Support for United Nations Resolution 2166, regarding the downing of flight MH17, has been overwhelming. In an entirely non-politicised manner (or so we have been assured), the resolution has been cast as demonstrative of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s resolve and indicative of their leadership credentials. But is it really such a big deal?

The Australian Financial Review‘s John Kehoe described Resolution 2166 as “[Julie Bishop’s] momentous United Nations Security Council resolution”, and “probably Bishop’s finest achievement in international diplomacy in her 10 months in the job”. Peter Hartcher was equally enthusiastic: “UN Security Council Resolution 2166 was a case study in swift, effective diplomacy in response to a crisis … Abbott, the motive force behind the enterprise in the UN and beyond, gets primary credit.” And Michael Fullilove, executive director of the Lowy Institute, argued more broadly: “Council membership has lent Tony Abbott and the tireless Julie Bishop authority and leverage as they seek information and justice on behalf of the Australians on board MH17.”

The adulation has not the sole preserve of Australian talking heads, with Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans “wholeheartedly thanking Australia for taking the initiative with this resolution, and especially the personal commitment from Julie Bishop … ”, and Argentina’s ambassador to the UN, Maria Perceval,  singling out the “courage of Australia” in drafting the resolution. Articles in the Australian media have been invariably similar, offering an “insider’s” account of a David and Goliath-esque showdown between Julie Bishop and Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin (one suspects replete with the trademark death stare from the member for Curtin).

But descriptions of Bishop as “tireless” are getting quite tiresome, particularly for those who have read the two-page resolution and are wondering what all the fuss is about. Resolution 2166 is largely facile, couched in language that is evasive and non-committal, and has little substantive effect beyond the UN Security Council chamber in New York. The resolution has not stopped fighting around the crash site, it has not established the framework for an international investigation, and it has not facilitated the hasty return of the remains of victims. Those who have hailed Resolution 2166 as a victory against Russian revanchism and, by extension, the separatists of Donetsk, fail to understand the relative insignificance of the recovery of the bodies of victims. While this is an important symbolic act for grieving families, it is an irrelevant detail for Russian President Vladimir Putin/the pro-Russian separatists, and hardly demonstrates a sign of contrition that they are permitting the corpses be returned.

Resolution 2166 is a Pyrrhic victory, permitting Western leaders and the international community to be seen as doing “something” for grieving families. But the rest of the world doesn’t really care about the treatment of corpses in a sunflower field in the Ukraine. Even a cursory analysis of some of the non-permanent members of the UNSC (Rwanda, Nigeria, Jordan, Chad, Argentina, Chile) that voted unanimously for “Julie Bishop’s momentous resolution” reveals a recent history of violence and displacement where the value of life is vastly different to their Western counterparts. Do you think Rwanda, whose experiences with UNSC dithering resulted in the deaths of 80,000 men, women and children, is really that concerned with the repatriation of 30-odd Australian corpses? Or Nigeria, with its own troubles with Boko Haram and kidnapped schoolgirls? Resolution 2166 is possibly the best compromise that could have been achieved based on the politicised nature of the UNSC, but ultimately insignificant and ineffective.

The operative paragraphs of the resolution can arguably be broken into three distinct sections. The first grouping is an uncontroversial repetition of what has already been said by most world leaders, condemning the downing of MH17 and reiterating deepest sympathy for the victims. None of this is new.

The next grouping registers broad support and concern, with no additional obligations to what is already occurring. It “supports efforts to establish a full, thorough and independent international investigation into the incident”; “recognizes the efforts under way … to institute an international investigation … and calls on all states to provide any requested assistance to civil and criminal investigations”; and “expresses grave concern at reports of insufficient and limited access to the crash site”.

The final grouping outlines the entire point of the resolution: namely, the return of the bodies of victims and laying the ground work for an investigation. However, without any attached enforcement mechanism, the operative paragraphs appear nothing more than benign rhetoric, especially considering it is being primarily addressed to nominally non-state actors. Operative paragraph 11 is illustrative of the problem of the resolution — demanding accountability for those responsible but not outlining any mechanism through which this could be achieved.

Furthermore, the ongoing conflict around the crash site is in direct violation of the resolution. What is particularly insightful is the recent bout of fighting was not instigated by the stereotyped rabble-rousers — the pro-Russian separatists — but by Kiev. Kiev’s open violation of the resolution is demonstrative of the questionable achievement that was 2166, which “demands that the armed groups in control of the crash site and the surrounding area refrain from any actions that may compromise the integrity of the crash site” and “demands that all military activities, including by armed groups, be immediately ceased in the immediate area surrounding the crash site to allow for security and safety of the international investigation”.

Most UNSC resolutions do not result in substantive action; rather it is the interpretation of them and their incremental weight that builds the milieu of international standards. In doing so, it is important that we consider the actual effect of any resolution, lest unfulfilled expectations become self-defeating and erode the perceived utility of the international system.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey