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The P-5 Veto Requires Reform

By: Bryan Reines

The United Nations’ stated goal is to prevent war, advocate for human rights, create a climate of justice, raise the standard of living, and promote international cooperation. [1] The U.N.’s effectiveness peaked between 1987 and 1991, where the international organization played a key role in easing conflict in Afghanistan, Namibia, Lebanon, and Cambodia. [2]  However, in recent years we have witnessed a decrease in the effectiveness of the U.N.  As early as 1994, Giandomenico Picca, the U.N. Assistant Secretary for General Political Affairs, warned that if the U.N. continued to lose credibility and not be reformed, the organization “will become no more than the sum of its members.” [3]  Recent failures of the U.N. suggest that Mr. Picca’s prophecy has been realized.  The United Nations now more than ever should be considered a relic of the post-World War II political climate, inept at solving the biggest crises of our era, and in desperate need of reform.

To be sure, criticism of the United Nations is neither new nor unsupported.  During the Cold War the U.N. was consistently used as a political tool for the major powers.  Even in its earliest days, the United Nations Security Council was paralyzed by the veto power of its permanent five members (P-5). [4] In fact the U.N.’s first forceful action, in Korea, was the result of the United States pushing a resolution while the Soviets boycotted Taiwan’s representation. [5] Historians and political scientists often critique the U.N.’s post-Cold War record as well.  They point to colossal failures, like the inability of peacekeepers to halt the genocide in Rwanda, despite a presence in the country, and the embarrassing episode where U.N. peacekeepers were kidnapped and held hostage in Serbia. [6] It has been two decades since these disasters fueled debates concerning the effectiveness of the U.N., and since then things are only getting worse. Across the world, people are afflicted by state-sponsored aggression, and the U.N. stands on the sidelines watching.  Not only has the U.N. proved impotent at curbing Russian aggression in Ukraine, but also it has failed to halt the human rights violations amounting to cultural genocide taking place in the Tibetan plateau or to help resolve China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors in the South China Sea. [7] Moreover, the U.N. has both failed to stop Hamas from using the U.N.’s own resources to further attacks on Israeli citizens and respond to Israel’s bombings that violate the international doctrine of proportionality. [8] Surely, the UN suffers from many ailments, like the lack of a well-trained and cohesive fighting force. but one problem towers above the rest: the veto power of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). [9]

The very circumstances of the U.N.’s birth contribute to the organization’s inability to alleviate global political problems.  Since its inception in 1945, the basic structure of the United Nations has not changed.  The most dominant world powers at the end of World War II, the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, China, and France, continue to monopolize the UN’s power, despite two seat changes following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the rise of the Chinese Communist Party.  These five states make up one third of the United Nation Security Council, but more importantly all have the privilege of an unlimited and fatal veto power, designed to maintain the status quo. [10] This structural inequality not only fails to afford adequate representation to African and Latin American countries, it also halts action on a number of issues ranging from human rights violations to territorial aggression.  For example, both China and Russia, acting in their own self-interest, have used this veto power to block resolutions aimed at curbing war crimes in Syria. [11]

The mere existence of this veto power limits the effectiveness of the UN and has been the subject of constant criticism since the U.N’s inception.  Ban-Ki Moon, the UN Secretary General, has acknowledged that UNSC reforms are “long overdue” and Joseph Deiss, the former president of the United Nations General Assembly, declared in 2001 that the UN would quickly lose its credibility without reform. [12] However, a real reformation of the P-5’s veto power is so far away and spoken about in such vague terms, it is difficult to understand what it would entail. [13] In recent days French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has taken different  approach to U.N reform, urging the P5 to create an informal agreement not to veto resolutions that attempt to address “mass crimes.” [14]

However, Russia and China seem unlikely to take these proposals seriously.  Before 2013, Russia  had used its veto 128 times, nearly half of all vetoes (this figure includes vetoes by the USSR, Russia’s predecessor state). [15]  Although France and the United Kingdom had used their veto power relatively sparingly, 18 times and 32 times respectively, the United States appears as unlikely as Russia to enter into any such informal agreement. [16] The U.S. has repeatedly (over forty times) used its veto to protect its own self-interest in the Middle East, blocking over forty proposals regarding Israel’s behavior. [17]

