The ongoing despair within Syria and the related UN discussions, specifically the veto power utilised by both Russia and China, raises questions regarding democratic practices, the question of majority and minority rule, and conflicted, vested powers by small groups of people in society literally determining the fate (often at the level of survival) of thousands of people.
As many who take a minimalist view of democracy argue, sometimes given the conflict of interests so prevalent in society it is illumining we can even have sustained peaceful turnovers of elections in many countries. One theorist, Condorcet, saw democracy as rational, arguing that reason can ensure people, collectively – so through a majority system – vote the ‘right’ way to guarantee the ‘right’ decisions are made. Majority rule has been criticised for supposedly undermining individuals’ autonomy by anarchists such as Wolf who argues that the state has no moral authority. Murray Bookchin, one of my favourite authors, has competently criticised Wolf for lifestyle anarchism (one of the reasons Bookchin distanced himself from anarchism in 2002), on the basis that without majority rule we would have the tyranny of powerful minority interests, as illustrated by the UN’s security council veto ability. More specifically, Bookchin’s work on the problem of consensus style decisions is rather important to consider when understanding the problems of the UN voting structure when it comes to decisions such as Syria:
But to examine consensus in practical terms, my own experience has shown me that when larger groups try to make decisions by consensus, it usually obliges them to arrive at the lowest common intellectual denominator in their decision-making: the least controversial or even the most mediocre decision that a sizeable assembly of people can attain is adopted — precisely because everyone must agree with it or else withdraw from voting on that issue. More disturbingly, I have found that it permits an insidious authoritarianism and gross manipulations — even when used in the name of autonomy or freedom (Murray Bookchin 1994).
Consensus is different to decisions resolving conflicting interests and opinions. The UN’s human rights chief has said that the inaction of the UN security council has resulted in an “all and out” attack upon Syrians, as opposition activists argue Russia and China gave Syria a “license to kill”. Russia, a long-term ally have maintined their promise to keep up their arms trade deals with Syria despite their onslaught upon ordinary citizens for simply demanding better rights. More specifically:
Moscow’s stance is motivated in part by its strategic and defence ties, including weapons sales, with Syria. But Russia also rejects what it sees as a world order dominated by the United States. Last month, Russia reportedly signed a $550 million deal to sell combat jets to Syria.
There are movements towards a global treaty to try and combat the arms trade industry, “which produces two bullets for every person on the planet every year and weapons that kill 1,500 people each day”, but it looks like it will be watered down by the United States, China and Russia, as they push for only consideration rather than definite action regarding trading with regimes that have human right allegations against them alongside wanting to leave out an array of weapons such as tear gas from being included within the treaty’s remit. Furthermore, ‘legitimate’ trade wont be stopped; which obviously pertains to capital and powerful vested interests once again taking precedence. Despite the USA being vocal against the Russian veto, they themselves are propping up dictatorships such as Bahrain with their recent £1m arms trade deal despite protests and conflicts, for instance.
The UN in general is dictated and controlled by specific countries interests. A US embargo in place on Cuba since 1962, for no valid reason whatsoever, is routinely every Autumn condemned by most countries in the UN but the USA and their buddies Isreal vote against the resolution. Likewise, last year USA vetoed a resolution condemning Israeli settlements/occupation of West Bank and Gaza, which was “the 10th time in the past 11 years that the US has voted against a UN measure considered critical of Israel”. Furthermore, “through France, Morocco has enjoyed an Israeli- like veto on the peace process. And, like Israel, it has used the blockage to flood the territory with around 250,000 Moroccan settlers against around 150,000 native Sahrawis (100,000 or so more live in exile, many in camps in Algeria).” Then some things just go ignored, as despite evidence of a coup in the Maldives, countries around the world including the United Kingdom have pretty much accepted the ‘legitmacy’ of the new government aka. dictatorship.
