A New Cold War on Democracy and Human Rights at the UN Security Council and Beyond?

On February 4th, 2012, the UN Security Council witnessed what could be one of the first salvos in a new cold war focused on democracy and human rights. A double veto by Russia and China defeated the resolution drafted by the Arab League (and supported by almost all the Arab states along with all the other members of the UN Security Council) that was aimed at stopping the mass slaughter by the Assad regime in Syria. The Arab League had promoted a resolution calling for a Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, plural political system. Russia and China insisted on removing the focus on the Assad government (which both veto powers regarded as amounting to advocating regime change), and asked for the resolution to include demands that the opposition and armed groups cease their violent opposition to the government. The other Council members regarded these proposals as being unacceptable and ineffective in stopping the crimes against humanity in Syria.

The undiplomatic language subsequently aimed at both Russia and China was stunning. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice stated her country’s disgust at the Council being held hostage by the double veto; she seemed to speak on behalf of the other Security Council members in denouncing the two major powers’ shameful disregard for the mounting civilian slaughter by the Assad killing machine. Like others on the Council who supported the resolution, Rice and the British Ambassador warned that the countries of the Middle East would remember who they can count on to support their peoples’ legitimate aspirations and who they can count on to support the region’s tyrants.  Germany declared the double veto a disgrace for the Security Council in face of the slaughter and on the 30th anniversary of the massacre by Assad’s father in Hama. France declared the double veto a sad day for both the Security Council and democracy. India, a strong advocate of sovereignty and territorial independence, condemned the continuing assault on civilians by the Assad regime.

It may be that the Russian and Chinese intransigence is due to their great discomfort with the intervention by the UN Council and NATO in Libya, which resulted in regime change and the ouster of Gaddafi (who had been purchasing billions in arms from Russia and had allowed growing Chinese investments in the energy sector). The other members of the Security Council pointed out that there was no mention of military intervention, regime change or an arms embargo in the Arab League resolution, yet the double veto was applied.

What may be at the root of the double veto is the increasingly authoritarian approach to both foreign relations and economic power (in the form of state capitalism) by both Russia and China, who are adopting this approach to gain political and economic advantage against democratic and free market states and their allies. Russian obstructive behaviour towards both Iran and Syria is comparable to China’s deep foray into Africa by its giant state-owned companies. China is pursuing that course in an effort to tie up major energy and mineral concessions there by offering huge financial benefits, while turning a blind eye to rampant corruption and, in some cases, serious human rights abuses. These actions can be compared because they emphasize hegemonic interests above democratic and human rights aspirations of the citizens of the countries in which they seek to exert influence. It should also be noted that Chinese state companies are expanding their presence in western countries in an attempt to solidify vital access to needed manufacturing inputs such as energy and base metals. While such investment may be beneficial to the economies of countries like Canada, where investment by Chinese state companies in the energy sector is growing, the larger global context of the impact of state capitalism on democracy and human rights should never be ignored. For example, there should be a serious examination of how Russian and Chinese actions that support authoritarian leaders could weaken democratic revolutions—not only the recent ones in the Middle East, but also in other parts of the world, especially in Africa, Latin America and Asia, where the economic and political interests of both Russia and China are growing.

A cold war on democracy and human rights may not threaten mutual assured destruction, but it does threaten the great progress that has occurred in these vital aspects of human civilization since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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