UN under pressure to keep global peace

The frustration is aimed at Britain, China, France, Russia and the US permanent members of the UNSC

UN under pressure to keep global peace

Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general of the United Nations, is not known for scolding the envoys of powerful nations. But at a recent lunch, as salad was served in a private dining room across the street from the UN headquarters, Ban gave the members of the Security Council an earful about their inaction in the face of spreading mayhem in Jerusalem. “You’re not doing much at all,” one diplomat recalled hearing him say. “You need to fix the way you operate.”

He is not the only one who is frustrated. The UN Security Council, which celebrated its 70th anniversary recently, is under mounting pressure from the broader membership of the United Nations, civil society groups, former UN officials, and even some members of the Council itself to do what it is supposed to do: maintain global peace and security.

There are calls for members of the Security Council to refrain from casting vetoes in the face of mass atrocities. There are calls for the Council to do more to prevent conflict, rather than dispatch peacekeepers to places where there is no peace to keep. And there is growing anger about the way the permanent members make back-room deals in choosing a secretary general to lead the organisation; earlier this year the General Assembly for the first time adopted a resolution demanding that the Council make that process more open.

The frustration is aimed at the five permanent members of the Security Council, the P5: Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, all victors of World War II. It is aimed not just at making the Council more reflective of the world today – Brazil, Germany, India and Japan have agitated unsuccessfully for veto-wielding permanent seats for years – but also at making its members live up to their mandate.

The UN system as a whole has come under scrutiny this year, over widening sexual abuse allegations against peacekeepers in the field and charges of a brazen graft scheme involving diplomats at the headquarters of the world body. But it is the Council, the system’s most powerful branch, that has come in for unusually sharp criticism.

David Malone, a veteran Canadian diplomat and now rector of UN University, calls it “a crisis of relevance.” The Security Council has been unable to end the conflict in Syria for five years and it has been adrift in the face of a civil war in South Sudan. It has remained largely silent on what could amount to crimes against humanity in Yemen as a Saudi-led coalition backed by the United States conducts a campaign against Houthi rebels that has also killed hundreds of civilians. And it has been unable to stop the Russian seizure of Ukrainian territory; even a move to set up a tribunal to prosecute those who downed a Malaysian civilian aircraft over eastern Ukraine was vetoed – by Russia.

Several Council diplomats – and Ban – are increasingly exasperated by the inability of the Security Council to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. The United States has repeatedly vetoed measures dealing with the conflict. It helped defeat a French-led effort to set a deadline for the creation of a Palestinian state.

As a measure of its frustration with the Council’s lack of action, New Zealand, which has long steered clear of the morass in West Asia, said it intended to advance a draft resolution that would call for an end to the latest violence and spur the two sides to return to direct talks within a set time frame. New Zealand is currently one of the group’s 10 non-permanent members. “This Council must take responsibility for the failure of a diplomatic and political process,” foreign minister of New Zealand, Murray McCully said, “and move to resolve it.”
“There’s more pressure on the Council to perform better,” said Christian Wenaweser, the UN ambassador from Liechtenstein, which is advancing a voluntary code of conduct for all countries, including those that might one day join the Council. The pledges to the code of conduct include agreeing not to veto or vote against a measure if it would prevent or stop crimes against humanity.

It has the support of nearly 100 of the 193 nations that belong to the General Assembly. The US is not among them; at a recent event sponsored by the group, a US diplomat present at the meeting said it did not, in practice, use the veto in the case of serious crimes.

France has sought to persuade its fellow P5 members to voluntarily refrain from using the veto in situations where mass atrocities are committed. Only Britain has given a nod to that proposal. China, Russia and the US have not.

From 1946 to 2013, Russia and the United States were neck in neck in their veto counts: 81 by Russia and before that the Soviet Union, and 77 by the United States, according to an analysis by Security Council Report. China has used it only nine times, though the threat of a Chinese veto, diplomats say, has kept the Council from demanding accountability for human rights abuses that North Korea, a staunch ally of China, is accused of committing.

The Security Council remains singularly powerful. It can authorise military action, refer countries to the war crimes court, and impose sanctions on countries and individuals. And compared with its early decades, most of its resolutions are under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which means they are enforceable. Whether the Council is effective is another matter.

Secret deals
In a new book of essays that Malone helped edit, Malone said the permanent members “are criticised ever more loudly by the membership at large and circle the wagons around their own privileges, some enshrined in the UN Charter, others invented through practice over the years.”

What especially riles the members of the United Nations is the way the Council’s permanent members make secret deals over the choice of the secretary general. Their selection is often based on the unspoken premise that they are palatable to the world powers.

Now, with a new secretary general due to be chosen next year, the P5 faces pressure to open up the process. It has also faced growing calls to name a woman to the post, with a General Assembly resolution that urges the Council to invite countries to formally nominate candidates and for those candidates to say how they will lead the organisation.

“The onus is now on the Council to act soon,” Ambassador Gillian Bird of Australia told the Council at a session devoted to its working methods. India went further, suggesting that the Council submit at least two potential candidates to the General Assembly instead of the customary single name to be rubber-stamped. Russia made it clear that it was in no rush to change the nominations process. “I don’t think there’s any practical value in this except point-scoring,” said its envoy, Vitaly Churkin.

At the lunch in mid-October, Ban confronted the Council members for a second time, as coffee was served. A second diplomat at the lunch said Ban’s challenge reflected a frustration with the Council’s growing paralysis. “I think the secretary general is right to push us to uphold our responsibility,” the diplomat said. “I don’t think we can cover ourselves in glory.” Both said there was not much of a response.

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