UN Security Council: Global Enforcer or Ineffectual Figurehead?

Andre Avanessians, MPP, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives

Considered the victors of  World War II, five nations – China, France, the USSR (now Russia), the United Kingdom, and the United State – took command of the global stage by creating the United Nations (UN). These five permanent members, known as the P5, would go on to include and protect 193 nations under the safeguard of the UN. The UN security council (UNSC), a primary component of the organization, is responsible for the maintenance of international peace and security. Currently, 15 nations reside on the board of the security council. Under the UN charter, the general assembly elects 10 non-permanent nations to serve on the board for two years. Despite the Council’s noble aim to create a global coalition that addresses threats to human rights, regional security, and peace, unfortunately, the UNSC  has failed to stay  true to this mission since its inception.

UN Security Council: Systemic Loopholes

One underlying problem for the UNSC is the lack of regional representation, which has limited the Council’s intended purpose. Given the current geopolitical atmosphere, the membership structure of the UNSC has stifled the ability to resolve multiple atrocities that have been carried out around the world. From holding Turkey accountable for the 1.5 million Armenians massacred under the Ottoman Empire in 1915, to forcing Myanmar’s Government to cease military attacks against civilians in ethnic minority regions, or resolving the 2009 massacre of Sri Lankan Tamils, the current system is flawed. The last major reform of the UN Security Council was in 1971 when the People’s Republic of China took the permanent seat previously occupied by the Republic of China (Taiwan). Since then, there have not been any additions to the P5, which has left the UNSC an outdated structure failing to represent newly developed nations residing in the Middle East, Latin America, Asia, and Africa.

The ability for the P5 to veto any UNSC resolution is also a primary obstacle for following through with actionable decisions. The initial reason for the inclusion of the veto power in the Charter was to prevent the UN from taking direct actions against any of its principal founding members. The hope was to create a system that promoted global interests, not personal agendas, which is why during the UN charter negotiations, members of the P5 agreed not use the veto in situations in which they were involved. Therefore, the voting process under Article 27 of the UN Charter involved three specific  guidelines:

  1. Each member of the Security Council shall have one vote;
  2. Decisions of the Security Council on procedural matters shall be made by an affirmative vote of nine members; and
  3. Decisions of the Security Council on all other matters shall be made by an affirmative vote of nine members, including the concurring votes of the permanent members, provided that, in decisions under Chapter VI, and under paragraph 3 of Article 52, a party to a dispute shall abstain from voting.

Unfortunately, the underlying problem with this process is that the drafters also agreed that if any one of the P5 members cast an opposing vote in the 15-member Security Council, a proposed resolution would not be approved. Over time, nations like Japan, Brazil, India, and Germany have been yearning for this same privilege. Being a P5 member provides a sense of immunity from the rest of the world, as taking action to hold a P5 nation accountable is often stymied by the accused nation itself.

Consequently, the veto power has allowed P5 nations threatened by the UN to protect their own interests or campaigns. The situation in Eastern Ukraine involving Russian forces in the annexation of Crimea is a current example illustrating this point. Since Russia can veto any resolution put forth by the Security Council, there are limited options to fully deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions. Consequently, Russia pursued a covert military campaign in support of Eastern separatists in Ukraine. In addition, the Washington Post reported that the main response following the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 has been bilateral and ad-hoc in the form of sanctions, which do little to strengthen the UN system as a whole. Political interests have dictated and dominated the geopolitical landscape for decades. Ultimately, what was intended to be a way for the rest of the world to ensure accountability and police inhumane activity has become nothing more than a battleground for competing agendas.

In conjunction with the gridlock created by the power to veto is the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) policy established in 2005. The three key pillars to this addendum are:

  1. The State carries the primary responsibility for protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and their incitement;
  2. The international community has a responsibility to encourage and assist States in fulfilling this responsibility; and
  3. The international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian, and other means to protect populations from these crimes. If a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take collective action to protect populations, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.

Although the R2P addendum outlines a procedure for dealing with potential war crimes and acts of genocide, the ability to take any collective action is nearly impossible. In 2014 alone the international community has largely been a bystander to the estimated 150,000 people that have died in the protracted and brutal Syrian conflict. Even though the United States and other Security Council members pursued a course of action to bring down the Assad regime, China and Russia have vetoed any resolutions under the purview of R2P. Even when a new directive is instituted, which is meant to bring international criminals to justice, it is meaningless in practice due to the authority empowered to the P5.

Necessary Reforms:

According to Article 108 of the United Nations Charter:

“[T]he Charter can be amended by a General Assembly decision approved by two thirds of General Assembly membership and ratified by two thirds of Member States, including the permanent members of the Security Council. As changing the composition of the Security Council can be done only by amending the Charter, Article 108 applies to the issue of Security Council reform.”

Majority Rule:

Redefining the ability to veto resolutions is a much needed reform. Ideally, the P5 should not be able to override a resolution that is supported by a majority of the 10 non-member states in the council. If the final decision has to be determined by the permanent states, then it should be addressed by a majority vote. Eliminating the need for consensus among the P5 will ensure necessary diplomatic or military actions to take place. Also, political agendas will be weakened as a single veto could not prevent a resolution from passing through the Council.

Make Room at the Table:

Expanding the P5 is also necessary. More specifically, there needs to be more regional representation. Kingsley Mamabolo, South Africa’s Ambassador to the UN, stated that 80% – 90% of the discussions taking place in the UNSC involve Africa, but not one nation from the region is participating in the debates that take place. No one truly understands the security challenges facing Africa or Latin America better than the countries in those regions.

Redesign and Restructure:

If expanding the P5 is not an option, redesigning the Security Council structure will eliminate the inefficiencies in the organization. Instead of the P5, Regional Security Councils would be more conducive to dealing with potential security issues. For example, three nations would be selected from each region of the world and have an equal vote on any UN resolution that is drafted. Also, every country in the region would be mandated to serve. Based on a majority vote system and no overarching vetoes from the P5, they would be able to deal adequately with issues in a more timely manner. Unlike the current structure, nations would only rotate within their respective regional council. Recently, a variant of this reform has been contemplated by members of the UN. Unfortunately, it never seems to gain enough traction to actually be implemented. Convincing the UN General Assembly to expand and ratify its current procedure is a timely endeavor but a necessary one if any actual effectiveness is the plan for the future.    

Given the inefficiencies that currently exist in the UNSC, it is important to promulgate reforms that ensure that equality and a diversity of opinions when examining security issues.. The only way to make the UNSC a legitimate global police force is through shared authority. Until fundamental core changes take place, the loopholes in the UNSC will continue to benefit the five superpowers and trample on weaker countries in need.

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