It’s finally time to reform the UN Security Council

International law allows the use of force in only two circumstances: in self-defense; and when it is approved by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Needless to say, Russia’s armed intervention in the Ukraine fails to satisfy either condition

It is neither consistent with the strict international legal standard for self-defensel, nor approved by the UNSC. Yet there is virtually nothing the UNSC can do about it.

The reason is simple: the legal architecture of the UNSC is and always has been woefully inadequate to satisfy its lofty mandate, which is to maintain international peace and security.

Russia and the US exercise their UN veto, a lot

Among the nine votes that any measure or action must acquire for approval are those of all five permanent members: the US, UK, China, Russia, and France (the prominent allied powers in World War II). Each of these five countries retains the right of absolute veto against any measure before the UNSC, be it a mere rhetorical condemnation (the UNSC condemns Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine), or something more substantial, like military action or economic sanction.

KIEV, UKRAINE - JAN 26, 2014: Euromaidan protesters rest and strengthen their barricades on Hrushevskoho Street, after another night of clashes with riot police in Kiev, Ukraine. snames / Shutterstock.com

KIEV, UKRAINE – JAN 26, 2014: Euromaidan protesters rest and strengthen their barricades on Hrushevskoho Street, after another night of clashes with riot police in Kiev, Ukraine. snames / Shutterstock.com

By far the most prolific users of the veto power are Russia and the US, who have, in the history of the UNSC, killed 119 and 83 measures respectively. Britain, the next closest, has used the veto 32 times.

The rest of the UNSC is comprised of a list of ten countries that is constantly changing on a rotating basis. None of these countries have the power to veto any measure.

The unsurprising result of this structure is that the five permanent members completely dominate the UNSC, and are essentially able to use it as a tool of their respective foreign policies.

Britain and France haven’t helped either

Consider, for example, the 1956 fury of Britain and France about the Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser nationalizing the Suez Canal. The Canal had long been a profitable aspect of both countries’ imperialist foreign policies; and this was a reality that Nasser, goes the logic of imperialism, had no right to challenge.

So, Britain and France hatched a tripartite alliance, and a hair-brained scheme with Israel, to reclaim the Canal. Israel would invade the Sinai and push all the way to Suez; Britain and France, feigning neutrality, would send in forces ostensibly to police the conflict (for its help, Israel would be allowed to keep the Sinai) but in reality, to retake control of it. In that spirit, Britain and France quickly vetoed a UNSC resolution that sought to resolve the Suez crisis in a manner inconsistent with their nefarious plans.

Examples like this abound.

The US, for its part, didn’t use the veto until 1970. Since that time, however, it has reliably blocked action by the UNSC whenever it would significantly contradict US foreign policy. Most importantly, the US regularly vetoes resolutions critical of Israel’s ongoing occupation, including its settlement project, which is both an indisputable violation of international law and contributes to the belligerent state of the Middle East.

Russia, of course, does the same. For example, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, it vetoed the resolution opposed to that aggression.

Due to its structural defects, the UNSC has never been capable of preventing the most destructive and deadly wars, many of which are purveyed by the very countries entrusted with the veto.

Then there’s Iraq

Most recently, the US flouted the Security Council once it became clear that the latter would not support an invasion of Iraq. The resulting invasion, which was, in my view, a plain violation of international law, resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and thousands of coalition service men and women. And all of the justifications for the war proffered by the Bush administration were eventually discredited (and most were transparently weak from the outset).

Now, Russia is in a position to stifle justice again following its Ukraine intervention, which the UNSC is powerless to stop. If there are consequences for the Russian aggression, they will have to come from elsewhere.

KIEV, UKRAINE - 21 JANUARY, 2014: Protest against "Dictatorship" in Ukraine turns violent on Euromaidan in Kiev. S'J / Shutterstock.com

KIEV, UKRAINE – 21 JANUARY, 2014: Protest against “Dictatorship” in Ukraine turns violent on Euromaidan in Kiev. S’J / Shutterstock.com

All of this context, present and historical, practically screams for UN reform. It is both anachronistic and unjust that the criteria for influence in the UNSC continues to be a combination of history, military power and wealth, none of which inherently bespeaks an affinity for leadership or a commitment to international justice.

If it is possible to achieve a more peaceful and just international order, egalitarianism in international legal structures must be enhanced, first by disclaiming the notion that military strength and wealth per se equal authority. This is the seedy logic of power, which leads to immense hypocrisy like this from British writer James Snell, who can “think of nothing worse than” a failure of the west to mount a counter-intervention against Russia (presumably starting a war) in the Ukraine. Snell writes:

“But why is Ukraine so vital?” you may ask. “Well, I reply, in a fittingly grave and solemn tone,” because it is the latest manifestation of Russian aggression (my emphasis), and we cannot allow the saber rattling (and unsheathing) of a tyrant like Vladimir Putin to go unpunished.”

Russian “aggression” must be “punished” by the same country whose far more deadly aggression in Iraq has only just abated, and went entirely “unpunished.” Ironically, Putin would appreciate this double standard. He applied essentially the same in his famously controversial Op-Ed in the New York Times, in which he chastised the US for mulling an invasion of Syria:

Kiev, Maidan, Ukraine - November 28, 2013: the Cabinet of Ministers, with the tacit approval of President Yanukovych, vote to stop the process of European integration, and instead choose to enter into alliance with Russia. Roman Mikhailiuk / Shutterstock.com

Kiev, Maidan, Ukraine – November 28, 2013: the Cabinet of Ministers, with the tacit approval of President Yanukovych, vote to stop the process of European integration, and instead choose to enter into alliance with Russia. Roman Mikhailiuk / Shutterstock.com

“We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.”

The Putin who wrote those words has apparently gone out to lunch, accompanied by the same Senator (now Secretary) John Kerry, who once voted to approve the illegal and aggressive Iraq War, and who is now distraught over Russia’s “incredible act of aggression” in the Ukraine.  My point being, it is difficult to use these instruments to accomplish good when we skirt them when inconvenient.

In each case, juxtapose past sentiment with present conduct and the message is clear: the UNSC is a tool to serve the caprice of its five permanent members. So long as responsibility for the maintenance of peace and security is left to the whims of only the most powerful and self-interested countries in the international order, the world cannot expect quality peacekeeping efforts.


David Delmar is a third-year student at Harvard Law School, with experience in both civil and criminal public interest law. His interests include law, politics, culture and society, philosophy, religion, and great fiction. David particularly likes to write about issues affecting human rights and civil liberties.

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  • Bryan R.

    Any reform must include the removal of Russia from the Security Council. Step 1.

  • Carlos

    ¡Excellent ideas, my thoughts exactly!

  • Brosky

    Reform? How about abolish! America should immediately withdraw from this asinine dictator club called the UN.

  • Olterigo

    It’s not going to happen anywhere. I wouldn’t bet on either UK, France, China or Russia giving up their veto.

  • caphillprof

    I note that most of you avoided my question.

  • lynchie

    Well 500,000 seems a number most agree to.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/15/iraq-death-toll_n_4102855.html

    Would some of these possibly have died because of Saddam perhaps but we sure killed them faster and a lot more children were killed. Remember phosphorous bombs in Fallujah. Saddam was a criminal but the U.S. put him in charge. There was no civil war before we illegally invaded Iraq.

  • 2karmanot

    Gold toilets ain’t cheap these days.

  • 2karmanot

    Phyllis Schlafly? Is that old vampire still alive…….opps, oxymoron.

  • 2karmanot

    We might even jettison the word ‘cognitive’ for that lot altogether.

  • http://www.americablog.com/ Naja pallida

    Cognitive dissonance has never been a problem in “conservative” thinking.

  • The_Fixer

    Absolutely, and even further back than 1970. I think the John Birchers were howling about the U.N. in the 50s, weren’t they?

    In the eyes of conservatives, the U.N. has been alternately ineffectual and then out to form a one-world government. Somehow this supposedly incompetent organization is also supposed to be capable of taking over the world (black helicopters and all of the other right-wing conspiracy theories that go with them).

    Conservatives have also done whatever they could to hamper any action that the U.N. undertakes, thereby insuring a lack of success. Didn’t they withhold U.S. dues at some point? Maybe they still are, I’m not up on the current situation.

    The biggest of the conservatives – those in the Bush government who brought us John Bolton – also felt that it was necessary to go in front of the U.N. and justify their actions in Iraq. Of course, their justifications were lies (but that’s beside the point, IOKIYAR). Again, they had to impress a supposedly ineffective organization.

    The conservatives only have use of the U.N. when it’s convenient. Obama, being a conservative in his actions, likely feels the same way about the U.N. – a means to conduct foreign policy.

    I also think that David Delmar is right in saying that the UNSC needs to be restructured. But I have little faith that it will be. Or at least in any helpful fashion.

  • mirror

    Is it more legal because your plan to create a right wing capitalist paradise didn’t work out? I’m confused.

  • Bill_Perdue

    The deaths of half a million children before the invasion are solely and directly the fault of the first Clinton regime.

    All the deaths, probably another million or so more, including the murder of hundreds of LGBT folks by American trained militia and police, were solely and directly the result of the US invasion and occupation.

    The ethnic strife in Iraq wouldn’t have occurred without Bushes invasion, which was rabidly applauded and promoted by Hillary Clinton. That fighting began early on and continued throughout the Bush-Obama colorization and it’s still going on.

  • Bill_Perdue

    It wasn’t a coup. It was a fascist putsch.

  • FLL

    I understand your characterization of events as a revolution, and to some extent, I agree with that characterization. However, I think the events were a combination of revolution and the normal constitutional functions of the legislative branch of government. What do I mean by that? In 1973, a group of Republican senators informed Richard Nixon that there were enough votes in the senate to remove him from office. Nixon resigned shortly thereafter. Late on Friday, February 22, Yanukovych was made to understand exactly the same set of circumstances: there were enough votes in the unicameral legislature to impeach him and remove him from office. He left Kiev, in effect resigning, the next morning.

  • Gary Denton

    Politically in the US this will not happen. Hatred , ridicule, and dismissal of the UN has been an article of faith in conservative circles since at least 1970.

  • cole3244

    with all the war mongers in the congress the chances of a negotiated solution to this situation is unlikely, the vote for violence seems to be the easiest for the majority in wash.

  • Ashigaru Spearman

    “resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and thousands of coalition service men and women.”

    How many people did the coalition affirmatively kill as a result of the invasion vs how many were killed as a result of the religious strife? Is it different to remove a strongman and the population then goes into civil war resulting in deaths than going in and killing civilians as a matter of policy?

  • Timothy Sipples

    So what’s the solution? I’d suggest a few elements:

    1. Replace Britain and France on the Security Council with the European Union. If the European Union decides that it wants rotating Security Council representation among Britain, France, and Germany, for example, that’s fine. The EU can decide the mechanics of how it wants to be represented.

    2. Given #1, add India, Japan, and Brazil as permanent members but without vetoes. Or allow these three prominent countries to rotate as quasi-permanent members with vetoes.

    3. Reduce the veto power slightly. If every other Security Council member votes against the vetoing party, the veto is then void. That is, a single permanent member’s veto cannot be sustained if every other country on the Security Council is opposed or abstains.

    4. Given #3, rotating Security Council membership must be absolutely free of political influence in country selection.

  • http://www.americablog.com/ Naja pallida

    That’s a lot of dowry. :)

  • Monophylos Fortikos

    But but but the UN is poised to become an all-powerful world government and rob us all of our freedom and stamp the Mark of the Beast on our hands. John Birch said so…or was it Phyllis Schlafly?

  • http://www.americablog.com/ Naja pallida

    As long as any nation gets a permanent seat and a veto, the Security Council is a sad and pathetic joke. It’s resolutions mean absolutely nothing except on the rare occasion when everyone agrees. Even then, it is uncommon for anything significant to get accomplished. They’re happy to glom onto one situation, while completely ignoring another. Usually depending entirely on the foreign interests of the permanent member states.

  • Tom in Lazybrook

    I don’t know about that, but most Americans rightly support Ukraine against a fascist, corrupt state run by a violent thug attacking its neighbors. Russia’s moral relevance can be seen in its’ continuing pogrom against Gay persons and racial minorities.

  • Tom in Lazybrook

    I think there should be an organization of free nations, where voting is based upon some formula mixing state population and economic size.

  • http://liberawheeler.blogspot.com Elijah Shalis

    Especially when you have a corrupt President that has amassed a personal fortune of 500 million dollars from brides since his election.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    I’d rephrase the question. That wasn’t a coup, it was a revolution. I think there’s a difference in terms of the moral legitimacy of intervening. Intervening against a military coup is easier to justify as per se the military (generally) doesn’t have legitimacy.

  • caphillprof

    I wonder how the US would react to a rabble rousing coup d’état in a nation where we had military bases.

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