A Big Failure of the United Nations?
The happenings and developments in the contemporary international order suggest that the collective security system that was established through the United Nations Charter has failed to protect international peace and security. The Aleppo tragedy of 2017 and the mayhem throughout Syria at present bear the biggest proof of this failure. The situation around the world highlights the many new dangers and challenges that have come to replace the threat of total nuclear destruction of civilization. Terrorism, national, religious and other forms of extremism, drug trafficking and organized crime, regional conflicts and the threat of the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), financial and economic crises, ecological disasters and epidemics.
Nearly three decade after the humanity liberated itself from the pressure of ideological, political and military confrontation of the Cold War, the international security is still in jeopardy.
The failure of the international security system in achieving peace has, for many years, been attributed to the Cold War. However, when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union collapsed, a wave of optimism engulfed the world. Hopes were high that the most-cherished goal of peace would soon see the light of the day and that peace would finally prevail in the world. This optimism was the practical manifestation of the preamble to the UN Charter which states: “We the peoples of the world are determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” It is apt to recall here that the United Nations was founded “to maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace.”
It was under this mission that the first-ever Security Council summit meeting, following the end of the Cold War, saw world leaders ask the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, to prepare an “analysis and recommendations on ways of strengthening and making more efficient within the framework and provisions of the Charter the capacity of the United Nations for preventive diplomacy, for peacemaking and for peace-keeping”. It was desired to be a UN Secretary-General’s report on the nature of post-Cold War international relations. Boutros-Ghali presented his famous report “An Agenda for Peace”. Para 11 of this report is highly important. It reads:
“We have entered a time of global transition marked by uniquely contradictory trends. Regional and continental associations of States are evolving ways to deepen cooperation and ease some of the contentious characteristics of sovereign and nationalistic rivalries. National boundaries are blurred by advanced communications and global commerce, and by the decisions of States to yield some sovereign prerogatives to larger, common political associations. At the same time, however, fierce new assertions of nationalism and sovereignty spring up, and the cohesion of states is threatened by brutal ethnic, religious, social, cultural or linguistic strife. Social peace is challenged on the one hand by new assertions of discrimination and exclusion and, on the other, by acts of terrorism seeking to undermine evolution and change through democratic means.”
In May 1992, the UN General Assembly appointed a committee to put the proposals of the report into effect. However, it soon became clear that the maintenance of world peace would not come about with the end of the Cold War, because the interests of the great powers still conflicted with one another. Thus, the Security Council’s inability to take effective and urgent measures to impose peace will, regrettably, continue.
To understand the reason for this we must analyze the “grand design” that was concluded in 1945 at the San Francisco Conference where the UN Charter was adopted. It was agreed then to establish a Security Council that would oversee the protection of international peace and security. The Council was given unprecedented wide powers to eliminate all threats to peace.
But, unfortunately, the Charter did not clearly delineate the nature and delimitation of the procedural resolutions that could not be impeded. More importantly, it granted the five permanent members veto power, which means that they could block resolutions backed even by a majority vote. The argument behind this open-ended unprecedented license was that it was the responsibility of these five great powers to protect world peace, not their own narrow interests.
The five great powers at the Conference tried to gain the right to veto non-procedural resolutions regardless of their content, and to incorporate this right explicitly into the Charter, but opposition of most countries thwarted this plan. At present, it is clear that the interlocking political and economic interests of these powers make it inconceivable that any action taken by the Council would directly or indirectly affect their interests. Simply put the Security Council, with its present structure, has been made to be in a state of permanent paralysis the recent deliberations in the council on Ghouta-Syria reflect this paralysis.
As a result, the international protection system enshrined in the UN Charter no longer exists. This is what the Arab countries have struggled with over the past seven decades when it came to Palestine, and what the region is struggling with now when it comes to Syria.
It is noteworthy that the Security Council’s paralysis does not hinge solely on the actual use of the veto power; the five great powers even threaten in the negotiation phase to veto many crucial resolutions. Ultimately, when they accept to pass a resolution, it usually ends up formulated as follows:
a. Refraining from taking the action required to end the conflict, and merely appointing an envoy to manage the conflict. (Resolutions on Palestine are most important example in this regard.)
b. Imposing sanctions that do not change the situation much but often harm many innocent people.
c. Using distorted ineffective verbal formulations e.g. repeated condemnations and denunciations. That’s exactly what we see now in the UNSC resolutions that do not call for any action that would change the tragic situation in question.
d. It means, in effect, the UNSC is being confined to managing conflicts, not ending them.
Of course, there are some exceptions.
In June 1950 during the Korean War, the Council adopted a clear and decisive resolution in response to North Korea’s aggression against South Korea. It happened only because the Soviet Union had boycotted the Council’s sessions while the People’s Republic of China was not allowed to join the UN. Interestingly, after this resolution, the Soviet delegation immediately returned to its seat in the Council and no permanent member has ever been absent again.
It should be noted here that, during the recent years, the veto power has not been used as often as in the past: Britain and France rarely resort to the veto, China exercises it only in the case of Taiwan, Russia uses and threatens to use it without hesitation and the United States uses this power only to protect Israel. Hence, the power to veto and the threat of exercising this are clearly the main reasons behind the paralysis of the UNSC.
This state of affairs has made it no less than incumbent on the world community to explore alternative means of protecting peace, even if it is to be done by amending the UN Charter. The Charter expressly provides for considering its amendment to keep abreast of international relations. As a matter of fact, consideration of amendments had already been included in the agenda of the General Assembly in 1955, the five great powers, however, have succeeded in stalling it thus far because they know well that if the Charter is amended, it will lead to erosion of their veto power.
It is also important to note here that the Charter was drafted before the nuclear age began, which means that after the use of nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the Council should have exercised the powers agreed upon in the Charter in the pre-nuclear era with regard to creating a credible disarmament system.
The Security Council, however, refrained from assuming this responsibility and left the matter to the General Assembly, which does not have the same powers. The General Assembly has indeed been active within its responsibilities and concluded under its auspices the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which was meant to be universal.
As Article 7 of the Treaty states that a number of countries can add other commitments, the countries of Latin America established a nuclear-weapon-free zone in Latin America. Africa also succeeded in establishing an African zone free from nuclear weapons in 1996. Despite numerous resolutions, the establishment of a similar zone in the Middle East has been impeded by Israel.
After the Second World War, the victorious states prevailed and established a new international order the faithful implementation of which could have guaranteed a future free of destructive wars. The threat in the current phase in international relations is not only conventional wars between states, but wars within states that turn into proxy wars, as we witness in Syria, or the spread of terrorist attacks. These must be brought to an end by the Security Council taking the appropriate collective measures as the UN Charter ordains.
The current chaos in some parts of the world, especially in the Arab region, demonstrate that reforming the UN is necessary in order to respond to the repercussions of world developments in the past seven decades. Our modern world is in desperate need of its humanity. This can be achieved by agreeing on a collective security system that has teeth and can impose peace and bring an end to the massacres and atrocities still being committed, as agreed upon at the San Francisco Conference in 1945.
We must face the truth and acknowledge that the Security Council cannot carry out these responsibilities in the light of the legal framework that determines the course of its work. Therefore, we must strive to change the rules of the game in the Council.