Aleppo Has Fallen. Will the UN Be Next?

António Guterres, the new Secretary-General of the United Nations, in his office on his first day at work, January 3, 2017. UN Photo/Mark Garten)

For five bloody months, the 250,000 civilians of rebel-held eastern Aleppo were besieged and bombed. Syrian government forces, often joined by Russian fighter jets, relentlessly targeted eastern Aleppo’s hospitals, schools and bakeries. Medieval siege tactics turned it into a place of starvation and death. Aleppo now joins Guernica, Sarajevo, Kigali and Grozny on the list of destroyed cities where atrocities occurred as the world grimaced but did nothing. Everyone I know who once lived there is either dead, missing, or a refugee.

All sides of Syria’s civil war have committed atrocities. But even the crimes of the most noxious armed groups like Jabhat Fateh al-Sham pale in comparison to the monstrous scale and murderous intensity of the combined forces of President Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah, Iran and Russia.

But the real victory does not belong to Assad or his sponsors in the Kremlin and Tehran. It belongs to all those who disdain international norms and consider national sovereignty a license to kill. Beyond Aleppo’s ruins, there are currently 65 million people in the world displaced by conflict, atrocities, and persecution—the largest number since the Second World War. Mass atrocities not only continue in Syria and neighboring Iraq, but also in Sudan, Yemen, South Sudan, and Myanmar.

During 2016, international humanitarian and human rights law were under unprecedented attack, with the deliberate bombing of hospitals and the indiscriminate killing of civilians becoming almost routine. Not since the 1990s have so many people in so many places faced the threat of the machete, the death squad, and the mass grave.

The response of much of the international community has oscillated between impotent rage and muted accommodation. From the election of Donald Trump to the normalization of a variety of far right parties like France’s Front National, the moral voice of the West has grown frail. Angela Merkel of Germany and Canada’s Justin Trudeau are still standing against the forces of darkness, authoritarianism, and prejudice. But who else will help tip the global balance of power back in favor of human rights and humanitarianism?

Enter Antonio Guterres, who became Secretary-General of the United Nations on January 1. Mr. Guterres moves into his office on the 38th floor of the UN building in New York at a time when the organization faces an existential crisis.

The longevity and destructive power of crises like Syria, Yemen, or South Sudan threaten to overwhelm the UN much in the same way that the wars in the former Yugoslavia undermined the UN’s credibility and utility during the 1990s. While those committed to UN reform are desperately urging a shift toward conflict prevention, today more than 80% of global humanitarian resources are being spent on the consequences of man-made catastrophes.

It is easy to criticize the UN for its indisputable failures and inscrutable deficiencies, but it did not create this mess. Nevertheless, the US President-elect has already tweeted his list of grievances against the UN, from the alleged shoddy appearance of the green tiles behind the General Assembly podium to the Security Council’s recent vote against illegal Israeli settlements.

Indian academic Ramesh Thakur once argued that what the great powers truly want “is a weak, beholden, indebted scapegoat” of a UN, “which they can blame for their failures or steal victories from.” Mr. Guterres must not give it to them.

Despite its frailties, for millions of people trapped in the most dangerous conflicts in the world today, the UN can still mean the difference between life and death. More than 100,000 UN Peacekeepers serve in sixteen active conflict zones. And without the UN, the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and other global initiatives simply would not be possible.

Mr. Guterres must utilize his immense moral authority and the UN’s unique convening power to seize back the political initiative from those who question the validity of international norms and challenge the UN’s legitimacy. Balancing the interests of 193 member states, Mr. Guterres must be prepared to challenge the great powers and always speak in defense of the weak, marginalized, and vulnerable.

He is peculiarly qualified to do so. A pragmatic idealist who led a minority government as social-democratic prime minister of Portugal from 1995-2002, Mr. Guterres knows a thing or two about political compromise and “the art of the deal.” But as UN High Commissioner for Refugees, he also spent the past decade not just speechifying about civilians displaced by conflict and disaster, but actually visiting them on the frontlines and ensuring people got the humanitarian assistance essential for their survival. He knows how to make the UN work for those who need it the most.

Mr. Guterres is also the first Secretary-General to emerge from a process of open hearings in the General Assembly that provided more transparency than ever before—a break from the secret backroom deals that beget more backroom dealing. The cloistered Security Council officially nominated Mr. Guterres, but unlike any previous Secretary-General, he also has a very public mandate. And similar to his predecessor Ban Ki-moon, Mr. Guterres is a man of principle. But whereas Ban was diplomatically discrete almost to the point of invisibility, Mr. Guterres has the charisma and courage necessary to take the previous Secretary-General’s policy of putting human rights first — “Human Rights Up Front” in the official UN nomenclature— and give it both political substance and operational meaning.

Mr. Guterres’ lack of illusion about the scale of the challenges confronting the UN, combined with his understanding of the P5 and the nature of power in Turtle Bay, means that it is extremely difficult to imagine him becoming the bland emissary of a dysfunctional system. With grim determination, and the UN Charter in his back pocket, he is uniquely capable of becoming the Secretary-General that the international system so desperately needs.

Just before Christmas, in an almost unprecedented political maneuver, the UN General Assembly spoke out against the failure of the Security Council regarding Syria’s civil war. Led by Liechtenstein, one of the UN’s tiniest members, by 105 votes to 15, the General Assembly then adopted a historic resolution establishing an investigative mechanism to collect evidence of crimes against humanity in Syria. Such multilateral initiatives, grounded in international law and shared values, are an antidote to narrow transactional interests. Mr. Guterres should encourage such diplomatic innovation.

Historically, no issue has done more to tarnish the reputation of the UN than the failure to halt atrocities. From Rwanda during the 1990s to Syria today, the mass killing of civilians strikes at the very idea of an international community and undermines the UN’s founding principles. But by upholding universal human rights and our collective responsibility to protect, Mr. Guterres might not only save the UN, but also redeem our common humanity from beneath Aleppo’s rubble.

Dr. Simon Adams is Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect.