The latest crisis in Syria requires United Nations action, and preferably military strikes to demonstrate the world’s unwillingness to tolerate chemical attacks on civilians. Unfortunately, because the U.N. Security Council’s Permanent 5 members retain a veto power, bringing a binding resolution on strikes before the U.N. essentially useless. The P5 is becoming an antiquated institution that stands in the way of international peacekeeping efforts and world progress.
The P5 members of the U.N. Security Council gained veto power in the organization following World War II because they were the most important leaders of the victorious powers. The U.S.S.R. (now Russia), China, France, the U.K. and the United States crafted the veto power to prevent the U.N. from taking action against permanent members or their national interests.
Thus, from 1946 to the present, the U.N. has been either prevented from or severely limited in taking action in former colonial territories held by the U.K. or France (especially in Africa), unable to help negotiate peace or undertake peacekeeping operations in former Soviet satellite states and limited in its ability to diffuse Cold War tensions that developed between NATO nations (including the United States, the U.K. and France) and Warsaw Pact states (the USSR and China). According to Dadalos.org, in some of the biggest conflicts and world challenges since the defeat of the Axis, the U.N. Security Council has been next to useless.
The structure of the veto power in the Security Council also means that resolutions that cannot garner P5 approval do not even come before the council, because the backing nations know the action is futile. Since Russia and China vetoed sanctions against the Assad regime in 2012, the United States didn’t even bother to bring the possibility of military strikes or U.N. intervention before the Security Council because they knew that Russia and China would block the measure -— as Ian Girrell pointed out in his article in The Guardian.
This kind of inaction has plagued the U.N. Security Council before. In 1994 during the Rwandan Genocide, the most horrendous slaughter of civilians in the latter part of the 20th century, the world watched as U.N. representatives, such as now retired Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire, called for U.N. involvement in Rwanda to stop the killing of 10,000 civilians a day by Interahamwe genocidaires.Because the U.S. had previously vetoed or threatened to veto non-military observation missions (so-called Chapter Six interventions), so the world knew that the U.N. would be unable to approve military force for intervention, an act bitterly recorded by Dallaire in his book Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda.
These vetoes, by definition, work against majoritarian principles. This holdover from the post-WWII period, however, has become antiquated as the world has moved away from Machiavellian and Manichean worldviews and toward inclusive world governance as a model for achieving cooperation and peace. Even where the majority of the world wants to act, in cases such as the current Syrian crisis, veto power offers no recourse. It is because of this that when the U.N. established the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, the U.N. sought to give member states a way to act even when P5 powers used their veto to prevent world intervention.
Unfortunately, according to Mehrdad Payandeh in the Yale Law Journal, nothing came of these actions and veto power still governs R2P interventions. Even when most of the world agrees on a course of action, the veto power of the P5 can derail the entire process.
The unrestrained power of the P5 means that the U.N. is losing credibility as a world institution. As Professor Manuel Castells, the Wallis Annenberg Chair of Communication Technology and Society at the University of Southern California, argued in his lecture, “Global Governance and Global Politics,” governing bodies experiencing a crisis of efficiency occurs when governments are unable to act to deal with serious problems, and a crisis of legitimacy occurs when democracy fails in democratically-based governing institutions that fail to act democratically. The U.N. — because of the Security Council veto power — is undergoing both crises. The U.N. has the ability to be a credible and effective institution, but not if the P5 veto power threatens the entire peacekeeping process, which is perhaps the greatest function of the U.N. Veto power in the P5 is too damaging to world interests and must be rethought and reformed.
Follow Dan on Twitter @ginger_breaddan
Dan Morgan-Russell is a sophomore majoring in international relations (global business). His column “Going Global” runs Mondays.