The United Nations and Postcolonial Privilege: International Responses to the Arab Spring

The United Nations and Postcolonial Privilege: International Responses to the Arab Spring

Katy Harsant

December 2015 marked the fifth anniversary of the beginning of a wave of revolutionary uprisings known as the Arab Spring. Starting in Tunisia in December of 2010, the Arab Spring saw anti-government protests across a number of countries in the Middle East and North Africa. In the context of continued conflict, a refugee crisis on an unprecedented scale and terrorist attacks around the world, questions need to be asked about what the international community is doing to respond to this.

The United Nations, as an organisation designed to maintain international peace and security, has been committed to a principle of Responsibility to Protect since its unanimous acceptance at the World Summit in 2005. Following the failures of the United Nations in responding to humanitarian emergencies in the 1990s, then Secretary-General Kofi Annan declared that a new approach was needed in order to ensure the international community never again failed to act as in Rwanda or acted ‘illegally’ as in Kosovo. The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty provided the solution in the form of the Responsibility to Protect.

This approach states that where any government is unable or unwilling to protect its population, this responsibility falls to the international community and that there is a right or a duty to intervene in order to protect civilians. Intervention is deemed just where there is large-scale loss of life, either as the result of direct state action or state neglect. Despite the Responsibility to Protect being accepted as a guiding principle in dealing with government abuse or civil war, recent conflicts have seen a selective application of this policy, particularly in the cases of Libya and Syria.

In 2011, the United Nations authorised the use of ‘all necessary measures’ under the principle of Responsibility to Protect in response to the escalating conflict in Libya between the Gaddafi government and pro-democracy rebels. This was the first case that saw Responsibility to Protect implemented in a situation where there was still a functioning government. In this case, the fact that the Libyan government was murdering its own people was deemed to warrant an international response in the form of intervention. However, as this intervention played out, concerns began to be raised around the relationship between the Responsibility to Protect and political motivations, namely regime change.

It quickly became clear that the primary objective of the intervention in Libya was to remove the Gaddafi government from power, not to encourage democracy. Indeed, recently released emails to Hilary Clinton, who was serving as Secretary of State for the Obama government, revealed distinctly different French interests in the Libyan intervention. As Vijay Prashad has argued, the Western intervention in Libya was not designed to support the revolution, which showed every sign that it would have been successful on its own. Rather, the Western intervention was about maintaining postcolonial forms of control and, in fact, has hindered the development of a ‘new Libya’. The intervening states wished to maintain their historical colonial control in North Africa and had little interest in assisting the development of a revolutionary Libya.

In contrast, the Syrian context has seen a rather different response. Despite the violence of Assad’s government and the situation fulfilling the conditions of justifying a response, the United Nations has been unable to authorise a military intervention under the principle of Responsibility to Protect. Although Responsibility to Protect was agreed by all member states in 2005, the implementation of this policy is the duty of the Security Council, and despite this being framed as a ‘responsibility’ or an obligation of the United Nations there is no corresponding punishment for inaction or failure to protect. Essentially, even where a situation satisfies the criteria for justifying intervention, this is still a decision that is made by the Security Council and requires support from each of its five permanent members.

The Russian and Chinese governments have consistently opposed action against the Syrian government and what we see instead is states acting militarily on their own terms, rather than a unified international response from within the United Nations. In the context of Russian support for the Syrian government, the debate around Syria has focused on an international fight against terrorism rather than support for the establishment of democracy – ISIS has become the target of Western intervention, despite the brutality of Assad’s regime. With policies agreed by an international body that claims to uphold universal values, how is it that the international responses to these two conflicts have been so different? To answer this question, we need to address briefly the history of the UN and explore the privilege afforded to the world’s most powerful states within it.

Established in 1945 at the end of the Second World War, the United Nations committed itself to ‘…save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our life-time has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small…. Presenting itself as a response to the atrocities of the Second World War, the United Nations vowed to work in the interests of international peace and security to protect the world from such devastating suffering in the future. The Charter of the United Nations speaks of equality, co-operation and justice. However, the structure of the United Nations affords institutionalised privilege to the world’s most powerful nations, namely the five permanent members of the Security Council – the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China and Russia. It is this privilege that allows for the selective enforcement of United Nations policies that we have seen in recent years and reinforces a power structure based on historical imperial domination, whereby these five states have the ultimate power to intervene or to prevent intervention in other countries.

When the structure of the United Nations was being decided, these five states ensured that the Security Council would be the space within which matters around international peace and security were discussed, and agreed that any action would have to be unanimously supported by each of the five states. These permanent five members of the Security Council have the ultimate power of veto, which they can use – and have used in the case of Syria – to prevent a unanimous decision and hence block any action proposed. What this means in reality is that any of these five states can prevent international action that does not suit their political interests. These states were granted this power on the basis that in 1945, they had a special responsibility in terms of protecting the world’s citizens and preventing mass atrocities. This conflation of power and responsibility legitimates the action in Libya and inaction in Syria we have seen recently.

Despite the United Nations’ rhetoric of the equality of nations large and small, it is fundamentally an institution that sees power focused in the hands of a small minority. Despite formal decolonisation, we see the legacy of imperial domination written into the organisation of the United Nations. The permanent members of the Security Council are granted privilege within the very structure of the United Nations that allows them to maintain existing global power structures and to ensure that their interests are being met in cases of international action. In the case of the Responsibility to Protect, this postcolonial privilege has been increasingly challenged, but with little success.

Despite united support for the principle in 2005, a debate in the General Assembly in 2009 saw a more critical approach and concerns around coercive interventions. A number of governments, notably Singapore and New Zealand, argued for non-selectivity and for limiting the use of veto power in cases of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. In spite of this, there has been no reform to the powers of the permanent members of the Security Council. Their privilege was deliberately written into the foundation of the United Nations and continues to be legitimised by notions of responsibility that reinforce postcolonial power structures despite formal decolonisation throughout the world.

The Arab Spring saw a series of revolutions that not only wished to see democracy spread throughout the Arab world but also expressed a desire to reject postcolonial oppression, both from its own governments and also from the Western world. Whilst international action in the form of intervention continues to be controlled by the United Nations Security Council, the responses to the kind of atrocities we have seen over the past five years will continue to be inadequate. We will continue to see governments acting in their own interests, not in the interests of democracy and human rights, using their postcolonial privilege to prevent meaningful action in the face of humanitarian emergencies.


Katy Harsant is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick. Her research seeks to provide a critical history of the United Nations from a postcolonial perspective.

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