What Can the UN Do About Egypt?

The Security Council convened last night in for an emergency meeting on Egypt. Members were briefed by Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson, a longtime international troubleshooter. After the meeting, the council unanimously urged “maximum restraint.” So far, it looks like this directive has been completely ignored. Reports today suggest that armed violence is increasing throughout Egypt.

It is probably unlikely that the Security Council will intervene in Egypt too deeply anytime soon. The key players — chief among them the USA —  are still contemplating their policy options regarding Egypt. And as is typically the case, China and Russia tend to be reluctant to have the Security Council focus on domestic political unrest.

While we should not expect too much action at the Security Council in the near term, if things continue as they are in Egypt we can expect the Human Rights Council in Geneva to take up the situation. If that happens, one likely course of action would be to appoint a commission of inquiry to examine alleged crimes against humanity. The basic role of these kinds of commissions of inquiry is to independently document alleged crimes to create a catalogue of human rights abuses. These commissions also create a sort of bureaucratic pressure within the UN system because once these reports are published there is an impetus to “do something.”

Sometimes, as in the case of Syria or the Goldstone report on the Israeli military’s incursions into Gaza in 2009, that pressure is insufficient to move the Security Council if a member is being particularly intransigent. But sometimes these reports can weigh significantly on the decisions of the Council. A commission of inquiry report on Darfur in 2005, for example, lead inexorably to the Council’s authorization of an International Criminal Court investigation of Sudan.

We are not there yet on Egypt. But if this violence continues, expect the UN human rights system to kick into gear in the next few days.  Whether or not that is sufficient to rouse the Security Council to action is yet to be determined.