Since the end of World War Two global politics has undergone profound changes. The world has witnessed the end of colonization and the end of the Cold War. The early 21st century witnessed the attacks of 9/11 and the still ongoing war against terrorism. The last years, especially, were characterized by the ongoing emergence and subsequently increasing role of new global powers.
Three aspects, however, have not (yet) changed since 1945: The composition of the permanent members (P5) of the UN Security Council (UNSC), the trigger mechanism for humanitarian interventions and, as a result of that, the often limited efficacy of the UN in times of humanitarian crisis.
Back in 1945 the current composition and the aims of the P5 might have sound realistic. The five major players on the planet and victors of WWII (though the statuses of France and China as victors might be disputed), take over responsibility and attempt to ensure peace between the nations. Now, nearly seventy years later, the world is a very different place and an inevitable question has to be asked: Is the UN going to accommodate these changes?
The consequences of discord were and still are all too visible. The Rwandan Genocide, the Kosovo War, the Iraq War and the conflicts in Libya and Syria underline the need for a reform of the UNSC. Recently the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan called for a compelling reform of the UNSC and described it as “unequal” and “unfair” as it does not reflect the will of the majority of countries.
“If we leave the issue to the vote of one or two members of the permanent five at the United Nations security council, then the aftermath of Syria will be very hazardous and humanity will write it down in history with unforgettable remarks.”
“It’s high time to consider a structural change for international institutions, especially for the UN security council.” (Erdogan, 2012)
The founding fathers of the UN did probably not expect the UN to be infallible, but, as Erdogan pointed out, the UN does not yet life up to its potential.
The issue of regional presentation
The UN is based on the assumption that humanity (“we the people…”) can and shall work together to avoid the repetition of the extreme violence and suffering the world witnessed in the first half of the 20th century. In theory, this commendable quote “we the people…” sounds like the will of an enlightened community of states, tired of suffering and willing to work towards a peaceful future. If we contemplate the practical terms, however, the real power lies only with the people – or the governments respectively – of the P5 members. The General Assembly merely serves, in the words of the former British Foreign Secretary Eden, as an opportunity for the “representatives of all the smaller powers to blow off steam”.
The southern hemisphere is literally excluded from having a significant influence on major decisions in global affairs: India’s population is twenty times the one of France or the UK; Indonesia presents the biggest Muslim population; India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are the biggest provider of personnel for UN Missions; Nigeria and South Africa present Africa’s most populous country and strongest economy respectively. Moreover, Germany is considered as the lead nation in the EU and Japan is an economic powerhouse. In addition, Germany and Japan are the second and third biggest contributors in financial terms. None of these states have a permanent voice in the UNSC.
In order to correct this distortion the issue was raised by the UN and a task force was established to fathom a possible reform. Brazil, Germany, India and Japan combined their efforts and formed the group of the G4. However, several other states created the movement “Uniting for Consensus” that aimed to counter the advance by the G4 in order to encourage a reform based on UN wide consensus. The then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan suggested in his plan “In Larger Freedom” a UNSC consisting of 24 members – Either by creating six new permanent seats and three additional non-permanent members or by creating eight additional permanent seats and one additional non-permanent seat.
A decision has not yet been made.
The issue of the right to veto
The veto right has been an issue on many occasions. This is not to say that a veto right exercised is wrong in each and every case. Surely, it was right to veto the US led invasion of Iraq in 2003. However, the Kosovo War in 1999 and the current war in Syria underline once more how the UN can be paralysed in the face of mass atrocities. Though, in order to present the bigger picture, it should be remembered that NATO interpreted UN Resolution 1973 in reference to Libya in a rather loose way. Understandably China and Russia are now worried about voting for any Security Council Chapter 7 Resolution.
Such a dilemma could be avoided in future if the UN were to introduce a new trigger mechanism for either humanitarian interventions in particular or resolutions in general.
A possibility recently advanced by New Zealand would revoke the veto right in cases of humanitarian emergencies as detailed by the concept of “Responsibility to Protect” (RtoP). The concept of RtoP is often criticised. However, not the concept itself, but the trigger mechanism is the issue. The before mentioned cases underline the importance of not only turning RtoP into reality, but, most importantly, to guarantee a high degree of credibility and therefore sustainability of the concept. It is of utmost importance that the trigger mechanism is widely accepted and respected, that is to draw on it when required, but to avoid any misuse.
At this stage the International Criminal Court (ICC) could play a vital role. Albeit one should not assume that the ICC enjoys total independence from power politics, the ICC enjoys a far greater deal of independence from national interests as the UNSC. It can also safely be argued that evidence presented by the ICC enjoys a higher degree of credibility than evidence presented by politicians who base their explanations on secret service reports, maybe even underlined and pictorially presented with a cartoon like picture of a bomb. In addition, the ICC has no political mission to fulfill or voters or donors to satisfy. This ensures that the work and judgments of the ICC are rather based on evidence than national interests. If the ICC were to provide evidence collected from international institutions, NGOs and individuals, the Security Council or General Assembly could vote accordingly. Another option would be the creation of an impartial and global jury outside of the UN. This body could be located in the Assembly of State Parties of the ICC and states from different regions could participate with rotating membership.
Neither the current composition of the UNSC nor the very fact that the veto rights still exists does correlate with global politics in the 21st century. The legitimacy of the UN would increase significantly if the decision makers in the UN would be more diverse, that is representing the real diversity of the UN. In addition, the concept of RtoP is a big step forward for humanity, but it will be rendered ineffective if it is either not endorsed when required or misused as a pretext for aggressive wars. Therefore, a cleared defined and respected trigger mechanism is required. A first step for a possible UN reform could be made if the P5 were to abstain from using their veto power in cases of humanitarian emergencies. This step would also be of benefit for the P5 themselves as the voices calling for an abolition or the change of the composition of the UNSC might lower their tone for a while.