The Ukraine War is in its second month with no signs of stopping anytime soon. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s call “You need to act immediately” during a live-streamed address on April 6 to the UN Security Council members has not stopped the war. And in all fairness, as long as a veto wielding power is the elephant in the room that is the aggressor, nothing good will come out of the UN unless it is reformed.
The currently flawed state even allows a non-veto-wielding client state to get away unscathed with its horrible records of war crimes as long as it has a patron or sponsor who can use its veto power to protect it. Not surprisingly, in May 2021, the USA blocked any resolution to be passed in the UNSC against the apartheid state of Israel for its war crimes in the Gaza. (Despite its genocidal crimes against the native Palestinians, the Biden Administration continues to grant nearly four billion dollars annually to the apartheid state.)
President Biden has called Putin a war criminal and called for a war crimes investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC). These are genuine calls that are sadly smeared by hypocrisy when the USA refuses to become a member of the ICC! As Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-MN) correctly said, “It would be staggeringly hypocritical to support an ICC investigation into Russia, while opposing the court’s very existence as a non-member.” The USA needs to strengthen the ICC by joining the Court that investigates genocides, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Politics aside, we live in an ever increasingly interconnected and interdependent world where the local problems can morph into global crises. The United Nations was created solely to deal with such crises to find solutions for peace. Yet, our systems of global governance to address such crises and the emerging ones – e.g., hate crimes, refugee crisis, cyber security, water crisis and the global warming – have been dismally slow and mostly ineffective.
For too many smaller and less powerful nations, the realities of the twenty-first century urgently demand a reformed UN that has seen the abuse of the veto power to serve the national interests of those who hold it. Any reform of the UN must, therefore, start with the UNSC.
The Article 24.1 of the Charter – “In order to ensure prompt and effective action by the United Nations, its Members confer on the Security Council primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, and agree that in carrying out its duties under this responsibility the Security Council acts on their behalf.” – provides the sufficient justification for the very existence of the UNSC in order to promptly deal with deteriorating international insecurity and conflicts.
However, the “power of veto” wielded by any of the UNSC’s five permanent (P5) members has been a major problem within the UN. By wielding their veto power, they can prevent the adoption of any (non-“procedural”) UNSC draft resolution not to their liking. Even the mere threat of a veto may lead to changes in the text of a resolution, or it being withheld altogether. As a result, the power of veto often prevents the council from acting to address pressing international issues and affords the “P5” great influence within the UN institution as a whole.
The “enormous” influence of the veto power has often been cited as a cause of the UN’s ineffectiveness in preventing and responding to genocide, violence, and human rights violations. Various countries outside the P5, such as the Non-Aligned Movement and African Union have proposed limitations on the veto power.
Amnesty International has claimed, and rightly so, that the P5 members had used their veto to “promote their political self-interest or geopolitical interest above the interest of protecting civilians.” For example, the United States routinely casts lone vetoes of resolutions criticizing Israel. As it happened with the latest Russian veto on a joint resolution by the USA and Albania condemning its invasion of Ukraine, the permanent members continue to veto any resolution that criticizes their own actions. In 2014, Russia vetoed a resolution condemning its annexation of Crimea.
Any reform of the veto will be very difficult since no P5 state will give away their right to veto. Articles 108 and 109 of the United Nations Charter grant the P5 veto over any amendments to the Charter, requiring them to approve of any modifications to the UNSC veto power that they themselves hold.
This has frustrated many world leaders. Dr. Mahathir Mohammad’s captures the sentiments of many leaders, past and present, who on 28 September 2018 said,“Five countries on the basis of their victories 70 over years ago cannot claim to have a right to hold the world to ransom forever. They cannot take the moral high ground, preaching democracy and regime change in the countries of the world when they deny democracy in this (UN) organization.”
Towards reform of the Charter, he suggested “that the veto should not be by just one permanent member but by at least two powers backed by three non-permanent members of the Security Council. The General Assembly should then back the decision with a simple majority.”
Others have suggested increasing the number of veto power members in the Council. However, increasing the number of States that hold the veto power is bound to make the UNSC more dysfunctional, and will not be a desirable solution to the crisis.
Dr. Mohammad’s suggestion, if implemented, surely could have solved the impasse problems like the ones we witnessed with the solo veto of Russia at the UN vis-à-vis the Ukraine crisis. What the UN, instead, has is the mechanism of the emergency special session. This mechanism was created in 1950 by the General Assembly’s adoption of its ‘Uniting for Peace’ resolution (377 A), which declared that:
“… if the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in any case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression, the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately with a view to making appropriate recommendations to Members for collective measures, including in the case of a breach of the peace or act of aggression the use of armed force when necessary, to maintain or restore international peace and security. If not in session at the time, the General Assembly may meet in emergency special session within twenty-four hours of the request therefor. Such emergency special session shall be called if requested by the Security Council on the vote of any seven members, or by a majority of the Members of the United Nations…”
As we also noticed even with 141 votes in favor, a UN resolution (in which 35 countries abstained and only five countries voted against it) demanding that Russia “immediately, completely and unconditionally” withdraw its military forces from Ukraine, in a powerful rebuke of Moscow’s invasion of its neighbor, the Resolution 377A did not have the biting power of the UNSC. The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s fervent call to “End hostilities in Ukraine – now; silence the guns – now,” is simply ignored by Russia. He could do nothing to stop the war.
