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Risks of failing to reform the UNSC

June 12th, 2015

By Michelle McKenna – Senior Fellow

The Security Council is becoming increasingly illegitimate and unrepresentative of world affairs and needs to be reformed accordingly. The Security Council is seen as the leading authority for peace and security matters in the world due to its status in the universal organisation that is the United Nations, but the power struggle within the P5 is consistently undermining this authority and there is a risk that if reform does not come soon then the Security Council will go down the same ill-fated path as its predecessor at the League of Nations.

As recent history has shown, the Security Council is governed by the political will of the 5 permanent members. The Council cannot take any decisive action if it clashes with the interests of one of the P5, which has led the UN to be noticeably absent from many conflicts. Indecision and lack of consensus in the Council led to failures to prevent genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica; NATO to undertake its own intervention in Kosovo, arguably breaking international law; and most recently, total inaction in the ongoing crisis in Syria.

The current conflict in Syria particularly highlights many of the failings of the Security Council and demonstrates what will happen if the Council fails to reform. The Security Council is dominated by 3 power hungry states that refuse to authorise action if it clashes with their self-determined interests. In particular, Russian ties with the Assad government have resulted in the Council being unable to take any action in Syria, despite it being the gravest civil war of our time and the exact type of situation that the Council is supposed to act upon. If the veto power continues unabated, situations such as this will continue to occur and will constantly erode the stability of international security. International law is continually being violated in the conflict in Syria, but there are no repercussions for this as long as Russia maintains its position and veto power.

When the Security Council fails to take action, this leads to other organisations or coalitions of states taking action themselves, potentially in direct violation of international law. As the Security Council becomes increasingly more deadlocked, states will turn to organisations such as NATO, the AU, the Arab League, or even the EU, which is stepping up its defensive capacities, to undertake peacekeeping missions or even more robust actions.[1] This undermines both the power of the Security Council and international law, as these actions may not comply with the law on the use of force stricto senso; however, this could lead to new, more effective law developing so isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The G20 has great potential to increase its power at the expense of the Security Council over the coming years.[2] With States such as India, South Africa and Brazil being denied a permanent seat on the Council, they could turn to the G20 and focus their energies there instead. If the G20 takes on more political responsibility, rather than economic, then this is concerning as it is not bound by the same constraints as the UN Charter. This risks making the world more unstable as the G20 is only constrained by its own self-restraint. If the power of the Security Council is eroded by these developments then it may loose its privileged position to make these important decisions and that has the potential to destabilise international security as more players come into the field. At present, all states are bound by the same rules under the UN Charter and that brings a degree of predictability and stability in world affairs as states have an interest in complying with these rules; however, if the Security Council, and the wider UN in general becomes less relevant then states will increasingly turn to their regional organisations, providing different rules and accountability mechanisms and the world will become fragmented once again.

This fragmentation could result in a complete destruction of the UN as a universal body. Whilst this is a worst-case scenario, it is not unprecedented as it happened with the League of Nations. A West vs. East split has always plagued the UN, which has become increasingly more obvious again since the Syria conflict began. The opposition between the US and Russia completely froze the Security Council during the Cold War and if this was to happen again then it would undoubtedly lead to the demise of the organ. In addition to being under the spotlight for its opposition to intervention in Syria, Russia has come under intense criticism for its involvement in the crisis in Crimea. This again highlights the inadequacy of the Security Council as Russia is involved in ongoing international law violations in the peninsula, but the Council cannot take any action on this due to Russia having the power to veto it. The NATO Deputy Secretary General has said that the situation in Ukraine is completely undermining the post-war security system.[3] The Security Council is supposed to be the protector of international security, but its focus on state sovereignty rather than protecting individuals victimised in these situations means it is unable to fulfil its mandate. Several countries and organisations have served economic sanctions on Russia in response to the Crimea crisis, but due to the intertwined nature of the world economy, this has the potential to do more harm to those giving the sanctions rather than the recipients.[4] This demonstrates why the Security Council has to be strong in responding to violations of international law as it is the only body that has the power and legitimacy to tackle these problems.

