Veto for your thoughts: the painful nature of Security Council reform

Have we been here before? In terms of international security, is anyone else getting a sense of déjà vu? Foreign Minister Sergei Lazrov has announced that there will be no new talks in Geneva unless pro-Russian separatists are involved – anyone who has followed the multiple attempts to defuse the Syrian Civil War knows that this is diplomatic code for ‘we aren’t going to act.’ There is little political upside for President Putin in acting to end the brewing civil war in Ukraine, sanctions have proven to be ineffectual whilst being publicly scoffed at. The United Nations UNSC has once again found itself divided, paralyzed, and derided. With Putin’s Russia wielding a mighty veto there can be no binding UNSC resolution to resolve the Ukraine crisis – there will be no UN peacekeeping force.

For those not too familiar with the UN infrastructure, there are currently five permanent members of the UNSC – France, USA, UK, China and Russia. The P5 are supplemented by 10 non-permanent members, these members elected to represent their regional group. For a UNSC resolution to pass it is necessary for 9 affirmative votes, however even if 14 members vote for the resolution, a P5 member can use their ability to veto the resolution. Thus, President Putin can prevent any resolution on subjects dear to his heart. We have seen this repeatedly over the past 3 years in the case of Syria – and now once again it is clear that the situation in Ukraine will continue to deteriorate whilst President Putin holds the UN hostage.

There are definitely pros to having an organisation such the UN, but it does not change the fact that the UNSC has become ineffectual. UNSC resolutions have been blatantly ignored and flouted by member states, whilst security crises in the form of Syria and Ukraine have been allowed to continue. Saudi Arabia’s refusal to take one of the non-permanents seats on the UNSC, after campaigning hard for the seat, was a clear statement on the perceived impotence of the UNSC.

It is evident that there is a pressing need to bring reform to UN. This is the only logical option to create an efficient way in resolving conflicts that have permanent security members on opposing sides. In 2004 a high level UN panel released a report entitled ‘A More Secure World; Our Shared Responsibility’, part of this report focused on options for modernising the UNSC.

The report released by the UN panel discusses two possible solutions to UNSC expansion: Model A and Model B. Model A would add 6 new permanent seats, most likely to end up in the hands of the G4 countries: Germany, Japan, India, and Brazil, with the two African seats being more disputed due to recent developments. Importantly, the panel noted the archaic nature of the veto and argued against giving new permanent members that notorious privilege. Additionally, 3 more non-permanent seats would be added, bringing the number of non-permanent seats to 13. These 13 seats would continue to be split up by region, with 4 going to Africa, 2 to Europe, 4 to the Americas and 3 to Asia-Pacific.

Model B differed by not adding any new permanent seats, but instead adding 8 renewable seats for terms of 4 years. These seats would be considered semi-permanent, as it was likely states would be able to be re-elected consistently. In addition 1 new non-permanent non-renewable seat would be added to the existing 10. Each model has its benefits and drawbacks, Model B would mean a greater competition for the semi-permanent seats, and negates the risk of a presently strong nation gaining a permanent seat on the UNSC, only to become significantly weaker in a few decades time. However, it is unlikely that these 8 semi-permanent nations would be happy remaining in an inferior position to the P5.

UN reform is much more complex than just the expansion of the UNSC, there have been proposals for new legitimacy mechanisms to UNSC resolutions – to ensure that if military intervention is decided upon, then it will be considered not only legal, but legitimate. And yet, if we focus on just the proposals on expansion, a few major problems appear. Regardless of whether Model A or Model B were to be enacted, the veto would remain for the P5. It is the hope of the panel that the higher level of representativeness of the new UNSC would lead to the rogue veto wielder feeling isolated and clearly out of step with the international community. It is doubtful that the UNSC would be able to make any decisive action on Ukraine or Syria despite a UNSC expansion, not whilst the P5 still hold a veto.

The panel’s report came out in 2004, and the UNSC still remains in the same format as it did then. No new action has been taken, no significant reforms committed to. Other nations have banded together in favour of different UNSC reform, such as the ‘Uniting for Consensus’ which would add 10 more semi-permanent seats. The veto would remain for the P5.
The most effective reform would be the immediate removal of the veto, and the expansion of UNSC to be more representative whilst remaining small enough to be able to act decisively. Without the veto, the UNSC would gain a new sense of credibility, and with more members it would gain a new legitimacy in Africa, South America and Asia.

But the system is not perfect, and the veto appears here to stay. So, as we watch new crises emerge in Eastern Europe, and continued conflicts in the Middle East, what effective reform can be undertaken by the UNSC to provide a higher standard of global security?

One response to “Veto for your thoughts: the painful nature of Security Council reform”

  1. Jon says:

    I agree that the UNSC is ineffectual. If international law had panned out differently, countries could have cited the Uniting for Peace Resolution (GA Res. 377). This bestows a degree of power to the GA and if you read the wording, it’s states it can authorise force.  However, this rarely gets invoked and is seen as a gesture of disapproval towards the vetoing nation. A possible solution is bolstering the power of the GA. It’s more representative and would only be used in a dead heat between the P5 nations. I also think the GA is well equipped to gauge international opinion more effectively. The threshold of support would cause problems but it would be more desirable than the SC having a monopoly. 

    This issue boils down to the classic old arguments in international law. Do we take a restrictive or permissive view of the law? I fall into the latter category but sympathise with concerns regarding territorial integrity. Unfortunately, changing the restrictive status quo is antithetical to the agenda of those in power.