The international justice system has been built to be broken
The United Nations was established after the Second World War to replace the League of Nations, an international organization that had failed in its mission to maintain international peace and security at the time. The creation of the United Nations thus arose from the need for an alternative international organization that would succeed where the previous one failed. 1
Established in 1946, the UN’s founding Charter delineates the organs and mission of the organization. At its core, the organization aims to maintain international peace and security and promote human rights through a collective fashion. But the Charter also specifies powers given to a particular group of countries known as the Security Council.
The Security Council is composed of fifteen countries and is the sole body responsible for making binding decisions on behalf of all UN member states. This means that the other organs of the UN are only entrusted with providing non-binding recommendations. The Charter states that “all members of the United Nations agree to accept and implement Security Council resolutions. While other organs of the United Nations make recommendations to member states, the Security Council alone has the power to make decisions that member states are obliged to implement under the Charter”. 2
The Council consists of ten non-permanent members and five permanent members, namely the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China.
The most illustrative dimension of the Security Council’s exceptional power is this veto power. It enables the Council to prevent resolutions from passing and is a privilege not afforded to the rest of the UN member states.
The dictatorship of the few controls the fate of all
After more than eighty years since the establishment of the Security Council one wonders if it has succeeded in achieving its declared goals, or whether it was merely established to cater to the interests of the victorious countries of World War II.
On the one hand, there is no doubt that the Security Council has played a part in preventing direct conflict among the five permanent members. It has furthermore responded to urgent issues that have threatened international peace and security, such as the anti-piracy resolution of 2008 and Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait in 1990 and Afghanistan in 2001. 3 On the other hand, can these successes justify its failures?
The loopholes in the international justice system are wide enough to cover crimes with millions of victims
Although the Security Council did engage with the events in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rwanda, Central Africa, and South Sudan, its belated responses in these instances led to the Council's failure in preventing human rights violations and war crimes resulting in millions of victims.4
In addition, when examining the history of the wars, military operations, occupations of lands, and military coups that have occurred in the last eighty years and its associated war crimes and human rights violations, we find that many of these conflicts were carried out by the permanent members of the Security Council or its supporting entities. Currently, the clearest example of this phenomenon is the brutal Russian war against Ukraine.5
The Security Council has also failed miserably in its role of promoting human rights, in part because veto power has been an effective way to protect criminal dictatorships. For instance, Russia and China have used their veto power sixteen times to protect the Assad regime, a dictatorship that committed countless war crimes with military, financial and political support from authoritarian regimes such as Russia and Iran.6 The Assad regime has been responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of Syrians, causing permanent disabilities to nearly four million people, and displacing nearly ten million people. In the face of such atrocities, it is difficult to reconcile the goals of the United Nations with the lack of accountability for countries supporting such a regime. 7
Some may argue that the ineffectiveness of, and corruption scandals within, many United Nations bodies are due to individual mistakes common to any institution. However, creating the Security Council and empowering its five permanent members with a veto power formula is a uniquely foundational mistake that has granted these five countries dictatorial power over the rest of the world. Illustratively, while the United Nations General Assembly succeeded in passing a resolution with a vote of 141 of 193 members calling on Russia to stop the war against Ukraine and withdraw to internationally recognized borders, the decision did not manifest in tangible results because binding decisions are within the authority of the Security Council only. Here, where the aggressor country Russia enjoys the power of veto, they can go against the decision of the General Assembly despite a vote exceeding two-thirds majority of the Assembly’s members. This has resulted in the ongoing Russian military aggression against Ukraine and a continuation of the Ukrainian tragedy.8
While it is unsurprising that dictatorial regimes such as Russia and China are content with this power, which grants their regimes absolute protection from international accountability, one wonders what the US, UK, and France have to say on being a part of a council that opposes democratic values such as free elections, the peaceful transfer of power, and fair representation.
In the last few decades, many countries have attempted to amend the current formation of the Security Council in order to stop the hegemony of the permanent members and allow the rest of the international community to obtain fair representation. However, thus far, all attempts have failed because any amendment to the Charter of the United Nations requires the approval of two thirds Members of the General Assembly, which has never been achieved due to the permanent members’ influence on the many countries relying on their financial support, military or political protection. For these reasons, middle-power countries including Canada should coordinate efforts to obtain the votes of the General Assembly members to achieve the necessary amendments. Here, key actors such as civil society, academics, and members of parliaments could persuade their countries to contribute to, rather than resist, the change. Instead of exerting effort and resources to seek a non-permanent seat, the amendments could secure fair, democratic and equal representation for all and effectively contribute to achieving the main goals that the UN was established for: maintaining international peace and security.
1. National Archives and Records Administration. (n.d.). United Nations charter (1945) (retrieved from National Archives and Records Administration: https://www.un.org/press/en/2021/ga12385.doc.htm)
2. United Nations. (n.d.). What is the Security Council? (retrieved from United Nations: https://www.un.org/securitycouncil/content/what-security-council)
4. United Nations. (n.d.). Rwandan genocide: Security Council told failure of political will led to 'cascade of human tragedy' (retrieved from United Nations: https://news.un.org/en/story/2014/04/466342-rwandan-genocide-security-council-told-failure-political-will-led-cascade-human)
5. See, for example: Warren, James A “The US Has Been Fighting the Wrong Wars the Wrong Way for Decades” (retrieved from The Daily Beast: https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-us-has-been-fighting-the-wrong-wars-the-wrong-way-for-decades); Steven, David R “ Soviet Involvement in Thrid World Coups” (retrieved from JSTOR: https://doi.org/10.2307/2538874); Stuster, J Dana “Mapped: The 7 Governments the US Has Overthrown” (retrieved from Foreign Policy: https://foreignpolicy.com/2013/08/20/mapped-the-7-governments-the-u-s-has-overthrown/); “Why the UN Security Council Stumbles in Responding to Coups” (retrieved from the International Crisis Group: https://www.crisisgroup.org/global/why-un-security-council-stumbles-responding-coups); Suez Crisis (retrieved from Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/event/Suez-Crisis); Dodman, Benjamin “Moldova, then Georgia, now Ukraine: How Russia built ‘bridgeheads into post-Soviet space” (retrieved from France 24: https://www.france24.com/en/europe/20220222-moldova-then-georgia-now-ukraine-how-russia-built-bridgeheads-into-post-soviet-space)
6. Nichols, M. (2020, July 10). “Russia, China veto syria aid via Turkey for second time this week” (retrieved from Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-syria-security-un-idUSKBN24B2NW)
7. Syrian arab republic: Disability prevalence and impact - IDP report series Fall 2020 - Syrian arab republic. (retrieved from ReliefWeb: https://www.archives.gov/milestone-documents/united-nations-charter) (2021, April 7).
8. UN News, “General Assembly resolution demands end to Russian offensive in Ukraine” (retrieved from United Nations: https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/03/1113152)
Sarwat Dalal Bashi is a specialist in the field of the international development, public services, and social programs. He is currently a consultant at Trial International. In 2016, he was an O'Brien Fellow at the McGill Center for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism. Prior to that, Sarwat worked for the International Rescue Committee in Turkey for more than two years managing programs for refugees and displaced people. While a United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) Fellow in 2015, he visited the US, Germany, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Belgium to conduct research and discuss with UN, European Union, and US leaders on issues of migration, integration, and interfaith dialogue with a focus on refugees and migrants from the Middle East and North Africa. Sarwat has also worked as a research advisor at Human Rights Watch in Syria and practiced law in Syria for eight years. Sarwat holds a Graduate-Diploma in Public Administration and Governance (PAG) from McGill University and a Bachelor of Law (LLB) from Aleppo University.