Global Governance
The UN Security Council at 75: Potential and Challenges

Approaching its 75th anniversary, the UN Security Council is not in the best of its health. Many experts believe that the matter is in the composition and rules of procedure of the Council that do not correspond anymore (if they ever did) to the character of, and the challenges facing, the twenty first century world. But is a radical reform of the Security Council really needed? Valdai Club expert Rein Müllerson explains why this may not be the case.

The United Nations was established “to maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace” [Art. 1 (1) of the UN Charter]. The principal organ, responsible for carrying out this task, is the Security Council. 

During its 75 years of existence the Council, though far from being as effective as hoped and expected in the aftermath of the two world wars that in the life of a generation had “brought untold sorrow to mankind”, has nevertheless made a significant contribution to the implementation of the main purpose of the UN. One category of its rather successful missions, though not expressly stipulated in the Charter, is the UN peacekeeping. In May 1948, the Security Council established UNTSO (United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation) and assigned it to observe and maintain the ceasefire between Israel and its Arab neighbours. UNTSO was followed in January 1949 by UNMOGIP to supervise ceasefire between India and Pakistan in the area of Jammu and Kashmir. Such missions, sometimes jokingly called “Chapter Six and a Half” operations, have probably been the biggest success-story of the United Nations, for which, in 1988, the Organisation was awarded Nobel Peace Prize. From relatively simple observer missions they have gradually evolved into operations with elements of peace-enforcement, nation-building, democracy promotion, human rights protection, and a host of lesser functions. They have acquired not only experience but also significantly more muscle. Such multidimensional peacekeeping operations have not all been successful in all their aspects. Sometimes, concentration on one assignment may undermine the implementation of other tasks, e.g. concentration on bringing to justice human rights violators may hamper peace processes, notwithstanding the maxim that there is no peace without justice. 

The Security Council has also made a significant contribution to the resolution of various international and internal disputes and conflictual situations. Its decisions have led to efforts, often successful, in mediation, good offices, or fact-finding. Carried out either by UN Secretaries General or special envoys, such missions have helped prevent or de-escalate conflictual situations not only between but also within states.

More controversial has been the role of the Security Council in the creation, at the beginning of the 1990s, of ad hoc criminal tribunals – for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and for Rwanda (ICTR). The belief that international criminal law and jurisdiction could significantly contribute to the maintenance or restoration of peace and security turned out to be premature. Most of those accused or sentenced, for example, by the ICTY have been seen by their countrymen and women as heroes. Meagre results of the International Criminal Court (ICC), created in the aftermath of these two tribunals, confirm a limited role of criminal jurisdiction in international relations, which by their very nature are primarily political relations. 

Approaching its 75th anniversary, the Council is not in the best of its health. And it is not due to the coronavirus or the dislike by President Trump of multilateral diplomacy. Many experts believe that the matter is in the composition and rules of procedure of the Council that do not correspond anymore (if they ever did) to the character of, and the challenges facing, the twenty first century world. In their opinion, a radical overhaul of the SC is long overdue. However, I do not believe that the coronavirus, the idiosyncrasy of the Trump administration or even outdatedness of the rules and composition of the Council, are the main factors that are not allowing this principal UN body to properly fulfil today its tasks.
Great Alliance of UNSC Permanent Members?
Jacques Sapir
The idea championed by President Putin seems to be to transform the informal group of permanent members of the United Nations Security Council into a form of world quasi-government, or a forum where major security issues could be discussed. This idea is tantamount to “resuscitating” the great alliance which triumphed during the Second World War.
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The SC, having initially 11 members, including 5 permanent ones (China, France, the United Kingdom, the USA, the USSR), since 1965 consists of 15 States, of which the same five (since the disappearance of the USSR it is the Russian Federation that has taken its place) are permanently represented in the Council. Decisions of the Council on non-procedural, i.e. most important, matters, as Article 27 of the UN Charter provides, can be taken only by “concurring votes” of all the permanent members (P-5). This is the so-called “veto power” that has been always criticised by many experts, laymen as well as by most States that don’t belong to this self-chosen club of the privileged, as non-democratic and not allowing the Council to make necessary decisions whenever it displeases any one of the P-5. Though this strict unanimity provision has been softened by the following practice of the Council, which means that the abstention of permanent members is not to be considered as a use of veto, this softening is counterbalanced by the so-called “double veto”, meaning that if there is a disagreement on whether a particular question is procedural or not, such a controversy has to be resolved as a non-procedural matter. 

