By Richard Gowan
People who think about the United Nations too much tend to develop distinctly strange views of international affairs. Seventy years old this year, the world organisation is not letting old age slow it down. Its aid workers and peacekeepers are on the frontlines, from the wars in the Middle East to Ebola-stricken West Africa.
Yet, diplomats and UN officials often struggle to focus on the ugly realities of these crises. It is easy to get sucked into the minutiae of the UN’s ineffably complex rules of procedure and committee work instead. If you sit in the Security Council (UNSC) or General Assembly in New York, these details appear to be of global importance.
For decision-makers in Washington and Beijing — and perhaps in New Delhi — the UN’s rules generally do not matter that much. One exception is the UNSC veto. The fact that the five permanent members of the UNSC can block resolutions at will has always been controversial. It has become even more contentious during the Syrian crisis, as China and Russia have halted a series of resolutions meant to put pressure on Damascus. While the UN once seemed well positioned to resolve the crisis, it is now reduced to trying to negotiate a series of short-term local ceasefires.
This has fuelled growing calls for the UNSC’s permanent members to commit to not using their vetoes in future cases of mass atrocities. The primary proponent of this plan is France, which presumably sees it as a way to embarrass the Chinese and Russians. Curiously, neither Beijing nor Moscow has shown any desire to consider the idea.
The US and the UK, nervous about limiting their diplomatic options in any future crisis, are also sceptical about the French initiative. But it has sparked some excitement among former UN grandees and civil society organisations. Former secretary-general Kofi Annan recently joined former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland in calling for the UN’s top powers to offer a “solemn pledge” to limit the use of their vetoes. Amnesty International issued a similar call late last month. It is unlikely that Russian President Vladimir Putin or Chinese President Xi Jinping will pay heed to (or even hear about) these proposals. But it is easy to see why the veto restraint has broader appeal. Unlike most proposals for UN reform, and UNSC reform in particular, it is a simple proposal that seems likely to pay real dividends in terms of saving lives. It would not require any complex renegotiation of the UN Charter, but just a political deal. For these reasons, NGOs will probably continue to badger the permanent members of the UNSC about the veto in the run-up to the UN’s 70th anniversary summit this September. Is it a truly worthy cause or just a diversion?
The Security Council faces far more fundamental problems than the persistence of the veto. The most immediate is the growing geopolitical competition between China, Russia and the Western members of the council. This would generate friction inside the UNSC, even if there were already firm constraints on the use of the veto.
Russia has, after all, offered the Syrian regime not only diplomatic cover but significant quantities of weaponry since 2011. If Moscow had been unable to block US and European efforts to undermine Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the UN, it might well have offered him even greater overt and covert military assistance, making the civil war even worse. The veto system can still serve as a safety valve when the permanent members find themselves in direct competition.
But if the permanent members are internally divided, they face even deeper challenges to the UNSC’s legitimacy from the outside. The wider UN membership is increasingly unwilling to accept the Security Council’s directions. African governments are looking to their own regional organisations to solve the continent’s crises. Tens of thousands of UN peacekeepers are still serving in Africa, but from Mali to South Sudan, they are struggling to operate in violent environments. The UN’s leverage in the Middle East beyond Syria is also slipping. It has few toeholds in Asia.
These complex challenges all stem from the simple fact that power is becoming more diffuse in the international system. The UNSC, meant to centralise power after 1945, cannot avoid losing authority as a result. The answer to this dilemma does not lie in limiting the veto but, as Indian officials never cease to point out, significantly expanding the Security Council to include a wider range of permanent members.
India — working with Brazil, Germany and Japan — is pushing hard for the UN’s 70th anniversary summit to address this issue decisively. The chances that the four powers will achieve their goal of securing permanent seats in the near term remain slight. There are simply too many diplomatic obstacles, large and small, to resolve. At best, this year’s summit could see leaders make a fresh political promise to speed up reform discussions — a pledge that might not mean very much in reality.
The debate over veto restraint is arguably a distraction from the broader dilemmas of UNSC reform. Indian officials and their allies should nonetheless engage in the debate, if only because it reinforces their broader case that the Security Council is no longer fit-for-purpose. That cannot be resolved by tweaking the UN’s rules. But it is at least better to talk about the UN’s woes than to let it slide into irrelevance unobserved.
The writer is associate director, Crisis Diplomacy and Peace Operations, Centre on International Cooperation, New York University.