The UNSC: Let’s rip up the rulebook

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Today is the UN’s Day of International Peace, which the General Assembly has declared as ‘as a day devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace, both within and among all nations and peoples.’

The human race has come along in leaps and bounds, making massive progress in curing some of the world’s worst diseases, reducing global poverty to its lowest levels in history, and tearing down the walls that hold some of the most vulnerable and persecuted groups back.

However, one glimpse at the news tells you it’s not all sunshine and roses. Sectarian violence is sweeping through the Middle East like some great wave, threatening to sweep away entire states, leaving a quagmire of misery and conflict in its wake. The displaced and the wretched are washing up, alive and dead, on our shores, desperate for solace. Authoritarian governments are oppressing their own people, whilst threatening security of their neighbours in the global community. Globalisation, which brought so many social, cultural, and economic benefits has also left all of us more exposed to what happens on any distant corner of our planet.

The last Cold War may well be behind us, but the next one(s) are surely already underway, between a newly resurgent Russia and a West whose hegemony is under threat, and between the Sunni and Shia powers in the Middle East and South Asia.

The Post-First-Cold-War arrangement that has governed the world since the fall of the Berlin Wall is clearly not helping to promote peace and foster societies that are global-facing and free from fear. Perhaps the first place we should be looking for better ways to strengthen the ideals of peace is with the UN Security Council, the committee with primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.

The first thing that desperately needs exploring on the UNSC is its composition. The 15 strong body currently has 5 permanent members, with the other 10 seats allocated on a rotational basis. The permanent members (called the P5) are the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia, the 5 countries who were essentially the victors of the Second World War, and at one point the only members of the nuclear weapons club, although they have since been joined by South Africa (which has now abandoned its arsenal), Israel, India, Pakistan, and allegedly North Korea.

This excludes powers which have since emerged as key players both on the world stage and in their own particular regional theatres, such as Brazil, Germany, India, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa, South Korea, and Turkey, to name but a few. These powers have an immense stake in, and influence over, regional and international peace and security.

Clearly there has to be a clear balance between being lean and effective, but excluding key players, and having every player at the table, but risking having too many cooks spoiling the broth. At the very least India, the world’s biggest democracy, home to over a billion people, a key global economic hub, and an arbiter of regional security with a nuclear arsenal needs to be made a permanent member, and serious thought needs to be given to how the others can have greater say and recognition.

As well as these key countries, there are also key supranational institutions which would benefit from having a greater stake in the UNSC, such as NATO, the EU, ASEAN, UNASUR, the Commonwealth, the African Union, and the Gulf Cooperation Council. Looking at the role the EU is playing addressing the European migrant crisis, the African Union’s role in keeping Somalia secure, and ASEAN’s engagement with the South China Sea dispute, it’s clear these bodies are crucial for regional, and hence global security. There has even been speculation about the EU taking a Permanent Seat on the UNSC, with a former US naval intelligence officer and present Harvard International Review commentator commenting that the French seat should become the EU seat.

Perhaps, rather than offering each of these bodies a seat on the UNSC it would be more appropriate to devise a process wherein the UNSC could consider, debate and ratify certain organisation’s decisions, agreements, and/or operations and take them under the UNSC aegis, making them binding on all UN member states. This would have the triple benefit of not clogging up the UNSC with seats for each regional bloc, keeping the policy-making process as local and bottom-up as possible, but also conferring the legitimacy and authority of the Security Council on those decisions.

The third and final point that needs re-examining is the much maligned veto. If any of the P5 votes against a proposal it is dead in the water. This causes such immense problems in theatres of conflict, and serves to undermine the collective legitimacy of the UNSC and the UN as a whole. The United States is often (rightly or wrongly) accused of using its veto power to shield Israel from international accountability. This does neither country a great service, and Israel is more than capable of justifying its own security decisions to the Council, and the veto covers up what appears to be an emerging trend of singling out Israel in international affairs. China’s veto offers it immunity on issues like Taiwan, Tibet, and the South China Sea, where it’s particularly assertive foreign policy has led to deteriorating regional harmony. Russia’s veto allowed it to support its ally, Syrian President Bashar al Assad in shielding him from intervention despite extreme violence against his own people, and kept Moscow from being held accountable for illegally annexing the Crimea from Ukraine, a sovereign, UN member state. Perhaps some form of Qualified Majority Voting system might be more appropriate, rather than an absolute veto. So long as the P5 are allowed to decide to whom the rules do and don’t apply, and when those rules should apply, the whole system lacks credibility, consistency and legitimacy.

The triple threat of nations being excluded, supranational organisations having no voice, and the veto making international law seem arbitrary must be addressed for a safer, stronger, more peaceful world.

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