In 1945, amid the ruins of World War II, the world came together to found the United Nations (UN), a global instrument to prevent such a crisis from happening again. This was, of course, no easy task: The League of Nations, often viewed as the UN’s natural predecessor, failed to prevent the war. Luckily, the ultimate inter-governmental organization has gone above and beyond that. The UN as we know it today incorporates 193 states and is responsible for a variety of things. Since its inception, the UN has debated issues of global affairs, and its work at a departmental level, such as the UN Development Program and the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, has continuously worked to bring about change in the lives of people. Embodied in its charter, the UN still acts as the cornerstone for the protection of humans and their civil liberties. Thus, on a day-to-day basis, the organization still acts as a beacon of hope and a forum unlike any other, where the nations of the increasingly interconnected world come together to deliberate and act in favor of the lives of everyone.
However, like any organization, the UN is not beyond reproach: It has received its fair share of criticism. Besides becoming the usual sticking point for many anti-globalists and fearful right-wing governments, every aspect of the UN has been criticized.
One body, in particular, garners the most attention and disapproval of any of the UN’s functions. The United Nations Security Council is an integral organ of the UN and its mission, and as delineated by the UN charter, it is “the maintenance of international peace and security.” To many of you old Model UN’ers (like myself), the Security Council might be a forum that you have delegated, or even chaired, in mock debates. Composed of fifteen countries, it has the ability to declare sanctions, authorize force, and delegate peacekeeping missions as ascribed by the UN charter. Ten countries on the council serve temporarily, with the seats rotating from the pool of all 193 nations. But five nations: the United States, United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia, serve as permanent members of the council.
In 1945, this made sense. Just out of the throngs of war, the victors were tasked with the world’s immediate peace and stability. They would also give themselves, and just themselves, the right to veto, meaning that all resolutions put before the council would require the consent of all five states. But what type of power does this afford? Well, quite a bit.
A “No” vote from any of the permanent five states immediately puts an end to any resolution before the council. From the council’s beginning, the power given to the permanent five has been a bone of contention, and for good reason. States are immediately given the ability to avoid any reprimanding for their actions. For example, Russia vetoed a resolution that condemned Russia for its invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. This failed to create any meaningful change, despite a consensus from thirteen states. (Only China abstained from the vote.) Furthermore, the permanent five get an advantage in forwarding their own foreign policy agenda, a right not afforded to the 188 other members of the UN and the council’s 10 other temporary members. The United States, for example, has often acted as the lone dissenting voice on Security Council resolutions about Israel. Not only has the Security Council become an instrument for the five nations to conserve power, but various conflicts have shown its inability to act on the some of the most pressing security concerns.
Recently, the Security Council fractured in light of a resolution regarding the recent Syrian Chemical attacks, which affected 500 people in the town of Douma. A resolution proposed by the United States in the council called for a diplomatic solution to Bashar al-Assad’s actions. As it has done 12 times before, Russia came to the aid of the Syrian government, voting against a U.S. Resolution that would investigate and assign blame for the use of chemical weapons in the nation. A Russian resolution calling for an inquiry into the attacks was rejected by 7 of the members, with France, the UK, and the United States vetoing it.
The Syria crisis demonstrates the limited, albeit significant, diplomatic power of the United Nations. Given the current state of the Syria issue, nations have now resorted to other means, given the importance of these attacks. As the resolutions in front of the Security Council failed, the three Western members have ramped up the rhetoric of a military attack, with President Trump warning that there was a “Big price to pay….” Russia responded by warning that US missiles would be met with “grave repercussions.”
For many experts, as well as states outside of the permanent five, it has become increasingly clear that the council needs to change. The question on the minds of many is how that would look. One way is through expanding the membership of the permanent council, incorporating other nations who play a significant role in international security. Candidacy for permanent membership has been proposed for countries like Japan, Germany, Brazil, Nigeria, and India. All of those countries (except for India) would give representation to more countries and would add another layer of opinion to the council. However, this solution fails to fundamentally change the Security Council’s current issues. Sure, it would be more “fair” in the sense that more countries are afforded this right, but it would simultaneously give more nations the ability to keep the council split and indecisive. The French have proposed that the permanent members waive their veto right in the case of an atrocity. But this seems too unrealistic, as nations will continuously dispute what constitutes an atrocity. And, in light of Assad’s actions in Syria, this seems unlikely.
The most logical solution, ultimately, is reversing the power itself. These way these nations dealt with conflicts like the Syrian crisis illustrates the fundamental problem with this system. As Sandeep Gopalan, a Professor of Law at Deakin Law School in Australia, asks,“What is the purpose of a legal system that allows a state to use chemical weapons against its own citizens and escape all consequences?” Ultimately, the problem isn’t just with the Council’s rights or its membership. But the veto allows too much power in an increasingly polarized international climate.
The United Nations was founded and continues to be the forum for our world to come and speak together. But all nations must be held accountable. The veto power is an inherent flaw in the Security Council’s structure, one that goes against the principles of equality and democracy that are preached by the UN Charter itself. It is no longer 1945 and the world has changed and matured. Eventually, the Security Council must grow too.
Tobias Wertime is a member of the Class of 2020 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org