“We are dealing with a state that turns its veto at the UN Security Council into the right to [cause] death,” said Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a speech on Tuesday. “Where is the security that the Security Council needs to guarantee?” he asked rhetorically. “Accountability must be inevitable,” he stressed, referencing gruesome Russian atrocities committed in Bucha, Irpin, Velyka Dymerka and Mariupol, and demanding that a Nuremberg-style war crimes tribunal be established.
Zelenskyy is of course right on merit, but his criticism of the United Nations is largely irrelevant. Twice in the last three years, the UN failed miserably in two tests for whose occurrence it was patently established: managing a global pandemic; and preventing a war or having a significant impact on how it develops in Ukraine.
The UN is only as powerful and can only be as effective as its stronger members shaped and want it to be. When a pandemic has devastating effects on supply chains, national economies, and the administration of public health and politics, countries tend to search “inshore”: limit offshore, outsourcing activities that created dependency, aka “globalization,” and seek national solutions. In that test, the World Health Organization, part of the UN system, did not exert global leadership in either policy or management.
When a country wielding the power of veto at the Security Council – in this case Russia – uses that power to shield itself from scrutiny, condemnation and punishment, the problem is with the mechanism enabling it – meaning the member countries, not the organ itself. This also meant that the extensive sanctions package imposed on Russia was done through the United States and the European Union, not via a Security Council which, by design, was established exactly to address such a crisis.
Mitigating circumstances notwithstanding, there’s no escaping the conclusion that in two critical tests the UN seemed jaded and marginalized, and, accordingly, exuded helplessness and ineffectiveness. Yes, the organization’s handling of the refugee crisis is commendable and impressive. And yes, as far as public diplomacy and attractive showcase arenas go, the Security Council is a good show. But in terms of formulating policy, it is a no show.
Yet Zelenskyy’s attack on the Security Council is meaningless. Criticizing the veto power mechanism that renders the Security Council powerless, paralyzed and impotent is substantively true, but politically irrelevant. Move along, there’s nothing to see here. It was always like this, and it does not seem like it will change given the huge procedural and legal hurdles needed to amend the UN Charter. The makeup and authority of the Security Council itself cannot be altered without a change in the charter itself.
Ironically, it all started in Crimea. At the Yalta Conference of February 1945, to be precise. Preceded by the League of Nations, formed in Versailles in 1919, the idea of a “United Nations” was deliberated and planned as early as 1941 when Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter. A “Declaration by United Nations,” denoting all countries opposed to Germany and Japan, was subsequently issued in 1942, thus becoming the eponym of the future organization.
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But it was in the Black Sea resort city of Yalta that Roosevelt, Churchill and Joseph Stalin laid the foundations for the UN and, more importantly, the Security Council as its executive, conflict-managing organ.
In the beginning there were five permanent members – the victors of World War II: the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France and the Republic of China (i.e., Taiwan, not communist China) – and six nonpermanent members for a two-year duration. Each permanent member was awarded the power of veto, but also the choice of abstaining on “substantive” votes, thus enabling their passage without supporting them.
The Security Council’s most notable achievement came in 1950, when the United States took advantage of the Soviet Union’s boycott of the council over China’s participation and passed a series of resolutions that established a UN-led coalition to assist South Korea after the North Korean invasion.
In 1965, an amendment to the UN Charter enlarged the Council to 15 members (five permanent and 10 rotating), and in 1971 the People’s Republic of China replaced Taiwan. In 1991, the Russian Federation replaced the much larger Soviet Union that had dissolved.
Zelenskyy’s admonition of the Security Council is not without precedent. The UN Peacekeeping Forces, mandated and dispatched by the Security Council, did win the 1988 Nobel Peace Prize for a series of successful missions in the Balkans, Somalia, Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Haiti. But two glaring and tragic failures put that prize into perspective.
First, the 1994 genocide in Rwanda began as the Security Council voted to scale down peacekeeping forces in the country. Second, a year later, the UN failed to keep a “safe area” near the town of Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and a massacre of some 8,000 Bosnian civilians by Bosnian-Serb forces ensued.
Zelenskyy is also right on the issue of Russia’s use of its veto power on Ukrainian-related issues as a way of devoiding the Security Council of any meaning. In 2014, after Russia illegally annexed Crimea, it vetoed a Security Council resolution condemning the act. That same year, Russian-backed separatists shot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine. Russia predictably vetoed a resolution calling for the creation of an international investigative tribunal.
The criticism of the Security Council goes beyond Zelenskyy’s fury and frustration or Russia’s cynical use of veto power. The council’s composition reflected the 1945 power structure. It does not in any way reflect the world of 2022. This argument has been made repeatedly over the past 30 years, but to no avail. Ideas and formulas to amend the Security Council – for example, expanding it to 25 members with more authority – to better reflect the international systems and power relations have all failed.
How can Britain, with a population of 68 million and a gross domestic product of $3.4 trillion, be on the Security Council yet Japan, with a population 126 million and GDP of $5.4 trillion, not be? Why is France – population 67 million and GDP $2.7 trillion – a permanent member while Germany – population 84 million and GDP $4.2 trillion – is out? And where’s the logic in Russia, population 146 million and a meager GDP of $1.7 trillion, wielding so much influence on the Security Council while India, population 1.4 billion and GDP of $3 trillion, is out?
Because the Security Council is a 1945-made appliance in a 2022 world.
In this respect, Zelenskyy should be thankful that Britain and France are in, and limit his correct but futile criticism to the “veto power” element.
There is no simple and clear mechanism to suspend a country from the Security Council. To do that, a change in the UN Charter is required. Alternatively, the UN can suspend a country’s membership via Article 5 of the UN Charter: “A Member of the United Nations against which preventive or enforcement action has been taken by the Security Council may be suspended from the exercise of the rights and privileges of membership by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council. The exercise of these rights and privileges may be restored by the Security Council.”
Clearly this does not apply to Russia, since it is the Security Council that needs to take “preventive or enforcement action” to launch the process, and that is where Russia has the power of veto.
On two occasions – South Africa in 1974 and Cambodia in 1997 – the UN used the issue of inadequate credentials to temporarily suspend these countries. That is not applicable in the case of Russia either.
“Are you ready to close the UN?” Zelenskyy asked in his impassioned speech. He already knows the answer. On such matters as war and peace, the UN exists for little more than what he just did: delivering powerful speeches, not formulating robust policies.