07/14/2011 08:28 am ET Updated Sep 13, 2011

UN Council Raps Syria With a Whimper, Not a Bang

Osama bin Laden's demise was welcomed, Libyan leaders faced bombs but Syria has nearly vanished from the list of name and shame countries at the U.N. Security Council. What they have in common is violence against civilians.

Does it matter? Yes. This year's Council membership is unusual in that it has emerging powers that want a permanent seat in the Council. Together with the other members in the 15-nation Council, they reflect a cross-section and arguably a fair representation of international opinion. India, Brazil, South Africa are increasingly voting with Russia and China (known as the BRICS) and against the West.

Major hairsplitting is underway as to what endangers international (or even regional) peace and security, the mandate of the Council: Libya (yes), Syria (no), Ivory Coast (yes) Zimbabwe (no), Myanmar (sometimes, yes) Sri Lanka (no). The Security Council is the only U.N. group that can impose punitive action.

Weeks of negotiation on a resolution sponsored by Britain, France, Germany, Portugal and backed by the United States and others got nowhere on Syria. Even after toning it down, the draft met with stiff opposition, especially from Russia. The measure would have rapped the Damascus government, ever so gently, for countless human rights violations since protestors were gunned down around the country.

Rights groups say Syrian security forces have killed at least 1,600 civilians during the crackdown. The government blames says terrorists, foreigners and Islamists have started the mayhem and security personnel.

Don't touch the embassies
So on Tuesday, the Council released its first statement on Syria. It condemned Monday's attacks by demonstrators against the American and French embassies in Damascus and called on Syrian authorities to protect diplomatic property and personnel. Officials from from both countries believe the attacks were government-inspired. They followed a visit by the U.S. and French ambassadors to Hama, site of current bloody protests.

"The BRICS countries should explain why attacks on embassies deserve Security Council involvement but not the Syrian government's killing and torture of hundreds of its citizens," said Philippe Bolopion, U.N. director of Human Rights Watch.

The press statement, read by Dr. Peter Wittig, this month's Council president, was immediately rejected by Syria's U.N. ambassador, Bashar Ja'afari, who said the two ambassadors had "interfered in Syria's internal affairs." He said they exaggerated the damage to the embassies where crowds of pro-government demonstrators scaled the walls, broke windows and spray-painted slogans.

No doubt the West has few options on Syria, a paralysis that has allowed Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Russia to support the status quo to protect their own interests. But the Obama administration, which had been careful, in criticizing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has now said he has lost legitimacy and was considering targeted sanctions.

In the Security Council, the Western nations had hoped to adopt the resolution with three abstentions: Russia, China and Lebanon, a neighbor of Syria, which exerts enormous influence over Beirut. But no consensus was reached with Russia telling Council delegations it would veto any such measure.

Brazil wonders what Lebanon thinks
In a disingenuous statement, Brazil's foreign minister, Antonio de Aguiar Patriota, last month told reporters that his country was coordinating closely with Lebanon, the only Arab member of the Council, whose perspective he described as "fundamental." Brazil in Geneva had voted in favor of a U.N. Human Rights Council resolution that condemned repression and called for an investigation.

Russia and others have spoken of a presidential statement, which carries less weight than a resolution. But a statement requires agreement by all 15 members and Lebanon can't budge. A resolution needs a minimum of nine votes and no veto from permanent members Russia, China, France, Britain and the United States.

At the root of the problem is buyer's remorse over Libya in authorizing military action to stop the government's persecution of civilians as well as allowing the International Criminal Court to issue arrest warrants. Since then, Western nations, despite denials, have made it clear they aimed at the ending Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's rule.

More recently France has shipped arms to the rebels, despite a weapons embargo, arguing its position was legally justified. "We decided to provide self-defensive weapons to the civilian populations because we consider that these populations were under threat," France's U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud told reporters. India's U.N. Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri has warned of "mission creep."

Still in May the Council unanimously welcomed the news of Osama bin Laden's death, saying in a statement that he will "never again be able to perpetrate such acts of terrorism." Although the U.N. human rights commissioner, Navi Pillay, questioned the legality of the U.S. operation into Pakistan, several Council members embraced U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice at the news. "That issue was sacred," a Western ambassador told this reporter. "No one was going to oppose the United States on this one."

But unlike these events, no action was proposed on Syria. "The situations in Libya and Syria are similar but they are not identical," said Dr. Edward Luck of the International Peace Institute.

"In Libya, Gaddafi's use of aircraft and helicopters to attack unarmed protestors was very worrisome. His use of the term cockroaches to describe the protestors - the same words used in the genocide in Rwanda vis a vis the Tutsis - was a precedent no one wanted to repeat. And when it looked as if Gaddafi's forces were moving into Benghazi and talked of a house to house response - that invited a strong international response."

Also, Luck noted that in the Libyan situation, the country's North African neighbors, the Arab League and other regional groups urged action whereas in the case of Syria, there was little call for action, even though U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as well as Pillay issued strong statements.

Still, the lack of a substantive statement or a warning to Syria cannot be called anything but an embarrassment.