The United Nations Security Council’s management of the Syrian conflict since 2011 has frequently been a source of disappointment and disgust. The council has now put in place a framework for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons and unanimously called for humanitarian access to war-torn towns and cities. Yet these gestures cannot erase memories of its earlier deadlocks and prevarications over the crisis, and the council members still seem unable to compel the Syrian government and its foes to make a peace deal.
Could the Syrian war nonetheless precipitate changes in the way the Security Council handles future atrocities? Last week, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius proposed one significant alteration. In an opinion piece for the New York Times, also published in Le Monde, he argued that the five permanent members of the council could agree to “voluntarily regulate the right to exercise their veto” in the face of a “mass crime.” He even proposed a new diplomatic trigger for activating this mechanism: “At the request of at least 50 member states, the United Nations secretary-general would be called upon to determine the nature of the crime. Once he had delivered his opinion, the code of conduct would immediately apply.”
This gambit is indicative of French frustration with Security Council diplomacy over Syria, but it is also a smart reading of frustrations with the council among the wider U.N. membership. The proposal is unlikely to make rapid headway, but it positions France as the potential leader of the bulk of U.N. members that want to see the council reformed. This is a striking posture for a country that only narrowly succeeded in securing a permanent seat on the council in 1945, and has been accused of cynically using the U.N. to clean up messes in ex-colonies such as Chad and Cote d’Ivoire.