[Published 13 September 2013]
Russia’s President - Vladimir Putin - has trumped America’s President - Barack Obama - in urging the American nation to put international law before war to prevent any armed attack on Syria threatened by President Obama as a result of the chemical weapons atrocity perpetrated on 21 August that killed 1429 people.
Putin’s message had already been clearly heard by President Obama when he called on the Congress to postpone a vote approving any such military offensive - choosing instead to now pursue the collection and destruction of chemical weapons in Syria with the backing of a Security Council resolution - which will undoubtedly be finalised on such terms as are acceptable to Russia.
Putin sought to reinforce this end game in spectacular fashion by publishing an op-ed - (or should it have been called a ”victory speech”?) - in the New York Times under the heading - “A Plea for Caution From Russia - What Putin Has to Say to Americans About Syria”
Putin’s concentration on stressing the importance of the UN Security Council as the sole legal authority to declare war - and conversely to help end war - was particularly revealing.
On the role of the Security Council - Putin declared:
“The United Nations’ founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus, and with America’s consent the veto by Security Council permanent members was enshrined in the United Nations Charter. The profound wisdom of this has underpinned the stability of international relations for decades.
No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage. This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization.”
The inability of the 5 Permanent Members of the Security Council to agree on the terms of a resolution to collect and destroy all chemical weapons in Syria - certainly could signal a lack of “real leverage” - threatening the future of the Security Council.
America’s objective in preventing the future use of chemical weapons in Syria or elsewhere will now be met - perhaps not entirely to America’s complete satisfaction - by accepting the terms of any Security Council resolution proposed by Russia.
However Putin now certainly needs to explain the lack of “real leverage” demonstrated by the failure of those same 5 Permanent Members to agree on the terms of a resolution to end the 30 month civil war in Syria that has already claimed over 100000 lives, created 2 million refugees and displaced 5 million Syrians in their own country.
Russia needs to do its own soul searching as it continues to exercise its veto vote to paralyse all efforts by the majority of the other Permanent Members to obtain a Security Council Resolution to try and end this humanitarian outrage.
Russia cannot continue to be the impediment frustrating any resolutions to try and end this conflict - if Putin wants to be taken seriously.
Putin has pointedly omitted mentioning the United Nations General Assembly - and for very good reason. The voting bloc comprised by the member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and third world nations ensures that the most fanciful resolutions can be passed with impunity to demonise and denigrate other member States.
The fact that resolutions of the General Assembly have no legal effect is not understood by most people - who continually quote those General Assembly resolutions to justify their own viewpoints.
The classic example is the large number of General Assembly resolutions declaring Israeli settlements in the West Bank as being illegal in international law - when there are contradictory legal opinions asserting they are legal.
Repeated mantra like - these non-binding resolutions take on a life and misleading legal status of their own - when indeed nothing could be further from the truth.
On the need to be bound by the rule of law - Putin stated:
“From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future. We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law. We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.”
Putin’s words - whilst very noble in their import - suffer from the old adage - “two lawyers - three opinions”
Regrettably the International Court of Justice remains the only tribunal within the UN framework with jurisdiction to deal with disputes between States - but only if those States agree to accept its jurisdiction.
The Court has the power to issue advisory opinions - but they are also non-binding.
Changing the present inadequate legal system is a worthwhile objective for Putin and Obama to pursue.
The Security Council can play an important role in the formation of a new Court system with teeth - possessing the ability to have its judgements respected and enforced.
Whilst the law is imperfect and often reversed on appeal - it still remains unavailable as of right when disputes between States need resolution.
Putin must now translate his words into concrete action if Americans are to believe him.