Misrepresenting the U.N. vote on Syria

Sharif Nashashibi
Published: Updated:
Enable Read mode
100% Font Size

Last week, the U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn the Syrian regime’s “widespread and systematic gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Although the resolution was easily passed, coverage from certain sections of the media gives the warped impression that it was somehow a victory for Bashar al-Assad.

Perhaps the starkest example is Press TV, which reported “low support” for the resolution. It was approved by 107 countries and opposed by just 12, with 59 abstaining. That means 60 percent voted in favor - how can this be described as “low support”? Less than 7 percent of member states opposed the resolution - that is low, miniscule in fact.

Since the Assad regime has said it welcomes a U.N. probe, and has accused rebels of using chemical weapons, it should be greeting investigators with open arms. Not so, however.

Sharif Nashashibi

The voting tally “seems lopsided until you consider that nearly a third of member states abstained... and there were 26 fewer votes in favor than for a similar measure last August,” said the station, which is funded by the Iranian government. Yes there were fewer votes in favor this time, and yes there were 28 more abstentions than last time, but the result was still a clear indication of where most of the international community stands regarding Syria.

What was absent from Press TV’s report was the crucial fact that with 12 opposing votes last time as well, there has been no rise in support for Assad’s regime. The station would be wise to note that more abstentions do not equate to more backing for the dictator.

Almost all of the no votes came from the usual suspects, among them Russia, China, Syria, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Belarus, Cuba and Zimbabwe. The voting record looks even worse for Assad when one considers that the Russian delegation reportedly wrote to all U.N. members urging them to oppose the resolution - a resounding failure by any standards.

“The vote could show that recent images of savagery from the civil war... may be undermining the case of those arguing Syria would be better without Assad,” wrote Reuters U.N. correspondent Michelle Nichols and U.N. bureau chief Louis Charbonneau.

I disagree. If this was the case, there would have been more no votes. One can have serious misgivings about the conduct of certain opposition groups without reconsidering whether Assad should stay in power.

Text and context

While protestations against the resolution have been widely reported, it is not as one-sided as Assad’s allies are making out. It describes a political solution to the conflict and a transitional government as “the best opportunity to resolve the situation... peacefully.” This is something both sides say they want - the sticking point is the role or absence of Assad in such a government, but the resolution does not specify this.

It calls for unfettered access to U.N. investigators to establish whether chemical weapons have been used, and if so, by whom.

Since the Assad regime has said it welcomes a U.N. probe, and has accused rebels of using chemical weapons, it should be greeting investigators with open arms. Not so, however, with the U.N. criticizing the continued refusal to allow unfettered access. So much for the regime saying it has nothing to hide.

The resolution expresses outrage at the “rapidly increasing death toll,” which General Assembly President Vuk Jeremic said just before the vote is at least 80,000, an increase of some 20,000 since the beginning of 2013. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says 94,000 - 120,000 have been killed. Since the regime also decries the rising death toll, it should see nothing wrong with the international community doing the same.

The resolution calls for urgent financial support to neighboring countries, which are hosting 1.5 million refugees, and highlights the “dire situation” of the 4.25 million internally displaced people. This, too, is neither controversial nor political, as the displaced constitute civilians from the spectrum of Syrian society. As such, it is a purely humanitarian consideration.

The resolution was originally drafted to give Syria’s U.N. seat to the opposition Syrian National Coalition, but the final text instead describes it as “effective representative interlocutors for a political transition” - a far better option from the regime’s point of view.


The SNC welcomed the resolution, and urged “international supporters of the Syrian people” to “intensify their efforts to advance the prospects of achieving a democratic transition.” However, if the opposition is to maintain and even increase support in the U.N. General Assembly, it too must intensify its efforts.

The SNC added that “the groundwork needs to be laid now to ensure that perpetrators of war crimes will one day be held accountable for their criminal acts.” This will have to apply to all perpetrators of war crimes in this conflict, not just those committed by the regime.

While General Assembly resolutions have no legal force, they are nonetheless a reflection of world opinion, and according to Nichols and Charbonneau, “can carry significant moral and political weight.”

Only Security Council resolutions are binding on U.N. member states, but there, Russia and China have been shielding the Assad regime with veto powers that they do not possess in the Assembly.

How ironic that Russia complains about this latest resolution being biased, while displaying unashamed one-sidedness in the Security Council. Add to that the hypocrisy of the Assad regime railing against U.S. vetoes in favour of Israel, while itself defying the international community, and violating basic human rights with impunity, by hiding behind Russian and Chinese vetoes.


Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Program in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
Top Content Trending