In addition to the East-West split within the UN, there is increasingly becoming a split with the global South as well. Emerging and developing states are underrepresented at the UN and are increasingly becoming discouraged by what they see as Western dominance.[5] If this trend continues through a lack of reform (i.e. enlargement) at the Council then these states will increasingly turn away from the UN in favour of their regional bodies and the UN is therefore at risk of losing its universal membership. Universal membership is what gives the UN the legitimacy its currently holds, but if states increasingly turn to other actors then it will lose this legitimacy to uphold international law.

The Security Council was once seen as the best protector of human rights, but this is no longer the case. Inaction by the Council leads to gross human rights violations occurring or continuing and this is increasingly undermining its credibility to deal with violations. If states are continually allowed to violate human rights and the Security Council fails to do anything about it due to its structural inadequacy, then as well as ruining the credibility of the Council, this risks undermining the whole human rights system. Even other bodies within the UN that were created specifically to tackle human rights issues suffer from many of the same deficiencies of the Security Council. The Human Rights Council, the successor to the ill-fated Commission, remains a highly political organ with powerful states being able to shield their own human rights abuses from spotlight. With China and Russia constantly being criticised for their human rights records, but still occupying a privileged position within the Security Council, the body cannot legitimately criticise other states for not respecting human rights. The fact that two members of the Security Council continually undermine human rights domestically, but the Council cannot do anything about this demonstrates why other states are frustrated with the body. The allocation of power within the Security Council allows other states to be judged, but not the permanent members and this allows them to carry on violating human rights or international law with impunity. Regional mechanisms are now much better equipped to deal with human rights violations, which is provided for in the Charter,[6] but highlights an area where states are already turning away from the Security Council and the UN to rely on other bodies. This trend is likely to continue if the Council fails to reform.

At the 2005 World Summit, the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect was enshrined, which aims to put the needs of individuals above those of states who are not protecting them. It puts an onus on the international community, and in particular the Security Council, to take action when genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity or war crimes are occurring and the state fails to do anything about it. Whilst this was a major step forward in putting human security and human rights in the spotlight, it has failed to achieve its aim thus far. R2P is still dependent on the Security Council authorising action, thus is placed at the mercy of the P5. To date, only action in Libya and Côte d’Ivoire has been taken under the auspices of R2P and despite the situation in Syria being notably worse than both of these conflicts, the Council has still not taken action through R2P. This severely undermines the Council as the political concerns of the P5 can still override R2P[7] and the doctrine will ultimately fail unless the Council reforms to adopt the ‘Responsibility Not To Veto’ idea in conjunction with R2P. This unwillingness of the P5 to embrace R2P demonstrates the inadequacy of the Council as it still maintains state rights over individual rights and illustrates why the international community is gradually losing faith in it.

If the Security Council fails to reform in such a way that these issues are addressed, it is ultimately doomed to fail. The Council is supposed to be the great protector of international peace and security, but often due to deadlock actually contributes to increasing destabilisation and prolongs atrocities. If this continues to happen then this will ultimately undermine international law, as there will be few repercussions for it not being respected. The inadequacies of the Security Council will lead states to turn away from the UN to regional organisations and this will lead to world affairs becoming increasingly unstable as interstate relations will become less predictable and the interconnectedness of state security within the UN system will become broken down. It is no longer legitimate for the P5 to hold onto their power at the expense of protecting human lives and if the Security Council fails to reform to reflect the shift towards human security instead of state security, then the Council will lose its credibility and legitimacy and will essentially become redundant.

[1] https://www.opendemocracy.net/opensecurity/sonia-rothwell/security-council-reform-why-it-matters-and-why-its-not-happening

[2] https://www.carnegiecouncil.org/publications/journal/25_4/essay/001.html/:pf_printable

[3] http://pasos.org/12232/nato-deputy-secretary-general-warns-that-russian-actions-in-crimea-undermine-international-security-system-video/


[5] https://www.opendemocracy.net/article/united-nations-in-trouble-time-for-another-san-francisco

[6] http://www.cfr.org/human-rights/global-human-rights-regime/p27450

[7] ibid

About Michelle McKenna

Michelle is a Senior Fellow at the HSC. Her research interests include military interventions in the Middle East and Africa, international development and the plight of small island states against climate change. She completed her final year thesis on the Responsibility to Protect in the context of the Libya conflict.