In a climate where even an informal agreement not to veto resolutions concerning humanitarian crises cannot be attained, structural reform of the U.N. seems impossible.  A massive reform of the U.N. would require formal changes to the U.N. charter, which is impossible without the consent of the permanent five members.  Without this consent, which is realistically impossible in the foreseeable future, the U.N. will remain inept at solving world problems.  The P-5 will maintain their stranglehold over the U.N., blocking all resolutions threatening their self-interest, and therefore furthering global instability. 

Surely, the U.N. has not been completely incompetent, but by its own lofty standards, success has not been realized. On the heels of World War II, the world’s most powerful states coalesced around the idea that a force stronger than the League of Nations was needed to preside over international anarchy.. [18]  In Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address, he impelled creation of the U.N. by articulating four freedoms that all persons are entitled to: the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear. [19] We need not wait for another global crisis before once again deciding that a stronger international presence is needed to keep states in line. The non-P-5 members of the United Nations must refuse to play ball with the world’s superpowers, take a firm stance regarding veto reform, and restore what is left of the U.N.’s effectiveness. 

Bryan Reines is a junior majoring in political science and philosophy. He's interested in law, international relations, and Sino-Tibetan relations. He hopes to teach English after college and plans to go to law school.

 


[1] "Charter, United Nations, Preamble." UN News Center. June 26, 1945. Accessed September 30, 2014.

[2] Picca, Giandomenico. "The U.N. and the Use of Force." Global. September 1, 1994. Accessed October 12, 2014.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Hardwick, Nicola-Ann. "The UN during the Cold War:." EInternational Relations. June 10, 2011. Accessed October 12, 2014.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sudetic, Chuck. "CONFLICT IN THE BALKANS: THE HOSTAGES; Bosnian Serbs Set Free 43 U.N. Troops Held Hostage." The New York Times. December 1, 1994. Accessed September 30, 2014.

[7] "China Defends Land Reclamation Move." BBC News. September 10, 2014. Accessed September 30, 2014.

[8] Sherwood, Harriet. "UN Dragged into Conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza." The Guardian. August 4, 2014. Accessed September 30, 2014.

[9] "Criticism Grows over United Nations' Peacekeeping Concept | World | DW.DE | 19.08.2009." DW. August 19, 2009. Accessed September 30, 2014.

[10] Hardwick, Nicola-Ann. "The UN during the Cold War:." EInternational Relations. June 10, 2011. Accessed October 12, 2014.

[11] "UN: Russian and Chinese Vetoes of Syria ICC Resolution ‘callous’." May 22, 2014. Accessed September 30, 2014.

[12] Sharma, Betwa. "UNSC Reform Is Too Long Overdue: Ban Ki-Moon." Outlook. June 22, 2011. Accessed September 30, 2014.

[13] Kronisch, Myron. "United Nations Must Reform Impotent Security Council: Opinion." NJ.com. June 2, 2014. Accessed October 12, 2014.

[14] "FMs Urge UN Security Council to Avoid Using Veto Power in Atrocities." PanARMENIAN.Net. September 26, 2014. Accessed September 30, 2014.

[15] "Changing Patterns in the Use of the Veto in The Security Council." Globalpolicy.org. Accessed October 12, 2014.

[16] "Changing Patterns in the Use of the Veto in The Security Council." Globalpolicy.org. Accessed October 12, 2014.

[17] "U.N. Security Council: U.S. Vetoes of Resolutions Critical to Israel." Jewish Virtual Library. Accessed September 30, 2014.

[18] "Charter, United Nations, Preamble." UN News Center. June 26, 1945. Accessed September 30, 2014.

[19] Roosevelt, Franklin D. "Annual Message to Congress on the State of the Union." Fdrlibrary.edu. January 6, 1941. Accessed October 12, 2014.

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