Is the UN Security Council fit for purpose?

UN Security Council

Henna Moussavi

Henna Moussavi is an undergraduate student reading History at King's College London. Her research interests include global security, specifically Middle Eastern affairs, international law, and the criticality of preserving culture.

17th June 2021

U.S. Department of State via Britannica

The term “world peace” often presents itself with a utopic connotation, behaving as an idealistic standard to which modern societies should coexist and operate. By the mid-20th century, with a world in ruins following two large-scale wars of attrition in the span of just three decades, the United Nations was the resulting entity to help attain such an objective. Comprising, at its core, of five main constituents (the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council, the International Court of Justice, and the UN Secretariat), there seemed to be a relevant organ to account for each hurdle the UN set out to confront in its pursuit of international stability. Yet, 70 years down the line —70 years still characterised by deeply rooted global issues— doubts regarding the efficacy and achievement of the UN constituents have increasingly emerged. 


A brief history and the structure of the Security Council


Since its establishment in 1945, the Security Council (SC) has aimed to maintain international peace and security in accordance with the principles and purposes of the United Nations”, a large feat to uphold on behalf of the largest intergovernmental organisation in the world, and time has exposed structural and systemic flaws in how the body functions. The Security Council is constructed of five Permanent Member states, collectively addressed as the P5, alongside ten non-permanent members. Each member can contribute one vote per resolution, but the P5 nations have the veto power, which on its own can override the votes of all other members. With only five nations at the forefront of decision making, how are the ten other members of the SC adequately represented? More broadly, how are nations appropriately protected when large geographical portions of the world are excluded from permanent representation? The urgency of these questions is only amplified when considering the historical context behind what granted the P5 their privileges. 


The P5 —the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France— blatantly reflect the postwar political order as determined by the dominating nations following World War II. The United States and the Soviet Union were the “outright victors of the war”, accompanied by the United Kingdom. Their dominance is also reflected in the allocation of the other two members, with China’s inclusion coming as a result of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s insistence for it to be treated as a great power. Further, the integration of France was a proposal on behalf of Churchill, who “saw in France a European buffer against potential German or Soviet aggression”, granting it a more prominent status. These details regarding the formation of the SC reveal how specific it is to a world order which has undeniably shifted —ideologically, politically, and economically— away from what it once was. Not only have the dynamics between the P5 nations notably changed, but so has the world around them, and processes which unravelled throughout the latter half of the 20th century, such as thorough decolonisation and the Cold War, could have been the necessitating motivators for reform. 


The Veto: Why it’s problematic


Considering the SC’s objective of maintaining peace and unity, the veto is seemingly an antithesis to this notion. The infamous veto power is what grants the ability to any P5 member to unilaterally obstruct an official action or the enactment of legislation. The envisioning of these nations being “global policemen” was a short-lived reputation in the decades following the establishment of the UN, particularly throughout the Cold War, thus drawing attention to the problematic nature of the veto privilege. There had been an expectation for the P5 nations to use the veto as a regulatory, and ultimately beneficial tool, not just for themselves, but also the other participating members of the SC. However, this was quickly disproved through a variety of incidents (past and present) wherein the veto has done more harm than good. 


The tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States in the latter half of the 20th century were the first red flag, raising concerns about how these nations would be inhibiting otherwise peaceful arrangements through using the veto power, as well as their overall capacity to alleviate global conflict. Between 1946 and 2004, up to 257 vetoes have been cast, and it is generally disapproved due to the fact that “permanent members sometimes use the privilege to shield friendly States with whom they maintain close economic and diplomatic relations from condemnation or the imposition of economic sanctions” (Wouters and Ruys, 2005). This shielding can be attributed to, as aforementioned, motives based on economy, political alignment, or ideological justifications, and oftentimes act in direct opposition with the intentions of diplomatically deliberating a proposed resolution. 


An ongoing example of this selectivity would be in the case of the United States and their relationship with Israel, as around 50% of their vetoes have been in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To reference one incident specifically, in 2002, Israeli occupation forces planted a series of explosives in a UN World Food Programme (WFP) warehouse in the Gaza Strip, destroying the structure and 537 tonnes of food –worth $271,000–, “which was to be distributed by the Ministry of Social Affairs to some 41,300 destitute Palestinians”. With widespread malnutrition in the region as a result of numerous sieges and military operations bringing agricultural activity to a halt, this attack directly jeopardised civilian lives and had no direct impact on the conflict other than harming innocent people. Thus, as this was evidently a senseless, violent act, why did the United States then veto the resolution condemning their actions? Salil Shetty, former Secretary General of Amnesty International, put this phenomenon into words: even in the face of atrocity, countries “promote their political self-interest or geopolitical interest above the interest of protecting civilians,”. The justification for the veto on behalf of Justin Negroponte, former US Ambassador to the UN, was that he felt the resolution focused more on the condemnation of Israeli occupation rather than concerned for the safety of UN personnel, completely ignoring the anti-humanitarian nature of the event and seeing “the military occupation of one country by another as something that should not be criticized.”


