The UN Security Council: Syria and the need for reform

As day after day the situation in Syria gets worse, the startling inadequacies of the United Nations Security Council are laid bare for all to see. Any attempt by the ‘international community’ (read:the West) to do anything is blocked by Russian and Chinese vetoes that ensure that more Syrians are slaughtered by both pro- and anti- Assad forces. It is not an exaggeration to say that both the Russian and Chinese governments have blood on their hands, but part of the blame must be accepted by the UK, the US and France for opposing what has been necessary since the end of the Cold War – a radical reform of the UN Security Council.

Through a realist perspective, it is not surprising that all members of the P5 – that is, those who have a permanent position on the UN Security Council and hold veto powers – resist reform. Why would any state rationally give up power and influence on the world stage? In the tough world of international politics any moral idea of ‘one state one vote’ goes out the window due to personal power considerations, resulting in a situation where some states are more equal than others. However, from a practical angle the current Security Council fails to meet its Article 24 obligations, which sets up the organ to achieve the following outcome;

  1. In order to ensure prompt and effective action by the United Nations, its Members confer on the Security Council primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, and agree that in carrying out its duties under this responsibility the Security Council acts on their behalf.
The situation in Syria is far from peaceful or secure, due to of mass migration flows into neighbouring countries and the recent squabble with Turkey over the fate of a Turkish aircraft, as well as the massive threats to human security faced by forced disappearances, torture and (obviously) murder. Indeed, this is just one example of the use of vetoing to stall necessary action, which has presented itself as the main issue that must be tackled in any significant conversation over UN reform.
Whilst the obvious and easiest solution would be to remove the veto power of the P5, this is as likely to happen than ChairmanDavey not referring to himself in the third person. The workable solution requires the often overlooked General Assembly of the UN, a chamber consisting of each UN member state, to be empowered to deal with situations when there is deadlock in the Security Council or ideally replace the Security Council all together. This would have numerous benefits, including;
  1. The UN would become a more representative body, giving numerous states that have previously never had a method of participating in real global governance a voice, as well as ending the idea that the UN is nothing more than a body aimed at projecting US/Western ideas onto the rest of the world. With the majority of states and population belonging to the ‘global south’ less developed countries, a greater weight would be given to issues that may have previously been ignored.
  2. Through increased participation and input by a greater number of states there would be an increased legitimacy to UN sanctions actions, passed by a global majority rather than the closed group that makes up the Security Council. It would also allow a plurality of views to be expressed and debate to flourish in the open, as opposed to the closed nature of the Security Council.
  3. Increased participation could increase funding for the chronically underfunded body – if the idea of ‘no taxation without representation’ is turned on its head – states would feel better about paying for a body they are active in and can influence. A larger amount of states funding the UN would reduce the body’s reliance on the US and thus, paradoxically, increasing the amount of states the UN depends upon would increase its independence, since one country (the US) couldn’t threaten it with a withdrawal of funding for certain operations.
  4. The range of threats to human security tackled by the UN would be expanded, as new countries would be open to more diplomatic pressure from UN organs – the US, Russia and China as obvious examples – who currently hold too much power, are unaccountable globally for their actions and yet expect others to act as they command.

Of course, there are technical issues surrounding the role of small states – in fact, a majority opinion could be formed that represents just 8% of the global population – but this could be easily sorted by providing a minimum population threshold (although this idea itself has its own flaws, since it would allow certain states such as China and India, with 19% and 17% of world population respectively, to dominate the General Assembly. Furthermore, it could hypothetically allow 7 states to pass a resolution (China, India, US, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan and Nigeria) since they hold over 50% of the world population against the wishes of the remaining 185 states) or some form of weighted vote. However, the aforementioned benefits would far outweigh technicalities which could be sorted through interstate debate.

Interestingly, the proposed changes aren’t even that radical. In 1950, the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 337 A (known as ‘Uniting for Peace’) that gave the Assembly the power to consider action in cases where the Security Council failed to do so.

Resolves that if the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in any case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression, the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately with a view to making appropriate recommendations to Members for collective measures, including in the case of a breach of the peace or act of aggression the use of armed force when necessary, to maintain or restore international peace and security

As such, ChairmanDavey isn’t calling for anything new. He would like to see (in addition to a One Direction sex tape) the General Assembly utilising 337 A/Uniting for Peace in a much more activist manner. Even the threat of the use of UoP would probably scare Russia and China into acting in a more considerate nature towards citizens across the world and would provide a more powerful stick for the P5 to recognise international opinion/outrage than any carrot ever could achieve. To quote Uncle Ben (no, not that bloke who makes rice), ‘with great power comes great responsibility’, and it is about time that members of the Security Council step up and act when the occasion demands (as it did in Libya), or face the long term consequences of increasing calls for reform.

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