U.N. Inaction in Syria Is 'The Single Greatest Diplomatic Failure of our Times'


Simon Adams describes the "responsibility to protect" and why Syria is now a "Rwanda moment" for the United Nations Security Council. (4 min, 12 sec.)

Ongoing violence and humanitarian crises that emerged in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring have shone an unflattering light on the United Nations Security Council, which has “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security,” according to its charter.

“The U.N. was of course formed in the aftermath of a devastating world war and the long shadow of Auschwitz,” said Simon Adams, executive director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. “And nothing — nothing — undermines the authority, legitimacy, and credibility of the U.N. more than a failure to prevent genocide or other mass atrocity crimes.”

Speaking at Asia Society in New York Friday on a panel about the U.N. Security Council’s use of military intervention, Adams called the council’s failure to protect the people of Syria “the single greatest diplomatic failure of our times.”

“The judgment of history I think will be harsh and unforgiving,” he added. “I believe Aleppo will be for this generation of leaders and the U.N. Security Council members their Rwanda moment. I think Syria reveals just how deeply we need U.N. Security Council reform.”

Permanent Representative of Brazil to the U.N. Antonio de Aguiar Patriota noted that the council also needs to undertake careful analysis of what has gone wrong in recent interventions in violent conflicts. He pointed to the arrival of Western militaries in Libya in 2011 — that year, forces helped overthrow Muammar Gaddafi then hastily exited, leaving behind a power vacuum for armed factions and warlords to fight over. “Military intervention, even when it is carried out supposedly for high moral principles in order to save countries from their own dictators or guard against genocide and war crimes, can be more harmful than positive,” he said.

Former Indian Permanent Representative to the United Nations Hardeep Singh PuriIf agreed that authorizing intervention is the “easy part” — it’s what comes next that’s important. But even more important, he noted, was what comes before a conflict reaches a crisis point. “The problem is that 70 years of the U.N. has demonstrated that there is no budget for prevention,” he said. “When there is a crisis, and in order to prevent an exacerbation of the crisis and more violence, then people are willing to come forward by mandating peacekeeping missions and providing some money for development. It should be the other way around.”

Adams noted that there are currently some 65 million people around the world displaced by conflict, atrocities, and persecution — the highest number since World War II — and that the capacity of the U.N to deal with it is at a “crisis point.” This, he argued, is it why it needs to undergo serious reform.

“Confronting that crisis is an international system that is worn out and fraying at the ages,” he said. “We have basically a 20th-century U.N. trying to cope with 21st-century problems.”

In the above video, watch Simon Adams discuss the U.N.'s "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P) and failures in Libya and Syria. Watch the full program in the video below.


Antonio de Aguiar Patriota, Hardeep Singh Puri, Simon Adams, and Kevin Rudd discuss challenges for the U.N. Security Council in addressing violent conflicts through military interventions. (1 hr., 28 min.)

About the Author

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Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.