Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The U.N. Security Council: Finding Ways of Reform Forward

By Jeanne Choquehuanca, UNA-NCA Fellow

Formed after World War II, the United Nations Security Council gave permanent membership to the Allied Powers of the U.S., Russia (formerly U.S.S.R.), China, the U.K., and France. The permanent membership of these five nation states (P5) has given them several special privileges, such as the ability to possess nuclear weapons, significant influence over other member states, and the power to veto any resolution put forward to the 15-member Security Council. This last privilege is increasingly controversial, because it has often enabled a single P5 member state to effectively disable the majority will to act on issues at hand. For instance, many have pointed to Russia’s blanket use of its veto as debilitating the Security Council from effective intervention in Syria and ultimately enabling greater escalation of the humanitarian crisis there.  

The makeup of the Security Council, and P5 in particular, has also come under scrutiny given its poor global representation and tendency to aggravate the global north-south divide. While the current makeup of the P5 is premised on those countries’ regional prowess and assumed greater capacity and willingness to contribute the maintenance of international peace and security, this capacity and will has nonetheless been undercut by perceived conflicts of national interest and foreign policy. Such conflicts have frequently paralyzed the Security Council and wider U.N.’s ability to act effectively on important issues. Overall U.N. action on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, has been constrained by the U.S.’s historically unwavering defense of Israeli interests. Since 1946, the U.S. has vetoed more than 30 resolutions related to quelling military aggressions, several calling on Israel to halt military operations in Palestinian occupied territories. This, in part, is what made the Security Council’s recent passing of Resolution 2334 condemning Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories as illegal so remarkable. After decades of consistent vetoes blocking similar resolutions, the U.S. abstained from this vote, allowing for its passage.

Given the challenges noted above, the UNA-NCA Graduate Fellows had the privilege this past week of engaging in a robust discussion of Security Council reform led by UNA-NCA President Ambassador Donald T Bliss (ret). Foremost on our minds was the ever revolving challenge of getting past politics in order to fulfill the council’s responsibility of maintaining international peace and security. A long running critique of the Security Council is that its membership is unrepresentative of contemporary global demographic and geopolitical realities. There is currently no permanent representation of Africa, Latin America, or the Middle East, and the P5 is made up of four states of the generally developed global north and a single state from generally “developing” global south country. The obvious recommendation is thus to reform the council’s permanent membership to be reflective of the world served. However, while a variety of proposals have been put forward over the past several decades, none have gained real political traction. And given the political and bureaucratic process of such change, many experts venture that such reform will be slow to come.

Nevertheless, member states with less influence have become increasingly creative over the years and have crafted different means for accessing the Security Council and holding it accountable to wider interests. Our readings and discussion led us to examine methods such as the Arria Formula, developed by Former Venezuela U.N. Ambassador Diego Arria, which enabled informal consultations of the Security Council by NGOs and other private parties. Having encouraged that this method not be formalized, Arria emphasized the importance of experimentation on smaller scales that could lead to longer-term traditions and codes. Similarly, Canada’s Robert Fowler elevated the practice of engaging expert panels to a new level when their sanctions review helped expose government exploitation of the diamond mining industry. Another voluntary, non-formalized method for increasing efficiency and accountability in the security council is the enforcement of the Responsibility to Protect framework through a mechanism such as the Responsibility Not To Veto proposed in 2010 by Citizens for Global Solutions. This call to voluntarily suspend veto rights during cases of mass atrocity crimes has been echoed several times since, with nearly 50 speakers calling for it in 2013, and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein again appealing to the P5 to limit their use of vetoes in October of 2016. The increased scrutiny of the use of veto power has also translated to an increased response to and treatment of those member states in other arenas of the U.N. system. Shortly after Zeid’s appeal, Russia was voted off the U.N. Human Rights Council, which may be seen as repercussion for its disabling the Security Council from taking action in Syria and provide warning to the P5 member states in the future. While certainly changes can and should be made in order for the U.N. engine to run more smoothly, given the current imbalance of power and bureaucracy entrenched in the large, diverse global system that is the U.N., these less formal and decentralized strategies may prove more practical and effective in the interim.

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