Thus, if we are serious about world peace, there is no recourse but to amend the UN Charter.
The question is how?
As noted by experts, while the UN General Assembly provides a forum for representatives of nation states to gather on a regular basis to consult upon and discuss global affairs, it suffers from two obvious defects: firstly, its members are not truly representative of the peoples of the world, in that they are not directly elected by them as members of a national parliament or legislature would be. The UN, therefore, does not have the legality it requires when it passes resolutions urging action in a particular sphere of activity. At best, the UN representatives are the voices of their respective government that is in power and nothing more than that.
Secondly, the UN General Assembly does not have the power to pass legislation that is legally binding on all its member states. Consequently, when we most need a viable collective decision-making body which can effectively address collective challenges, we find ourselves lacking.
Both these flaws need to be addressed toward an overall reform of the world body that becomes more representative.
Then there is the other bigger problem: Under the Charter of the United Nations, all Member States are obligated to comply with Security Council decisions while the latter is not truly representative of the nations of the world. The Security Council takes the lead in determining the existence of a threat to the peace or act of aggression. It calls upon the parties to a dispute to settle it by peaceful means and recommends methods of adjustment or terms of settlement. In some cases, the Security Council can resort to imposing sanctions or even authorize the use of force to maintain or restore international peace and security.
As we have seen, while economic sanctions may bite a criminal regime, and weaken it somewhat, such may not result in the desired outcome of stopping aggression. More problematically, as we saw with the Iraqi invasion, the UN does not have the means to punishing a P5 culprit when it invades another country illegally. (Lest we forget, the Iraqi invasion by the US and its allies was neither in self-defense against armed attack nor sanctioned by UNSC resolution authorizing the use of force by member states and thus constituted the crime of war of aggression, according to the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) in Geneva.)
As noted by Sovaida Ma’ani Ewing, an international lawyer and founding director of the CPGG (Center for Peace and Global Governance), the Security Council’s mandate is also vague and needs to be properly fleshed out so that it can act swiftly and with confidence knowing that it will not be accused of overstepping its authority. “Finally, the Security Council lacks some critical tools it needs to accomplish its mission of maintaining peace in the world. For example, it lacks an international intelligence agency from which it can obtain timely, reliable, shared and transparent information on the basis of which it can make decisions to take action. It also lacks an international police force serving at its behest to take timely, efficient and effective action to nip problems in the bud before they fester into unwieldy disasters,” says Ewing.
Any reform of the UN must start with the UNSC. Either invalidate a single veto in favor of the recommendation made by Dr. Mahathir requiring a minimum of two vetoes or democratize the 15-member council, if it should remain the all-powerful body on all such matters pertaining to global conflicts. Its decisions in the latter case should be made by an affirmative vote of nine members, irrespective of how the permanent members vote on such matters. The Article 27.3 can be revised accordingly to: “Decisions of the Security Council on all other matters shall be made by an affirmative vote of nine members; provided that, in decisions under Chapter VI, and under paragraph 3 of Article 52, a party to a dispute shall abstain from voting.”
Obviously, such an amendment will not be acceptable to the privileged permanent member states within the UNSC, esp. the USA, who have been bearing the major burden of the operational cost of the UN; most poorer countries have not been paying their due shares of the expenses. Unless, the operational cost is equitably shared by all the members states of the UN, such a proposition for the democratization of the world-body will be unviable. With the never-before added incentive of a representative voice now on international affairs, I would like to believe that all the states would feel obliged to pay their due share for the upkeep of a reformed UN.
It’s the month of Ramadan and is a good time to reflect upon a 1400-year-old hadith.
In the collection of Imam Bukhari, Nu’man bin Bashir (R) reported that the Prophet Muhammad (S) said, “The example of the person abiding by God’s order and restrictions in comparison to those who violate them is like the example of those persons who drew lots for their seats in a ship. Some of them got seats in the upper deck, and the others in the lower. When the latter needed water, they had to go up to bring water (and that troubled the upper deck passengers), so they said, ‘Let us make a hole in our share of the ship (and get water) so that we do not trouble the upper deck passengers.’ If the people in the upper deck left the lower deck passengers to do what they had suggested; then all the people of the ship would be destroyed, but if they had prevented them, then both parties would be safe.”
The privileged P5 member states need to take a harder and deeper look at how their selfish interests, untenable as they are, can hurt us all in the long run unless they are willing to compromise and share with the underprivileged (non-P5) people of our mother ship, the earth.
Is a future world, run by war criminals, despots and aggressors, more desirable for their posterity? Can they afford to be untouched by the effects of global warming, water crisis, cyber insecurity, human migration and refugee problems that need wider cooperation from all? Hard compromises are necessary for greater good of humanity. Their leaders must realize that many of the global institutions, policies and procedures that their predecessors formulated are outmoded and are no longer serving the interest and welfare of humanity as a whole and that our systems of global governance are lagging far behind the movement towards global integration and interdependence. As global leaders, they must be willing to either radically reform them or create new alternatives that will ensure peace, security and well-being of all. They owe this to themselves and to future generations, failing which they will be condemned by history for their inaction.
There is no denying that the UN needs to be reformed. The status quo is both untenable and undesirable. Ignoring the obvious is not only stupid: it’s suicidal. The current impasse with the Ukraine Crisis should be a sufficient wakeup call to reform the UN immediately.