Honour amongst thieves
Who would you ask to sit on the committee for your local Neighbourhood Watch? I’m guessing it would be people of good character right? Folk who you knew to be – at least broadly – law abiding, co-operative and community spirited. At a stretch you’d maybe just go to the busy-bodies, well-intentioned but irritatingly over-involved. The people you wouldn’t be approaching, those who’d fail to make your shortlist, would be the local hooligans. Practicing burglars and muggers, people with recent criminal records and no hint of remorse and repentance. These you’d leave on the pile. Because these are the people you’d be looking to police.
The UN is supposed to be a sort of international Neighbourhood Watch. They have limited powers, really, but a duty to oversee and to call out the bad guys. Its not a neutral organisation either – framed as it is in the language of human rights and democratic self-determination. On paper it’s pretty clear what it’s for. And yet it struggles to do its stated job, frequently managing to achieve stasis or, worse, negative impact. The reason for this became all the clearer at a meeting of the Security Council this weekend. It’s because the crooks have been invited onto the board of this particular Neighbourhood Watch and been given a veto on what action, if any, it takes.
China and Russia are autocratic and despotic countries ruled by corrupt cliques. In China this takes the form of a political party that at least pretends to some form of governing principles. Russia – as was memorably described in a leaked diplomatic cable last year – is merely a ‘mafia state’. Neither permits their populations a realistic say in how their countries are governed. Both repress rebellion and dissent with brutal ruthlessness. Both wield Security Council vetoes. And so it is little surprise, really, that when the UN was asked to vote to reprimand a fellow dictator with an equally tyrannical and murderous world-view for slaughtering thousands of his own people, Russia and China didn’t merely demur but rather blocked the whole thing entirely. Honour amongst thieves, as it were.
Of course, they have form here. They blocked UN endorsement of the UK's successful intervention in Kosovo too. And in the case of Iraq it was Russia and China (with the aid of the French) who prevented UN endorsement. They call our desire to save people from tyranny ‘imperialism’. And yet Europe, America and – crucially – the Arab League in whose region the murder of Syrians is ongoing were united in demanding action whilst far-flung China and Russia felt able to dictate the fates of innocents in a far-off land. These are wretched dictators free to autocratically overrule the wishes of the wider world just as they are able to overrule their own people. And the UN, with its turgid structure and refusal to live up to its own values, enables and encourages them.
We need UN reform. We need to place criteria on Security Council membership and override the veto system. In the meantime, though, we need intervention to save lives in Syria. It is imperative that Governments here and elsewhere ignore the illegitimate ruling of the Security Council and act anyway. Until the UN is a legitimate body with a legitimate make-up and structure we must feel free to ignore it and be guided by the higher law of humane intervention.