Reform UN Security Council and strengthen international order
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
(17 April 2022) — Calling for reform of the UN Security Council (Council) is not new and did not originate with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, this illegal invasion and the egregious accompanying actions of the Russian military bring the issue of reform to the urgent agenda of the international community of civilized nations. The Council’s inability to fulfill its most important mandate is directly tied to abuse of the veto power held by five countries. The self-endowed veto-wielding powers – China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States (P5) – shield themselves from Council action and accountability, no matter how egregious their violations of the UN Charter, international law, and grossly uncivilized conduct.
The UN Security Council is the only international body authorized by the international community through the universal acceptance of the UN Charter to act on behalf of the international community for the maintenance of international peace and security. In situations such as the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine, the unauthorized use of force against another UN member in violation of the UN Charter, core tenets of international laws and norms, and the egregious acts being perpetrated by the Russian military against the people of Ukraine are the lawless actions the Council were intended to prevent. In the event of such aggression, the UNSC is expected to act appropriately to end the conflict, maintain international peace and security, hold the offending party accountable, return the peace and security, and ensure justice to the aggrieved party.
In addition to personal accountability of political and military leaders, including referral to the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity, the UNSC can determine financial cost on the egregious actor. For example, Iraq was required to pay compensation to Kuwait for damages caused by Iraq’s illegal invasion and occupation of Kuwait in 1990. Iraq paid some $52.4 billion in compensation to some 1.5 million claimants over a period of three decades. Given the magnitude of loss of lives and destruction of physical infrastructure so far on Ukrainian territory, the compensation Russia would have to pay to Ukrainian claimants if the UNSC was able to hold Russia accountable would be monumental.
But, given Russia’s ability to veto any action by the Council, there will be no action by that body to hold Russia accountable. The international community will have to find alternate enforcement mechanisms for actions already taken, or for any future action against Russia and its civilian and military leaders. Hence, investigation and prosecution by the International Criminal Court in the long-term, and bilateral sanctions in the near to long-term are relevant options available to the international community.
The UN Charter and maintenance of international order which the P5 pledged to uphold and defend when they negotiated and established the United Nations in 1945 are now being rendered meaningless as each P5 member can arbitrarily decide to violate in their own self-interest. The victors in WWII gave unto themselves the veto power which cannot be taken away without their acquiescence. They can do anything; they can violate the UN Charter with impunity. It is left for other nations acting individually or collectively to hold the offending actor accountable. Without careful calibration and application, this course of action could lead to broadening of the conflict and the possibility of plunging the entire world into chaos.
Removal of the veto power and expansion of the UNSC to fairly represent the international community of independent nations today, and not as it was in 1945, is an imperative which cannot be delayed much longer. Reform and a more representative Council, unfettered by the anachronistic veto power, is the democratic course to follow. Failure to act now leaves countries with nascent or weak democratic institutions to believe that there is virtue in acting contrary to democratic norms. Some autocratic-leaning political leaders will eschew the democratic path which brings with it accountability, a more difficult form of governance, and choose instead autocratic-style governance which grants them impunity from malfeasance.
Autocratic leaders fear their own citizens who defend and exercise their basic freedoms. Given the opportunity, powerful autocracies without accountability will be encouraged to impose their will not only on their own citizens but on weaker, more vulnerable states. They must be stopped. Vladimir Putin and his generals must be stopped. But how, and by whom when the UNSC is made inoperable by Russia’s veto?
Russia’s threat to international peace and security, and its autocratic leader Vladimir Putin’s pursuit of expansion of Russia’s sphere of influence in Europe and beyond must be stopped. With a moribund UNSC in these circumstances, it is incumbent on the entire community of nations, liberal democracies or otherwise, to not only express words of condemnation against Putin’s Russian campaign against Ukraine, but to take and support meaningful actions against Putin and his enablers. It cannot be business as usual for any government. Any government which continues to undertake or facilitate business activities with Russia carry the blood of the Ukrainian people on their hands. They too should face some form of collective opprobrium, including being subject to sanctions.
Russia and its leadership – political, military, and corporate sectors – must be isolated from the international community. No hiding behind diplomatic language; no appeasement or narrow self-interest acceptable. There should be no equivocation, no fence-sitting. Only bold action will suffice.