Essentially, capital restraints effect and undermine democracy. As Immanuel Wallerstein was brilliant in showing, we live in a global capitalist system that undermines socialistic efforts and will place pressures on attempts to form democratic institutions within such a global framework. For anarchists, capitalism is part of a broader problem of hierarchy; where psychological and physical domination of a few presides over the interests of the many. This domination relates to the nature of the political system. There is a need for localised assemblies acting as counter-veiling powers to the centralised power to undermine problems with vested interests alongside providing localised interests more power and democratic say (especially given the central government’s devastation of the councils). This type of political system is associated with Athens polis democracy, something Bookchin was central in advocating, and something that has been a central plank in anarcho-communalist work. Essentially, the need for different types of political structures in places such as the UK shows that despite having a majority voting system they are still often heavily dictated to by capital powerful minority vested interests. Thus, it is the way the majority system is operationalised, rather than the mere fact we have a majority system that matters. But relating back to the points made by Wallertsein, this is associated with the problem of a global capitalist economy.
In reality, the veto option is unlikely to be changed given the vested interests involved by each country who wields the power to veto. It is more in their interests to have the ability to veto than to stop others with the veto power using it. It relates to the capitalist balance, or imbalance, of power and the capitalist balance, or imbalance, of interests. However, importantly it is essential to highlight a critical article regarding the fallacy of the veto by Cameron Hunt, as the general assembly has managed to impose their own decisions despite vetoes from the security council given their roles and responsibilities specified by the UN Charter– such as during South Africa apartheid when the United States were key supporters of the segregation. Hunt also questions the belief that security council resolutions are binding and general assembly resolutions aren’t. Essentially,
On 7 November 1956, the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 1001, marking the first use by the General Assembly of its most extensive powers under the UN Charter. That resolution established the United Nations Emergency Force I (UNEF I) in order to “secure and supervise the cessation of hostilities” that had broken out during the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956. During the Crisis, the Assembly not only established UNEF I, it likewise, by its own resolutions, called for “an immediate cease-fire”, and recommended “that all Member States refrain from introducing military goods in the area”, thereby authorizing a global arms embargo on the region – ‘military sanctions’…You might have noticed that I have not yet made any reference to the UN Security Council. Why? Because the Council played no part in the creation of UNEF I – the first UN Emergency Force – other than failing to “exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security”, as a result of the “lack of unanimity of the permanent members”. The outcome of such a Council deadlock had been made clear by Assembly resolution 377 A of 3 November 1950: In cases where the Council fails to accept its ‘primary responsibility’, the General Assembly is to then assume ‘final responsibility’ for the “maintenance of international peace and security..It is often wrongly asserted that resolution 377 A gave the Assembly new powers, or established a new ‘procedure’, but this is entirely incorrect. The powers of any UN organ derive from only one place: the UN Charter. The only way to change the powers of a UN organ, is to amend the UN Charter, and this is not any easy process. What 377 A did do was to make explicit, for the first time, what the powers of the Assembly actually are in the case of a deadlocked Security Council. For this reason, resolution 377 A can be best described by the legal term: ‘Declaratory Statute’ – it declared what the powers of the General Assembly actually are, according to the UN Charter.”
And specifically regarding the binding of resolutions, interesting given attempts (whilst hypocritical given their own crackdown of protests) by Saudi Arabia for a General Assmebly resolution on Syria similar to the one vetoed:
“Likewise, anybody familiar with the Israel-Palestine conflict will know that Assembly resolution 194, of 11 December 1948, ‘resolved that’ “[Palestinian] refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property”. It is widely agreed by international law jurists that by reaffirming resolution 194 every year, through the adoption of subsequent Assembly resolutions referring specifically to it, the Palestinian ‘Right of Return’ has now become a principle of ‘customary international law’. To argue that Assembly resolutions are in no way binding, is to argue that international law is in no way binding. Yes, there are several states around the world that seem to believe exactly that, but they are in an ever-shrinking minority. A minority which also seems to have forgotten that it was General Assembly resolution 181, of 29 November 1947, that granted the State of Israel its legitimacy under international law, by authorizing the partition of historic Palestine into “Independent Arab and Jewish States and the Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem.”
With this in mind, as in the words of Bookchin:
“If consensus could be achieved without compulsion of dissenters, a process that is feasible in small groups, who could possibly oppose it as a decision-making process? But to reduce a libertarian ideal to the unconditional right of a minority — let alone a “minority of one” — to abort a decision by a “collection of individuals” is to stifle the dialectic of ideas that thrives on opposition, confrontation and, yes, decisions with which everyone need not agree and should not agree, lest society become an ideological cemetery. Which is not to deny dissenters every opportunity to reverse majority decisions by unimpaired discussion and advocacy.”