If in 1945 there were 51 members of the United Nations, and in 1965, when the number of non-permanent members was increased from 6 to 10, there were 117 member-states, nowadays there are already 193 members. This means that the SC has indeed become even less representative than it initially was. So, as many critics of the SC say, the Council is ineffective because it is not democratic and particularly due to the use, or threat of the use, of the veto power by one or more of the privileged. Moreover, why those five are always in the Council and not, say, Germany or Japan, whose economic might exceeds that of some permanent members, or India – the second most populous country in the world? Or why the two continents – Africa and South America – are not at all represented in this club of the chosen? 

All these questions are, or seem to be, relevant and important. The world has indeed considerably changed since the creation of the United Nations 75 years ago. The process of decolonisation, in which the UN and its SC played an important role, radically changed the geopolitical landscape of the world. Therefore, a reform of the UN Security Council, including the most radical proposals such as abolition of the veto power and increasing the number of permanent members, is seen by many as an urgent matter. However, the more I think about it, the less convinced I am about the possibility and even the need of any radical reform of the Security Council. Why?

First, a pragmatic or even a bit cynical reasoning. In today’s climate, it is almost impossible to carry out such reforms. No permanent member is going to give up its veto power. In a best-case scenario, none of which is at the moment on the horizon, they may agree on a voluntary limitation of its use in specific cases or circumstances. As to the inclusion of any seriously qualifiable new permanent member (e.g., India, Germany, Japan, Brazil etc.), there is always somebody who would be strongly against any single one of them. Remember, any reform of the Council has to be decided by “concurring votes” of the P-5. 

However, beyond such practical reasoning that is dictated by the subject-matter (a Machiavellian approach to the study of world politics has always had its role), there are other considerations that caution against radical changes of the UN Charter.
The causes of the ineffectiveness of the UN Security Council are not in its composition, presence or absence of the veto power, or other rules of procedure.

 In order to make this point clearer, let us take a somewhat similar example from the period between the two world wars. In 1928 The General Treaty for the Renunciation of War, which has become widely known as the Briand-Kellogg Pact, was signed and entered into force. It condemned the “recourse to war for the solution of international controversies, and renounced it, as an instrument of national policy in their relations with each other”. However, it took less than a decade and Europe and soon the whole world were in the flames of war. Quite a few have criticised the Briand-Kellogg Pact of being too general, of condemning only wars, while States use force short of war and not necessarily as an “instrument of national policy”, but as an instrument of international policy, and so on and so forth. However, these were not shortcomings of the Pact, but the aggravation of problems and controversies that were not resolved by the Versailles peace, and particularly the rise of Nazism in Germany and the policies of appeasement, crowned in the 1938 Munich betrayal of Czechoslovakia, as well as other geopolitical and ideological developments, which paved the way to the bloodiest war in history.

Similarly, today these are not shortcomings of the UN Charter that prevent the Security Council from tackling more effectively the challenges such as the rise of terror threats, inter-ethnic or inter-religious conflicts, pandemics, cybercrimes, or global warming. This is the geopolitical configuration, expressed in the clash of two opposing visions of world – a continuation of the unipolar moment of the 1990s versus the acceptance and management the emerging multipolarity. At the beginning of the 1990s, when it indeed seemed that the Cold War had ended, the UN Security Council was able to respond, for example, to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. However, I would caution against idealisation of the period of the 1990s or representing the UN response to the Iraqi aggression as an example to follow. This was a period when a single remaining superpower started dictating its rules of the game, expecting unfailing obedience and loyalty from all the rest. In 1999, NATO, by-passing the Council, used military force against Serbia over Kosovo – the first illegal use of military force in the centre of Europe since WWII. In 2003 Washington, supported by London, invaded Iraq notwithstanding that even its two NATO allies – France, as a permanent member of the SC, and Germany – then a non-permanent member of the Council, were against the recourse of force in Iraq. These were all blows to the credibility of the Council. 
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The 2011 NATO operation against Libya had indeed Council’s approval. Resolution 1973, which was adopted with 10 votes for and 5 abstentions (China, Russia, Germany, Brazil and India), mandated “the use of all necessary means” for the protection of the civilian population of Libya. However, almost immediately NATO forces exceeded their mandate and turned their involvement into an exercise in regime-change, leading to the assassination of the Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi. Knowing today what is going on in above-mentioned countries, one could argue, following Talleyrand that this was worse than a crime, this was a mistake. A crime from the part of those who abused the mandate of the SC, but a mistake also from the part of those who abstained to veto the draft that became Resolution 1973. 
Although the special status of the P-5 seems to be, indeed, undemocratic, one must ask: what is democracy in relations between States? Is the “one State, one vote” rule really democratic? In that case the voice of one Chinese voter would count approximately hundred thousand times less than, say, a voice of a Nauruan. If the concept of democracy, which has emerged and evolved within so-called nation-states, is at all applicable in relations between States, there it should mean something different. It should take into account huge differences between States as to their size, levels of development, cultural and religious diversities, and most importantly, that no State, or groups of States, must be able to make law for, and impose it on, all the others. One can find such an institution in the history of international relations. It is called the “balance of power” principle, without which, as famous Swiss lawyer Emerich de Vattel wrote already in the eighteenth century, i.e. before the Vienna Congress of 1815 created the so-called European Concert that guaranteed the longest relative peace in Europe, international law could not simply exist. Even during the Cold War – the period I am not at all nostalgic of – the arrogance and recklessness of one superpower was checked by the influence and power of the other one. International law and institutions, including the UN Security Council, could play a role in the maintenance of international peace and security since there existed a necessary balance. 