More recently, the US further demonstrated biased usage of the veto in the face of the latest uproar of violence between Israel and Palestine. Instigated on May 7th 2021, the last night of Ramadan, reckless bombings proceeded to plague Gaza for 11 ruinous days. With Israel being equipped for self-defense as “the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II”, the human cost of the recently initiated conflict was almost entirely Palestinian deaths, with an upwards of 200 victims overall and more than a quarter being children. Given these stark figures, Israeli officials claimed their relentless firing of rockets was intended to merely target Hamas militants, though the devastating humanitarian crisis for up to 2 million civilians in Gaza says otherwise. Antònio Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, warned of the potential of the conflict fostering extremism, stating that “the fighting has the potential to unleash an uncontainable security and humanitarian crisis”, and indicating that the de-escalation of the conflict lies with the actions of the Security Council. Without active participation from dominant P5 nations, there lies the risk of actually escalating international conflict— a direct contradiction to their mission statement.


The UNSC urged for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza multiple times, and on every occasion, the United States opposed the issuance of a statement to halt the violence. Permanent Observer of the League of Arab States, Maged Abdelfattah Abdelaziz, urged the Biden administration “to engage in a more active and influential and deeper way in the Middle East peace process”, particularly to dispel the actions of the previous presidency. Despite the US representative at the UN expressing concern over the conflict, the lack of tangible and productive measures the United States has taken regarding the conflict exposes their longstanding loyalty to Israel, even in the face of devastation. 


Due to the United States valuing Israel as a strategic link in the Middle East, they are prepared to work in alliance with them and disregard human life for economic, military, and political benefits. The harrowing impact of one country overruling the majority is not unique to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though this case exposes how the prolonging of violence worsens the situation by the day, counters the UNSC mission statement which encourages world peace, and creates a greater challenge for response efforts once the fighting subsides. This is exactly why the veto system is flawed, as a country’s own individual priorities should not override the basic principles of the United Nations, which are to defend, protect, and provide justice for inhumane acts. 


What is the solution?


Currently, the ascendancy of P5 nations, which constructs such drastic imbalances in power within the UN, is also linked to the interdependence of smaller states on big powers. This has also led to widespread underrepresentation, for example the absence of continental Africa from the Council, which has been framed as “a historic injustice” in past meetings concerning reform. In the 74th session of the Council, the representative of Libya outlined how whilst up to 70% of the SC’s work regards African nations, they are also “the only continent not to be represented in the permanent category and, at the same time, underrepresented in the non‑permanent category”. Various proposals to the issue of underrepresentation have been the addition of more permanent seats, as well as allowing countries with weaker presences on the political world stage a more prominent voice within the Council.


There has been continual discussion on the efficacy of the veto and whether it is necessary in certain situations. It is also important to note that not all P5 nations currently abuse their veto rights, as France and the United Kingdom have not used the power within the last 25 years. In 2015, France, who has only used the veto 16 times in total, launched the ‘Political Declaration on Suspension of Veto Powers in Cases of Mass Atrocity’, which aimed to change the narrative and objective of the power, stating that “the veto is not a privilege, but an international responsibility,”. Whilst this declaration aimed to obtain voluntary restraint in response to mass atrocities, as of March 2020, among the 103 member state signatures, there has been no support from the remaining P5 countries. Furthermore, the representative of Norway noted in 2019 that the veto is the main source of the Council’s paralysis”, amplifying the notion that the structure of the body is in need of laudable change.


The UN has been called upon on several occasions, internally and externally, to take the necessary actions and compel the Permanent Members to sacrifice an extent of their privileges for the betterment and functionality of the body. Clearly, the threat of alienation from other member states is not enough for some P5 nations as the global political order grows to be increasingly self-serving. The Security Council should not accept failure in their mission of providing international security, and they should not have to rely on the General Assembly or the International Court of Justice to manage the persistent abuses of power. If the UN wants to stay relevant in the current world, the SC must face immediate reform; unless it wants to remain an ineffective bureaucracy. 

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