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Reassessing the Role of the UN Security Council

19 May 2020
By Rebecca Barber
The United Nations security council. Source: Mark Garten/UN Photo

Critical to the UN Security Council’s survival over the past 75 years has been the permanent members’ right of veto.   However, this power often stymies the Security Council’s ability to intervene on behalf of civilians in need.

Earlier this month, the Security Council held a high-level meeting to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II.  The UN itself was established shortly after the end of the war, and the meeting was promisingly titled “lessons learned for preventing future atrocities, responsibility of the Security Council.” The meeting was timely. In recent years, conflict has reached a peak not seen since the mid-1990s.  Many of today’s wars are characterised by large-scale human rights violations, and civilians suffer the cost.

The war in Syria has killed more than half a million people and forced more than ten million from their homes.  More than 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict in Yemen, which has so completely decimated public infrastructure and services that 80 percent of the population rely on humanitarian assistance.  The Myanmar military’s ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya in 2017 forced more than 700,000 to flee to Bangladesh, and the International Court of Justice has said that those still in Myanmar face a “real and imminent risk” of genocide.

The Security Council is responsible for maintaining international peace and security.  But in these and other crises, it has proven unable to effectively address the conflicts’ humanitarian impacts, let alone secure a lasting peace between the warring parties or hold perpetrators to account.

The UN was established following the failure of its predecessor, the League of Nations, to avert WWII.  The League of Nations failed in part because, by the end, none of the major powers – including Germany, the US, and the USSR – were members.  Those charged with building a new international organisation understood that the body tasked with maintaining international peace and security would need to involve the major powers: then the US, Russia, China, France, and the UK.  Their permanent membership in the Security Council was assured with a promise of the right of veto.

Seventy-five years on, the “lesson learned” is that this right of veto prevents the Security Council from taking meaningful action in just about any conflict involving an ally of one of the permanent members.

Russia has vetoed 14 Security Council resolutions on the Syrian conflict, including some aimed exclusively at mitigating the conflict’s humanitarian impact.  Last year, Russia vetoed a resolution that would have allowed aid agencies to enter northeast Syria from Iraq – without the Syrian Government’s permission – to provide humanitarian assistance.  The Syrian government opposes the use of the border crossing from Iraq, and Russia said that disregarding Syria’s opposition would be to disrespect its sovereignty.  The resulting closure of the Iraqi border has prevented agencies working in northeast Syria from adequately preparing for COVID-19.  Last week, NGOs released a statement saying “it is a tragic reality that the biggest impact of the restriction on access to northeast Syria … has been on the delivery of healthcare services and the delivery of medical supplies,” and urging the Security Council to immediately re-authorise the delivery of humanitarian assistance from Iraq.

On Myanmar, the Security Council has been called upon to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court, adopt sanctions, and impose an arms embargo.  It’s been unable to do any of these things due to Chinese and Russian opposition.

On Yemen, the Council has imposed sanctions against individuals aligned with the Houthi rebels.  But it hasn’t directed a word of complaint against the Saudi-led coalition, who in support of the Yemeni government, have engaged in an aerial bombing campaign responsible for by far the most civilian casualties in the conflict so far.  Nor has it said anything about the Western states supplying the Saudi-led coalition with arms.

The Security Council Vice-President said in the meeting earlier this month that the Council should use the 75th anniversary to “draw the right lessons, prevent future atrocities and protect human life and dignity.”  It was a noble ambition, but the statements made by representatives at the meeting were noncommittal.

If the Security Council really wants to use the 75th anniversary of both the end of WWII and its own existence to draw lessons, prevent future atrocities, and protect human life and dignity, here are three examples of things it could usefully do right now.

On Syria, it could pass a resolution allowing aid agencies to provide humanitarian assistance in northeast Syria by crossing over from Iraq.  This would allow the WHO to fund and equip humanitarian agencies working to support the decimated healthcare system, putting them in a much better position to respond to COVID-19.

On Yemen, the Security Council could call upon the Saudi-led coalition to stop bombing civilians.  It could also call upon states to stop selling arms to members of the Saudi-led coalition, or even impose an arms embargo.

And on Myanmar, the Security Council could refer the alleged genocide to the International Criminal Court and impose targeted sanctions and an arms embargo against the suspected perpetrators.

As a way of marking the 75th anniversary of WWII, holding a meeting on atrocity prevention and the responsibility of the Security Council was a good start.  What really needs to change, though, is for the members of the Security Council to summon the courage to pay marginally less deference to political allegiances, and show a greater commitment to preventing atrocities, alleviating the humanitarian impact of conflicts, and hold perpetrators of atrocities to account.

Rebecca Barber is a PhD candidate with the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and the TC Beirne School of Law, University of Queensland.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.