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The UN, on Syria and Israel, is all talk and no bite

If there is one word to describe the UN, formed in the aftermath of World War II to ensure “never again,” it is “toothless.” Recent votes taken by the General Assembly and the 15-member Security Council, as well-meaning as they were, only serve to illustrate the so-called international community’s impotence in the face of carnage and injustice.
The UN Charter, designed to protect populations under illegal occupation and to prevent war crimes, is little more than a piece of paper, a wish list that has rarely been successfully implemented.
The Security Council is not fit for purpose, primarily because the five veto-holding permanent members have opposing agendas, resulting in stalemate. This is why the General Assembly was driven to take matters into its own hands toward ending the culture of impunity within which the Syrian regime, its backers and various rebel militias have been operating.
An overwhelming majority of member states voted to set up an investigative mechanism tasked with compiling evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity during the Syrian conflict, with the aim of preparing a file to be lodged with an international court or tribunal in the future.
Full marks for effort, but those of us who have been sickened by the sight of ashen-faced toddlers being pulled out from what is left of their homes, or struggling to breathe following chemical attacks, or being strapped with explosive belts, should not count on seeing the perpetrators brought to justice anytime soon. No doubt the General Assembly has achieved a moral victory, but sadly that is where it ends.
Neither Syria nor Iran have signed up to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has no jurisdiction without a Security Council resolution to refer those countries to The Hague. Of course, that will not happen because Russia – and possibly also China – will certainly block such a move.
It is true that 125 countries hold to what is termed the doctrine of “universal jurisdiction,” whereby a national court can prosecute individuals for war crimes wherever they happen to be committed. However, perpetrators are careful to avoid travel to such states. Moreover, sitting heads of state traditionally enjoy sovereign immunity from prosecution.
That said, there have been successful prosecutions by courts in France, Spain, Britain, Belgium and The Netherlands. Rest assured that the European shopping sprees of the family of Syrian President Bashar Assad are over for all time.
Here, it is worth recalling that the UK rewrote its laws to protect vulnerable Israeli officials following an arrest warrant issued for former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, a move that screamed double standards. Selective justice is no justice at all.
As for the ICC, it is bleeding member countries — Gambia, South Africa and Burundi, with others, including Kenya, mulling following suit — due to its track record of only prosecuting African nationals from states lacking heavy diplomatic clout or friends in high places.
One of the ways the current law of the jungle could be reversed would be for the UN to receive a massive overhaul, entailing the transfer of power from the Security Council to the General Assembly. Alternatively, with respect to serious crimes such as ethnic cleansing, genocide and war crimes, Security Council vetoes could be suspended.
In reality, both these options are dead in the water because the veto-holding nuclear states would never agree as they themselves, not to mention their closest allies, would be vulnerable to prosecution.
Just days ago, the concept of international justice was stricken by another body blow, one that could rattle the UN’s very foundations. Israel’s settlement expansion across the West Bank and East Jerusalem has been censured by a Security Council resolution, but like so many others it will be filed away to gather dust. All it has achieved is to poke the bear into a rampage.
Israel has recalled its ambassador from two of the resolution’s sponsors, New Zealand and Senegal, and given the ambassadors of all other Security Council member states — including the US — a dressing down.
Worse, Israel has ceased civil and diplomatic cooperation with the Palestinian Authority (PA), and is threatening to go full steam ahead with settlement construction. Meanwhile, both Israel and its buddies in the US Congress are threatening to cut UN funding until the offending resolution is revoked. “Just wait until Jan. 20” is an ominous warning from the US president-elect, who has made it crystal clear which side he favors.
Let us not fool ourselves that UN resolutions make a difference when it comes to the selected and protected. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as Assad and his partners in crime, can sleep soundly. As harsh as this may sound, there is no escaping reality – the only constant on our increasingly tumultuous planet is “might is right.”

• Linda S. Heard is an author and columnist specializing in Middle East affairs.