To paraphrase the beginning of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: all effective structures are alike; each ineffective structure is ineffective in its own way. The problems with the effectiveness of the UN Security Council are in many ways unique, as unique as the body itself. In recent years, only the laziest have failed to reproach the Security Council for dragging its feet, acting irresponsibly, getting bogged down in political infighting and pointless rhetoric, and being unwilling or unable to agree on the most pressing crisis situations, from Syria and Ukraine to Palestine and Myanmar.
For all its diversity, criticism of the Security Council has two main points. The first point is related to the composition of the Council itself, and the second is connected to the procedures of its operation. The current choices for the Security Council’s permanent members, or Big Five, are questionable to say the least. China is represented, but India is absent. France and the United Kingdom are present, but Germany or the European Union as a whole are not. Neither Africa nor the Middle East nor Latin America are represented. As for procedures, the primary bone of contention is the veto enjoyed by the five permanent members, which allows any of the Big Five to block any and all decisions that fail to please them.
It is clear that the first of the two problems looks more interesting, though the second one is of more importance. The prospect of expanding the Security Council promises a great deal of diplomatic scheming, behind-the-scenes negotiations and cunning subterfuge. However, as long as the right of veto remains, and as long as the obvious differences in the viewpoints of the permanent members regarding fundamental international problems persist, extending membership of the Security Council – regardless of which countries are let in – will make very little difference. On the contrary, “democratization” under the same old procedures will only serve to further complicate the possibility of ever reaching any agreement.
It is worth remembering that the constant abuse of a similar, albeit much more democratic principle of liberum veto (free veto) in the Sejm of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth eventually led to the irreversible decline and subsequent partition of one of the most powerful states in medieval Europe. Unfortunately, in recent years, the right of veto has been used more and more actively by some members of the Security Council. And it is Moscow that has set the tone. In the past two years alone, the Russian Federation has used its veto power nine times in connection with the Security Council’s examining the situation in the Middle East.
The struggle against the veto power of the permanent members of the Security Council has been going on for a very long time, without much chance of success. More than anything, it is a question of status, especially for those members whose position in world politics and whose economies are on the decline. To deprive them of their special status would be to inflict a crushing blow to national pride, to reduce them to the level of “ordinary” countries, and to forget their role in the creation of the United Nations. To be fair, let us recall that the permanent members of the Security Council are still the UN’s primary donors, accounting for more than 42 per cent of the organization’s total budget.
Besides status, however, the right of veto is also a question of practical national interests. For all their differences, each of the members of the Big Five values their sovereignty and would not like anyone, including the United Nations, to interfere in it. The Big Three of Russia, China and the United States are particularly critical of this issue. And the veto provides almost absolute guarantee of sovereignty to the select few.
So what should be done? Actually, the international community has little choice. You can do things the nice way, or you can do things the hard way. Doing things the hard way would mean commencing the procedure for a radical revision of the UN Charter so that a significant part of the Security Council’s authority would be transferred to the General Assembly. At the same time, you could get rid of the veto. In theory, such a procedure is provided for by the Charter itself: Article 109 allows for a United Nations General Conference to be held for this purpose with the support of two thirds of the members of the General Assembly and any nine members of the Security Council.
This is a rare case when the veto right of the permanent members of the Security Council is not valid. This procedure for the revision of the UN Charter has thus far never been implemented. And this is no coincidence, as it contains serious risks for the United Nations as a whole. Everyone understands that while it might be possible to take apart the complicated machine that is the UN, putting it back together again would be another thing entirely.
Doing things the nice way would mean convincing the permanent members of the Security Council of the need to take “voluntary” restrictions upon themselves in the use of the veto. There has been an active Code of Conduct campaign behind the scenes at the General Assembly for several years now that is designed to exert moral pressure on the permanent members of the UN Security Council to at least not to block those resolutions related to crimes against humanity and genocide. Strangely enough, the campaign was initiated by France, which is itself a permanent member of the Security Council. Presently, more than half of the UN’s members have joined the campaign. However, Russia, the United States and China, in a rare display of solidarity, refuse even to discuss such a possibility. The logic of the Big Three is understandable: start with voluntary restrictions and you can end up with an actual withdrawal of the veto power as a whole.
A multitude of other options exist to reduce the dependence of the practical work of the UN on the veto power of the permanent members of the Security Council. Some suggest extending the powers of the UN Secretary General. Others talk of resurrecting the now dormant Military Staff Committee. And still others believe that the solution to the problem lies in the transition to “subsidiary” peace-making by having the United Nations transfer a number of important functions in this area to “authorized” regional organizations. In any case, in order for these or other similar proposals to be implemented, a consensus is needed among the Big Five, something that is sorely lacking at present.
However, try as you might, the end will always come. The current situation in the UN Security Council should not be considered normal. It is difficult to believe that this abnormal situation can last indefinitely. In failing to resolve critical regional and global crises, the Security Council suffers serious damage to its reputation, damage that extends to the United Nations as a whole. This is not even the point; more importantly, the chronic paralysis of the Security Council reinforces and justifies the temptation to bypass the UN Security Council and sometimes circumvent the modern system of international law in general. For now, actions bypassing the Security Council are still perceived as the exception, but they could soon become the rule. For now, they are frowned upon, but soon they could become the norm.
Historical – and even everyday – experience suggests that those not willing to sacrifice a part risk losing the whole. Unfortunately, the United Nations is not at all immune to the fate of its predecessor, the League of Nations, which left the political scene quietly in the late 1930s, at the precise moment that international efforts to prevent a new world war were needed most.
To return once again to Leo Tolstoy, this time to one of his children’s fables: “A monkey was carrying two handfuls of peas. One little pea fell out. He tried to pick it up and spilled twenty. He tried to pick up the twenty and spilled them all. Then he lost his temper, scattered the peas in all directions and ran away.” The permanent members of the UN Security Council are still in the second stage – twenty peas have already been spilled. Will it reach the third stage?
Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC).
Andrey Kortunov graduated from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) in 1979 and completed his postgraduate studies at the Institute for U.S. and Canada Studies of the USSR Academy of Sciences in 1982. He holds a PhD in History. Dr Kortunov completed internships at the Soviet embassies in London and Washington, and at the Permanent Delegation of the USSR to the UN.
In 1982–1995, Dr Kortunov held various positions in the Institute for U.S. and Canada Studies, including Deputy Director. He taught at universities around the world, including the University of California, Berkeley. In addition, he led several public organizations involved in higher education, social sciences and social development, such as the Moscow Public Science Foundation (1993–2001); the Information, Scholarship, Education Center (2002–2017); and the New Eurasia Foundation, (2004–2017). Dr Kortunov has been the President of the New Development Technologies Autonomous Non-profit Organization since 2015.
Since 2011, Andrey Kortunov has been the Director General of RIAC. He is a member of expert and supervisory committees and boards of trustees of several Russian and international organizations. His academic interests include contemporary international relations and Russian foreign policy.