Reforming the UN Security Council: A Tale of Blood, Sweat, and Tears?

April 27, 2015 Updated: April 28, 2015

Remember Groucho Marx’s famous lines that he would not like to join a club that would have him as a member? Well, there’s another club whose membership, however, does not provoke laughter but only scorn and ridicule. It is the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) dominated by its five permanent members—the P-5 (the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China)—who have transformed it into an exclusive club with a bolted door preventing any newcomer from entering it.

Although the UNSC has 15 members, 10 of whom are nonpermanent ones that change every two years, the P-5 with its veto powers can, in fact, obstruct conflict resolution and mitigation of human misery resulting from armed conflict.

For seven decades—the U.N. celebrates its 70th anniversary this year—the world has witnessed with emotions of anger, frustration, and helplessness as the Security Council has been transformed into a fossil-like architecture divorced from present-day realities.
Indeed, the P-5 members zealously guard their exclusiveness and relish the concentration of power in their hands. They were inducted into this august body as the world was clearing the debris of the second world war with the grudging acceptance of many well-meaning but naive fellow members. China’s place was initially held by Taiwan, but China took its place in 1971 after Taiwan, then called the Republic of China, was shown the door.

For decades, the P-5 members have been culpable of indifference, self-righteousness, and even contributing, at times, to prolonging a conflict and causing civilian deaths just to protect their vested interests. Indeed, the selfish and egotistic culture within the P-5 has deteriorated to such an extent that some of the individual members themselves could be put in the dock to face charges for prolonging conflicts and human misery.

Each September, when the U.N. General Assembly goes into session, the theme of U.N. reforms invariably crops up. But the subject also gives rise to infighting and jealousy within the international community—a fact that is cleverly exploited by the P-5 members to preserve their exclusivity and the anachronism called the veto right.

Of course, there is no alternative to the United Nations; the world would, to use the metaphor, go from the frying pan into the fire if the world body did not exist. Indeed, the United Nations provides a platform to hear out the parties in a conflict who can benefit from U.N. mediation.

The world body still continues, as it did at the time of its creation at the end of second world war, to raise hopes among member states that the U.N. would lead the way to the dawn of an age of peace, tranquility, and prosperity. But over the decades their hopes have faded, dashed on the sharp rocks of parochialism and self-interest of the P-5 members whose “what’s-in-it-for-me” attitude demonstrated that they care little for the welfare of humanity if their vested interests are threatened in any way.

The P-5’s behavior is chronicled by poor judgment in crises starting with Algeria (1954–1962), Suez (1956), Hungary (1956), Vietnam (1947–1975), the Sino-Vietnamese conflict (1979), Afghanistan (1979–88), Panama (1989), Iraq (2003), Georgia (2008), and the still continuing misery in Syria.

Although the veto has not been indiscriminately exercised in recent years, China and Russia have been sharply criticized for twice aborting the draft resolution that supported the Arab League’s plan to end violence and push ahead with a political transition in Syria. The result has been devastating for the Syrian civilian population with an estimated 220,000 casualties and millions displaced. The United States also vetoed a resolution to stop Israeli colonies in the West Bank in February 2011.

Critics are particularly severe about Russia and China for their stance over Syria because they believe that many thousands of lives could have been saved by timely action. Russia is a supplier of arms to the Syrian regime while China, also an arms supplier, played second fiddle to Russia on this.

While the UNSC impasse continued over Syria, oblivious to the suffering of the Syrian people, shocking television images of corpses of small children wrapped in white sheets, killed in the Syrian conflict, shook the conscience of the world’s people.

Amnesty International, which has called the UNSC “unfit for purpose,” said the people’s sacrifices to bring about changes in the Arab world were not matched by strong international support because alliances and financial interests mattered more than human rights.

Then in the early 1990s there was the case of Rwanda, which, thanks to the UNSC inaction, witnessed the genocide by Hutus, who massacred more than 500,000 Tutsis.

International Outcry

There is an international outcry to reform the UNSC, add new permanent members, restrict or completely do away with the veto right, which, in fact, has helped prolong many international crises. New entrants like the G-4 members—Brazil, Germany, India and Japan—have been knocking at the club’s door for admittance.

The combined G-4—with foreign ministers Luiz Alberto Figueiredo Machado (Brazil), Frank-Walter Steinmeier (Germany), Sushma Swaraj (India) and Fumio Kishida (Japan)—during the September 2014 General Assembly session led yet another charge, calling for a UNSC reform that reflected the 21st century’s geopolitical realities. They called attention to how the UNSC’s difficulties in effectively addressing current international challenges were a compelling reminder of the urgent need for the body’s reform.

The G-4 ministers lamented that 70 years after the U.N.’s creation, 50 years after the first and only time when the UNSC was reformed, nearly 15 years after the Millennium Summit and nine years after the 2005 World Summit, discussions were still stuck in a stalemate.

As Hardeep Singh Puri, formerly India’s permanent representative to the U.N., and currently vice president of the International Peace Institute (IPI) and secretary-general of the Independent Commission on Multilateralism (ICM), raised the pertinent question, during a recent discussion at the IPI with visiting Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak of Slovakia as to how much more longer one should wait to bring about the reform process.

A practical way would be to replace the veto right with individual voting rights for each of the members of an expanded UNSC. Resolutions could then be passed based on majority votes with each member, including newcomers, casting a single vote.

The P-5 members must realize that if they do not allow the UNSC to reform they risk being judged by history as power-hungry villains of international diplomacy with little concern for the problems and needs of humanity. Don’t let the reform process become a tale of blood, sweat and tears.

Manik Mehta is a New York/New Jersey-based journalist who has been covering global economics, business, and social-cultural issues for more than 20 years.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.