Magazine article New Internationalist

Is It Time to Junk the UN Security Council?

Magazine article New Internationalist

Is It Time to Junk the UN Security Council?

Article excerpt


The UN Security Council (UNSC), in its current form, represents an antiquated approach to international politics.

The original intention behind its creation was for it to be an executive arm of the UN, enforcing the will of the international community against rogue states, ensuring compliance with international norms and promoting world peace. However, in reality the Security Council has proven to be Western-centric, overly concerned with the rights and interests of states - rather than that of individual human beings or human societies - and incompatible with the very urgent need to address many of the key issues and challenges of the contemporary world.

The UNSC 'permanent five', which exclusively claim veto power, comprises three closely allied Western states - the US, Britain and France (all NATO members) - and their traditional 'great power' opponents: Russia and China. The very existence of this privileged clique undermines any claims to fairness that supporters of the UNSC can make. Furthermore, the fact that those three Western powers have a long record of acting outside the perimeters of the UN when it suits them (Iraq and Kosovo, inter alia), or ignoring their responsibilities to other international norms when it suits them (Rwanda, Darfur...) and yet are willing to utilize their privileged positions in order to protect themselves or their friends demonstrates fundamental hypocrisy.

What we have is an inconsistency between the basic structure of the UN, the actions of the UNSC and the principle of fairness that occurs at two levels. First, the UN acknowledges states as the only legitimate form of human organization, despite the wide array of types of state and the unrepresentative nature of some states; and second, the UNSC represents the domination of that system by a few, very privileged, states. Given that this inconsistency is apparently irreconcilable, I contend that the UNSC should be scrapped.


You are right: the Security Council, like life, is not fair. But it was never meant to be. Its main goal is to moderate disputes between big powers and so reduce the risks of major war. In the past few years the US has hammered out deals with China and Russia on Iran, North Korea and, most recently, Syria through the UN. The process is often ugly and the human costs appalling - as the Syrian slaughter underlines. But I'd argue that UN diplomacy is still preferable to unfettered competition between Beijing, Moscow and Washington. I would actually like to see more big powers, like Brazil and India, become full-time members of the Council and give it more credibility as an arbiter in global arguments.

That doesn't mean I don't care about the Council's humanitarian role. The fact that the UN has over 100,000 peacekeepers worldwide in places like Haiti and Darfur indicates that the Council takes humanitarian crises far more seriously than it did during the Cold War. UN peacekeeping is an imperfect tool and big powers' interests obviously affect these deployments (Haiti would never get such attention if it weren't near the US ) but sometimes big powers approve good things for less-than-perfect reasons.

But let's pursue your proposal: scrap the Council. What, if anything, would you replace it with? A forum for NGOs? Oxfam and Amnesty International would have more humane and edifying debates than China and the US, but what could they deliver? Perhaps we should select 15 entirely random individuals from around the world to debate war and peace in place of the Council's current members.

I'm being facetious (I am all for NGOs and activists holding the UN to account). The Council is not the best mechanism we can imagine for running the world. But is there a politically realistic alternative?


You seem to accept both the inherent unfairness of the system and its inefficacies - which, you concede, constitute the politicization of international norms, sometimes at great human cost - merely because of a poverty of creative thought. …

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