Let me refer here to China’s role, not as a footnote but as an important factor. The international community needs China’s engagement in curbing Putin. China, the world’s largest autocracy, with the second largest economy, and with military power in the top three, can have more influence over Putin than any other single country. If China ceases to stand in solidarity with Putin, chances are increased for Putin to step back from war. China can choose to be on the right side of history. If China fails to use its influence for international peace and security, if China fails to respect the will of most independent nations, China too must suffer consequences.
All countries doing business with China must re-examine their economic relationship with China. This should be a wakeup call for the small countries of the world where China has significant footprints to defend international order and the laws and norms which sustain their viability as sovereign nations. They must let China know where they stand. They must let China know that their economic spaces should not and will not be taken for granted.
Threat of the veto
I have experienced first-hand the debilitating effect of the mere threat of the veto, and it raises serious questions whether the Council can act responsibly. I learnt from my very first month on the Council how impactful the mere threat of the veto was. If any member contemplates or presents a draft resolution and any of the P5 members says, “I will not support it!” your draft resolution has very little chance of making it through the Council without changes to satisfy that member’s conditions. It takes a lot more than persuasive arguments, it takes compromise. Your cause must be just and equitable, and you must win the support of other members, including the other permanent members for your draft to gain any traction.
It takes nine affirmative votes without the negative vote of a permanent member to adopt a resolution. No permanent member can force a resolution through the Council if at least seven of the non-permanent members withhold their support. A solid block of non-permanent members can prove effective without imposing their will.
In an interview I did with the BBC News in early 2002, I pointed to ‘the threat of the veto’ as being even more prohibitive than the veto itself. The interview was in the context of the Security Council’s inability and failure to act responsibly on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. This is how my views on reform of the Council were reported by BBC News (14 January 2002, “UN impotence over Mid-East crisis”):
Given the extreme sensitivity of the issue, most Security Council members are unwilling to speak publicly about their frustration with this failure.
There are, however, exceptions. Jamaica has just ended a two-year term on the council, and its deputy (permanent representative) ambassador Curtis Ward now feels free to comment.
“There’s no logical explanation for the council not to be engaged in this issue,” he said. “We’ve seen that when there’s political will among the permanent five members of the Council, it can take quick, effective, and decisive action, so the council’s really abdicating its responsibilities with respect to the Middle East.”
Ambassador Ward’s views reflect those of many among the 10 non-permanent members of the Security Council. These nations that are rotated off the council every two years are the lesser gods sitting in a body where only the five permanent members, Britain, France, China, Russia, and the United States, wield the power of veto.
This is how the council was set up in the aftermath of World War II, giving the victorious allies the most powerful position. But more than half a century on from then, Ambassador Ward believes that the council’s failure to address pressing issues such as the Middle East, demonstrates, clearly, the need for reform.
“This issue, in particular, highlights more than any other the need to reform the veto system,” he said.
“I’ll tell you why. We’ve had to challenge not just the use of the veto itself, but even the mere threat of the veto.
“We’ve seen where the mere threat of the veto created a situation where Council members withdrew from even presenting a draft resolution for discussion because one member, one permanent member of the council, said that anything that comes in the form of a resolution will be vetoed, regardless of the contents.
“So, on this particular issue, it significantly highlights the need for reform of the veto,” Ambassador Ward said.
During my tenure on the Security Council, we defied the odds. We were among a group of between 6 and 8 members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). At that time the NAM still wielded some clout in the UN system. Even with members facing extreme pressure from one or other of the veto powers, and it being difficult at times to keep the coalition together, our leadership contributed to our group’s ability to influence important outcomes on several occasions. We were able to propose and adopt a resolution on the Middle East crisis on which the U.S. abstained, a rarity, after an extremely long and difficult set of negotiations.
The high respect for Jamaica’s delegation by other members on the Council was a major factor in our favor. They listened to our arguments and respected our views. Jamaica’s reputation was solid throughout the UN system, reputed as defenders of the core principles of the UN Charter. We were consistent.
(In a future article I will discuss the merits of the use of the veto and conditions for its future use, whether there should be additional permanent members in an expanded and more representative Council, and the qualifications required of such additional permanent members on a reformed Council.)
© Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post