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Syria crisis shows Security Council flaws

With no end to the Syrian civil war in sight, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has raised new questions about the effectiveness of the world's most powerful international organization: the United Nations Security Council.

Annan said he's given up on the Security Council, not the Syrian people, on whose behalf he drafted a six-point plan to stop the unrest.

On Aug. 2, Annan announced he would step down as special envoy to Syria for the UN and the Arab League, citing "disunity" in the Security Council for dooming the mission. The 15-member council reigns over the 193-nation UN.

His replacement -- Lakhdar Brahimi, a veteran diplomat and former foreign minister of Algeria -- was announced Friday.

As the death toll in Syria exceeds 17,000 since the Arab Spring-inspired protests began in March 2011 -- and a UN observer mission in Syria is poised to end by midnight Sunday -- analysts are split on whether the Security Council remains functional or is fatally flawed.

"At a time when the Syrian people desperately need action, there continues to be finger-pointing and name-calling," Annan said, referring to the volley of insults traded each time the Security Council has failed to pass a resolution.

On three occasions, China and Russia vetoed resolutions that they felt authorized regime change through military intervention -- the impasse echoing the debate in 2003, when a U.S.-led campaign to approve military action against Iraq was rebuffed by France's veto.

At the time, President George W. Bush said the UN was on the brink of becoming "irrelevant." The United States assembled a "coalition of the willing" and attacked Iraq anyway.

In the case of Libya, where a popular uprising sought radical change in governance, a Security Council resolution in March 2011 was drafted to impose a no-fly zone, but the conflict quickly devolved into all-out war and deposed longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi. That measure passed, despite abstentions from five countries, including Russia and China.

The council was created "precisely to prevent the biggest powers, the strongest powers, from going to war, partly against each other but in general to restrain them," said Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington.

"From that vantage point, the so-called deadlock of the council, the refusal to endorse war, is exactly what the UN role should be," she said.

Bennis said that the Security Council may have missed an opportunity to reach a middle ground by drafting a resolution that appropriately condemned Syrian aggression and called on everyone to stop arming both sides, but which stopped short of removing president Bashar Assad and imposing sanctions backed by force.

José Luis Díaz, Amnesty International's UN representative, wrote in an opinion piece for that politics trumped human rights.

"For one thing, the ongoing crisis in Syria proves that Security Council members, and particularly the permanent ones, are still guided primarily by political and strategic considerations, despite the lofty talk out of some capitals," he wrote. "This isn't necessarily sinister, but it need not, by the same token, relegate concern and action to protect civilians and their human rights to a secondary plane."

Amnesty International's 2012 global human rights report said the Security Council seemed "tired, out of step and increasingly unfit for purpose."

James Paul, executive director of Global Policy Forum, a think tank in New York and Washington, said the structure of the Security Council, particularly veto power granted to five permanent members -- the United States, Russia, France, Great Britain and China -- poses a fundamental problem.

"The Security Council is a very despotic system in that you have many member states and people living around the world, and it's a very small number of actors who really run things," said Paul, who wrote a book for Human Rights Watch about Syria under Hafez Assad.

"This veto power has very serious negative impact on the efficacy of the Security Council as an institution, and permanency does, too," he said.

Bennis agreed, saying a Security Council with more permanent members or with more members with veto power is long overdue -- something many reformers have said for decades.

"I think that's part of the reason that Kofi's language was so much focused on his anger at the council itself," she said.

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