Rethinking the UN Security Council: from disregard of the African continent to the illogic of the veto 


The Security Council is one of six core bodies of the United Nations, the others being the General Assembly, Trusteeship Council, Economic and Social Council, Secretariat and International Court of Justice. All are enshrined in Chapter III of the Charter of the United Nations.

The Security Council is tasked with maintaining international peace and security, voting on new members, and imposing economic sanctions and/or authorizing UN military action against international aggressors. It purports to facilitate a peaceful international atmosphere by investigating international events that threaten elements of peace and could lead to clashes. Its mandate is to prevent and/or suppress disputes and aggressive actions around the world, especially by peaceful means.

The Council began functioning on January 17, 1946, though its conception dates to 1945.  With the aggression and suffering of World War II very much in their minds, the Soviet Union’s Premier Iosif Stalin, UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt met at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 to discuss the reorganization of postwar Europe. They also determined the voting methodologies for the incoming new Security Council. At the meeting, the three leaders instituted veto power for the five victors of World War II, the so-called “permanent” members of the Council — which are still China, France, United Kingdom, Russia and the United States.

The veto power of the Security Council can be exercised on matters concerning member states, and also non-member states when their actions are UN related or directly involve a UN member state.

The Council has two main branches: one responsible for issuing recommendations when needed or requested, and the other for enforcing the law by addressing assaults, breaches or other issues that undermine the collective peace. Despite these honorable goals (as well as having operated for the common peace for a significant period of time) the Security Council has been much criticized over the years. The primary issues have been what is felt to be the undemocratic nature of the unilateral veto power of the permanent members, the unbalanced method of representation in the body,  and the bias of UN interventions.

The veto power is only implied within the UN Charter, as that document does not refer explicitly to any unilateral veto power. It is an unwritten principle acknowledged in the Council that abstention from a vote is a method for communicating disagreement without undermining the entire procedure. The voting method enshrined in Article 27 of the UN Charter foresees that every member state has the right to vote only once, and affirmative conclusions on disputes of a procedural nature are reached with the positive vote of nine members. On non-procedural matters, however, it is not only the agreement of nine member states that is required, but also unanimity from all five permanent members (any of which can also abstain from voting). It is important to note that procedural matters (such as agenda creation) are usually handled in the General Assembly, while non-procedural matters involving more substantive issues are generally undertaken by the Security Council.

Despite its firm and solid structure, the Security Council is again under scrutiny, with the democratic nature of the body more than ever being questioned. In 2005, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan proposed a reform that aimed at the appointment of six new permanent members, and also foresaw the enlargement of non-permanent seats. The proposal eventually failed, replaced by a new proposal called “Uniting for Consensus,” which predicted extension of the membership only for non-permanent seats. Not to have considered any African or Oceanic country in the permanent membership was certainly a serious failing.

To put it simply:  A supranational body that claims to facilitate international cooperation and peaceful resolution of conflicts — and that assumes the most powerful legally binding authority among international and supranational organizations by means of sanctions, peacekeeping interventions or military force — must possess credibility beyond suspicion and reproach. That the Security Council still allows unilateral veto power, possessed by only five powerful countries, cannot be considered credible. Consider also that three of those countries are part of the Western bloc, while the remaining two (China and Russia) fail wholly to represent the Asian continent.

Since its inception, there has been some minor discussion by the Council about including Brazil, Germany, Japan and India in the permanent club.  Still, always leaving out Africa.

The lack of balance demonstrated by the Security Council has often reached a level intolerable to the non-permanent members, who in the past have then asked that the veto power be eliminated completely. In more recent times, during the plenary session of the General Assembly in November 2018, African member states called again for removal of the veto power and general reform of the body. Worthy of note was the request by a spokesperson for Sierra Leone that stressed the need to include African countries in the international decision-making process, particularly in decisions concerning the African continent — that it is time to “redress the historical injustice of not being represented in the permanent category.” He asked that if the veto were still deemed necessary, that at least two permanent seats with veto power be given to African nations.

Unfortunately, the many meetings and discussions over more than a decade have not translated into any significant change. That is due in part to the fact that the veto power is granted by article 108 and 109 of the Charter, which confirms the impossibility of amending any veto cast by one of the five permanent members. This would necessitate a complete renovation of the Security Council, given its intrinsic relationship with the United Nations Charter.

As mentioned earlier, another main critique of the Council relates to UN interventions: that they often lacking appropriate timing, but especially that they are often based on irrational or unethical decisions. Recent events serving as proof of this include the massacre of Bosnians in Srebrenica and the U.S. invasion of Iraq after 9/11. It is also important to consider other cases regarding the African continent.

The first is the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. It is a widely held belief that one of the main drivers of the Rwandan massacre was the indifference of the UN Security Council. Many political science scholars share this view, as do anthropologists such as Michael N. Barnett. The Council waited three weeks to intervene on the Rwandan crisis, refusing to consider all the evidence of the impending genocide. The Rwandan situation, far from being an easy one, demanded consistent and continuous support from the Security Council, but the Council instead refused to strengthen its mandate when the African country was most in need. The peacekeeping mission at first refused the idea of the use of force by any means, an exception made only because of U.S. pressure.  The Council became even more adamant after the recent Somali failure and the killing of 10 Belgian peacekeepers in those operations, which annihilated any members’ will to strengthen the mandate. Soon after, the peacekeepers flew away in a “[…] manner in which the troops left, including attempts to pretend to the refugees that they were not in fact leaving, was disgraceful” as witnessed by the report. The Somali mission was, overall, a profound failure.

Such indifference and the slow reaction on the part of the Security Council make one wonder whether the UN body would have displayed the same conduct in the case of a genocide in a Western and “white” country.  

More recently, the UN Security Council again showed a lack of will (or worse) on matters of human rights, specifically on the protection of women. Of intense interest in the UN General Assembly has been the adoption of a resolution to combat the use of rape as a weapon of war.  A proposal on their agenda suggested the creation of an ad-hoc body for controlling and reporting mistreatment and abuse of women. China, Russia and the U.S. opposed the creation of such a body. The U.S. also refused any language in the provisions that was linked to sexual or reproductive health, deeming it  biased and “pro-abortion.” It is fairly common knowledge that Donald Trump has laser-like focus on the demands of his primary voting blocs in the U.S.. Thus, it was assumed that the U.S. watering down of the language in the resolution was Trump’s nod to the demands of the Christian evangelical voters, vice president, and secretary of state. But it was odd to see a supranational organization, one that purportedly serves to also defend human rights, suddenly stalling because of the self-interested whims of one of the five permanent members. And it was even more disturbing  to see how the UN Security Council — created to ensure international cooperation and peace — was forced to linger on a straightforward subject that simply sought better life standards for all people.

Luckily, the resolution passed (albeit with less powerful language). But it focused the question once again:  to what degree can the Security Council veto still be deemed just and reasonable?

It would seem that a unilateral veto should not be allowed when the basic health of people is at issue.

Overall, the Security Council has proved to be helpful in certain international disputes, while in others it has been difficult to understand whose interests it sought to protect.

It should be recognized that when it was founded, the UN Security Council, as the United Nations itself, represented one of the most avant-garde projects of the time, filling a critical need after the dissolution of the League of Nations. But now, as a supranational body with enormous authority on matters of international law, the Security Council is growing obsolete by the day and needs to be reconsidered. The criticism of many of the member states appears to be very well-founded.

Similarly, the broad geopolitical landscape, and the relationship between the 5 permanent members of the Security Council, are both way different from what they were in 1945 at Yalta.

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