influenced by divergent agendas. There’s been little meaningful movement on reforms that might help change the corporate culture of the Security Council, streamline its proceedings without undermining original intent to facilitate consensus, and more accurately reflect the 21st Century balance of power.
The U.S. has played an instrumental role shaping the international system and within the context of negotiating numerous exceedingly important treaties that serve as part of its framework only to decline to ratify a number of them, including the Rome Statute.
In practical terms, the U.S. might be less inclined to take unilateral action, that is to serve as world policeman, if there were more effective means to achieve multilateral consensus.
Simply put, strengthening the international system is in the enlightened self-interests of the United States, and fully consistent with America’s historic advocacy of the rule of law. Holding despots accountable for mass killings of their own people by poison gas is surely a worthy cause.
Given the nature of the Syrian conflict as well as its broader implications, the U.S. has cause to lead a renewed effort to reach consensus among the four other permanent members of the Security Council that ICC jurisdiction ultimately must be an element of any U.N. brokered resolution.
More generally, the U.S. is well-positioned to call for review of Security Council practice, procedures and permanent membership, especially given that it contributes 22 percent of the U.N.’s budget, the largest share of any member nation, as well as that it’s vetoed more proposed Security Council resolutions than any other permanent member during the past three decades.
The opportunity is there. Will we embrace it?
Harry Lee Anstead is a former Florida Supreme Court chief justice, and Mark Schlakman is senior program director for the Center for the Advancement of Human Rights at Florida State University.