In the absence of the veto power, the SC may indeed be able to adopt more resolutions. However, will it be able to carry them through? Hardly so. In such a case two negative scenarios, not being mutually exclusive, seem to be realistic. First, the Council starts adopting decisions that are unenforceable and becomes a talking shop. Second, attempts to enforce decisions that powerful States (and not only the current P-5) consider as encroaching upon what they consider to be their vital interests will not only aggravate conflicts and controversies, but may lead to armed conflicts. 

Having stated above that the clash of the two differing visions of the world is the main cause of the current ineffectiveness of the UN Security Council, I want to conclude by an assertion that if a vision of a unipolar world would prevail, there would be indeed no need for veto power and the permanent membership in the Council would lose its attractiveness. Moreover, even the very existence of the Council would lose its raison d’être. For the sake of efficiency, the imperial centre may convey decisions directly to local authorities, as London did until Hong Kong was under its jurisdiction. The most classified information would be, probably, shared only with Five Eyes and some feedback from them may be expected though not necessarily appreciated, while from the rest only strict obedience is required. However, all the nations of the world consider such a system desirable or even possible? Many certainly not.

In my opinion, the only realistic alternative to such a world is a multipolar international system, where balance of power is accepted and recognised as a conditio sine qua non for a peaceful, though far from ideal, world. President Richard Nixon speaking to the editors of Time, before his visit to China, and referring to the nineteenth-century European Concert, opined:

We must remember the only time in the history of the world that we have had any extended period of peace is when there has been balance of power. It is when one nation becomes infinitely more powerful in relation to its potential competitor that the danger of war arises. So, I believe in a world in which the United States is powerful. I think it will be a safer world and a better world if we have a strong healthy United States, Europe, Soviet Union, China, Japan each balancing the other, not playing one against the other, an even balance. 

And though Kissinger’s diplomacy and Nixon’s 1972 visit to China served, inter alia, the purpose of balancing against the Soviet Union, the realism of the Nixon-Kissinger tandem is in stark contrast with utopian messianic ideas of the betterment of the world, for the implementation of which societies are destroyed and thousands, if not millions, killed. Kissinger warns us that a stable balance of power remains as crucial now as it was in the era of Westphalia, by emphasising that

[T]o achieve a genuine world order, its components, while maintaining their own values, need to acquire a second culture that is global, structural and juridical – a concept of order that transcends the perspective and ideals of any region or nation. At this moment of history this would be a modernization of the Westphalian system informed by contemporary realities. 

The UN Security Council is the best available framework within which to deal with contemporary challenges to international peace and security. When current P-5, instead of verbally attacking each other within the Council and trying to achieve or maintain military superiority outside of it, recognise that notwithstanding all the differences of their political, economic or social systems, cultures and religions, they have to balance their interests, they may also find the ways to reform the Council in order to make it more representative of the twenty-first century world community of States and also more effective. 
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Tensions in Syria continued to escalate throughout 2019. Hostilities were stepped up again throughout the country and the conflict’s total toll approached a million. A new wave of Syrian refugees swept through Turkey and flooded Europe. Russia blocked US and British resolutions on enforcing peace on Damascus in the UN Security Council nine times.
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Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.