There is one good thing to come out of the Syria crisis – at least as far as NZ policy is concerned.
New Zealand is on the record as explicitly opposing any military action without UN Security Council authorisation.
Back in February 2012, I asked an Oral Question of the Foreign Minister on this very point. Speaking on his behalf, the Defence Minister clearly and firmly ruled out NZ support for any use of force by any state without authorisation of the Security Council. I demurely pointed this out in my General Debate speech of last week.
This will come as wonderful news to the Prime Minister who has equivocated on the subject in his relaxed blokey style, indicating that where America goes, New Zealand goes. The election of Australia’s Tony Abbot will take that sense of wonder to excruciating new heights.
But he will need to work on his Defence Minister’s answer of February 2012 first, before he can join Abbot and tether Aoteroa to a blinkered support for whatever the leader of another sovereign state decides, unquestioning of, or indifferent to, the constraints of international law.
The UN Secretary-General has stated the obvious – that force can be used only in self-defence or under UN Security Council authorisation. That piece of insight is 68 years old. It is in the UN Charter. The Charter has materially not changed.
The doctrine of Responsibility to Protect extends the right of the international community to declare certain extreme situations internal to a member state a threat to peace and security, which can justify armed intervention provided certain criteria are met. It does not permit one state to undertake that intervention on its own judgement – only with the authorisation of a Chapter VII resolution of the Council.
The US, in its ‘we-are-preparing- to-strike’ pose, implied that a legal justification would be rustled up on grounds of humanitarian intervention’. That is false. The doctrine allows force only with UNSC authorisation, as is explicitly made clear in UN General Assembly 60/1 of 2005.
The US, in its ‘we-are-prepared-to-wait’ pose, has now said that a strike can be averted provided chemical weapons are dismantled according to a Russian proposal and US-Russian agreement ratified by the Security Council. That is the beginning of wisdom – the kind that was apparently advocated around the Obama dinner table.
That wisdom will be secured when a US President resists the temptation to intone American exceptionalism in their speech to the nation. With innocent irony, that exceptionalism is described as resting on humility. 100% pure, perhaps.
The moves are underway to rid Syria of the chemical weapons it strenuously denied possessing. The US and Russia are genuinely working together to ensure it can be done – not because their leaders love one another but because world opinion is demanding it of them. The process will be imperfect and slow, with bickering and recrimination, but once the professionals in OPCW are given the task it should, with luck, become ineluctable. And the military option will slip off the table, as imperceptibly and with as much dignity as Obama can manage.
Then the other task will kick in – a judgement by the Security Council to the evidence submitted by the UN weapons inspectors. The ideal outcome would be a referral of the Syrian situation to the International Criminal Court, and ultimately witnessing the Syrian President in The Hague. That will test Russia and China on the rule of law, the way the past week has tested the US.
There are perhaps two lessons from the latest twist in the Syrian crisis.
– The first is the continuing need for Security Council reform – acceptance of new permanent members without veto and a protocol circumscribing its use by the current permanent five.
– The second is the passing need for New Zealand to be more clear-eyed in its strategic view of UN affairs and international law than the limpid style that John Key appears hard-wired to, if it wishes to secure voting support for its Security Council candidacy. And for that, the PM needs to listen to his Defence Minister who, in all his unwitting innocence, got it right, back in February 2012.
 President Obama’s speech to the nation, 10 Sept 2013: “I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.”