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United Nations Security Council: Friend or Foe?

23 Jun 2017
By Kendall Galbraith
United Nations Security Council

As the world looks to the United Nations Security Council to help resolve mounting global issues, achieving consensus among the world’s major powers appears increasingly difficult. Has the Security Council passed its use-by date?

The shortcomings of the UN Security Council (UNSC) are front and centre for all to see. With no global police to enforce the UN laws and treaties, the world’s most powerful states are governing by their own rules and without consequences.

Deliberate breaches of international law and the calculated use of veto rights may ultimately bring the function of the UNSC to a dramatic halt in the near future. With North Korea flexing its nuclear muscle and Russia staring down the face of a rookie United States administration, the inadequacies of the UNSC may demonstrate that it is either the world’s friend or its foe.

The UNSC framework is conducive to many of the member state’s interests. There have been hundreds of resolutions considered and actioned over the past 70 years, however, the limitations of the UNSC are evident in the ongoing Syrian war. The inability of the UNSC to resolve the six year conflict in the face of shocking violence and horrific atrocities, or even attain some level of consensus, calls into question the future reliability of the framework and its ability to maintain world peace.

For the most part, this is not due to a lack of will, or determination or even genuine sympathy for the Syrian people on the part of the UNSC member states, but due to the weak constitution that only allows for the opinions of the UNSC’s five permanent member states, out of a total of 193 UN member states, to determine the course of action.

The UNSC is proving to be little more than political theatre. With regard to Syria and the United Nations Charter that commits to finding “any threat to the peace, breach of peace, or act of aggression”,  the UNSC’s five permanent members–France, Russia, China, United States and United Kingdom–cannot collectively agree. Without a unanimous vote there can be no resolution.

Historically, it is apparent that the UNSC significantly lacks the power to fully enforce international law as was originally intended. How can the UNSC remain relevant in international law if it can be repeatedly and flagrantly ignored at the highest level of international engagement?

The answer is ‘indeterminacy’. Lawyers seek legal positivism by creating an argument that draws on the sources within the international framework. They pursue justifiable opportunities to counter existing laws on the grounds of morality, economics or politics. Such was the case for the US invasion of Iraq. Many international lawyers claimed that the use of force in Iraq was illegal, however there were just as many who disagreed.

In contrast, President Barack Obama toed the international law line when responding to the 2013 Syrian chemical attack, by pursuing a non-military strategy against the Assad regime. He has since received strong criticism for this and it has been suggested that the last chemical attack may not have happened if, instead, Obama had acted with lethal force. It would seem that either abiding by international law or dismissing it is only a relative concept among the UNSC permanent members.

When there is no unanimous vote in the UNSC, states look inward and pursue their own course of action and, as history has shown, the use of force may be exercised illegally. For Iraq in 2003, the use of force by the US started an illegal invasion and war of aggression. Some argue that when states take independent action, it is a difficult but necessary decision to reduce the threat and inch closer towards global peace. Such arguments were employed for the recent US strike against Syria.

If states can act unilaterally whenever they please, then perhaps the UNSC’s structure is failing on a systemic level and needs redressing. Changing the system has previously been discussed. To achieve this it is presumed all five permanent members must agree to relinquish their veto rights, and the defence of their interests on the world stage. From a classical realist perspective, the reality of a unanimous vote to relinquish such power seems unlikely, now and in the future.

Absent reality, what would mitigate the UNSC’s flaws? Perhaps if its five permanent member states were governed by like-minded world leaders change would be unnecessary? But that would also require an environment where states act favorably towards each other at any given time and this is a utopian concept.

Could the UNSC include more members, offering a diversity of influence and opinions? This would be a positive step regardless, considering sizable states such as those in Africa, South America and South Asia are not currently represented. But it would not alter the current issue of political agendas being pursued over preferences for peace. If anything, it may only further complicate peace efforts.

Perhaps the UNSC demands a recusal from states where a conflict of interest has been determined to exist? But in a globalised world where such interests could be economic, historical, cultural, religious, trade- or resource-focussed, and more, the UNSC could find conflicts of interest applicable to all its members.

What about replacing the UNSC votes with a quasi-domestic legal framework? Illegal actions would then have set responses enforceable by a ‘global police’. But in the absence of major power membership to vote on and determine action, the UNSC would cease to have the sufficient political will of its major members for effective enforcement.

Improving the UNSC framework is complex and unlikely to change in the present landscape. Nevertheless, its corrosive attributes have put it on a dangerous trajectory towards obsolescence. It means the unilateral use of force may become a regular feature of our future and securing peace may become just a byproduct of environmental and social chance.

Kendall Galbraith is a research analyst and writer for the Global Issues Practice Centre at Edith Cowan University. Kendall has an undergraduate degree in international relations from Curtin University and is studying for a masters in counter terrorism and security studies at Charles Sturt University.

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