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Canada leads new push on Syria crisis at UN as ‘frustration’ over Security Council deadlock grows

As the war in Syria rages on and Russia vetoes yet another resolution aimed at ending the bloodshed, Canada is spearheading a new diplomatic effort to try to end the brutal civil war. 

The Canadian Mission to the United Nations has submitted a rare request asking the president of the General Assembly for a meeting of all 193 member states to “explore concerted action to apply pressure on the parties of the violence [in Syria],” now in its sixth year.

The letter, co-sponsored by 68 other member states, calls the Security Council’s failure to end the war “troubling.”

It says a plenary meeting of all the members would help determine whether the General Assembly should call an emergency special session under the “Uniting for Peace” resolution, which dates back to 1950 and allows for the wider membership to step in when the Security Council “fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.”

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Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s UN ambassador, vetoes a draft Security Council resolution that demanded an immediate end to airstrikes and military flights over the Syrian city of Aleppo. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

”At this stage, I think, the frustration of member states is growing,” said Michael Grant, deputy permanent representative at the Canadian Mission to the UN.

He says it’s important members be able to voice their concerns, but “first and foremost, this is about ending the suffering for the Syrian people. That’s the objective of this initiative.”

General Assembly resolutions are non-binding, unlike those adopted by the Security Council, which has five permanent members with the power to veto. While Grant acknowledges action from the General Assembly cannot replace the power of the Security Council, he says Russia’s veto Saturday of a European-drafted resolution aimed at ending aerial bombardments of the besieged city of Aleppo and the grounding of all warplanes demands the wider membership get involved.

Since the start of the war, Russia has vetoed five Security Council resolutions on Syria, including one that called for the situation to be referred to the International Criminal Court. China backed Russia on the first four vetoes, but notably abstained during the vote on Saturday.

Expel Syria from UN?

According to one diplomat, a proposal under discussion is a resolution to suspend Syria’s voting rights at the UN or even outright expulsion from the international organization.

“This is one of many ideas under discussion for GA action, due to general frustration at the failure of the

[Security Council] because of Russian vetoes,” said the diplomat, who didn’t want to be named.

Michael Grant

‘At this stage, I think, the frustration of member states is growing,’ says Michael Grant, deputy permanent representative at the Canadian Mission to the UN. (Global Affairs Canada)

Canada’s Grant says it wouldn’t surprise him that “others are considering other initiatives.” He says several discussions are underway at different levels to try to get “proper accountability” since this latest veto at the Security Council.

Articles 5 and 6 of the UN charter do allow the General Assembly to suspend a member state’s “rights and privileges” and expel it if it ”has persistently violated” charter principles, but in both instances, those actions must first be recommended by the Security Council.

As one diplomatic source said, that would bring the veto back into play, making both scenarios highly unlikely and unrealistic.

Proposal for special prosecutor

Another proposal being discussed is the creation of a UN-mandated evidence gathering and preserving mechanism for any future criminal accountability measures, as well as the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate atrocities, including war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

But according to Liechtenstein, which spearheads accountability issues at the UN, jurisdiction remains an obstacle in Syria. It’s unclear what court, ad-hoc or other, would have the authority to prosecute even if war crimes were confirmed.

Mideast Syria

The aftermath of airstrikes that hit Aleppo’s Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood in late September. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets/Associated Press)

Meanwhile, New Zealand, which has been a proactive member of the Security Council during its two-year rotating term has circulated a new draft text on Syria aimed at ending the killing of civilians.

As its UN ambassador Gerard van Bohemen explained: “We and the other elected members felt we could not just give up.”