The Student News Site of The American School in Japan


The Student News Site of The American School in Japan


The Student News Site of The American School in Japan


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ASIJ Alumni, By the Numbers

ASIJ Alumni, By the Numbers

December 15, 2023

Is the UN Security Council Fulfilling Its Purpose?

Photo by Salya T on Unsplash
Reading Time: 4 minutes

The high school recently heard U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emmanuel assert that the United Nations requires reform. Amidst the Ukraine-Russia and Israel-Hamas wars, the effectiveness of the UN—and more specifically the Security Council—at maintaining global security is of utmost relevance. 

The UN Security Council was founded after World War II by China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—each of whom now hold permanent seats. The General Assembly also elects ten non-permanent members for two-year, non-consecutive terms. The criterion for these non-permanent seats is an active contribution to peacekeeping efforts or the “maintenance of international peace.” They also consider geographical location and representation to provide a diverse council. 

One of the UN’s controversial principles aimed at maintaining peace is the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine established in 2005. First invoked in the aftermath of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s violent response to protests in Libya in 2011, it was cited to authorize sending military intervention to Libya. The doctrine stipulates that states must protect their citizens from mass atrocities, but if the state is unable to do so, the “international community” will have to take coercive measures. 

Many view this principle as allowing for the misuse of military intervention. The US’s war on Iraq is often offered as an example. More recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to legitimize his invasion of Ukraine based on his “responsibility to protect” Russians in Ukraine.

Russia was also able to continue its annexation of Ukraine by vetoing several preventative resolutions. The five permanent members of the Security Council (P5) hold the right to veto any resolution; this has been a focal point of controversy. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky voiced his qualms in 2022, saying, “We are dealing with a state [Russia] that turns the right of veto in the UN Security Council into a right to kill.” 

As of February 2023, Russia has vetoed the most resolutions, a total of 152, while the United States has vetoed 87 resolutions. 

This isn’t the first time the P5’s veto power has proved to be a difficult roadblock in UN attempts to intervene in global conflicts. During the Syrian civil war, Russia and China vetoed resolutions “aimed at holding the Assad regime accountable for atrocities documented by UN sources” nearly twenty times.

Under Article 25 of the United Nations Charter, the UN must “accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council.” Therefore, the P5’s permanence on the Council and exclusive veto power holds them virtually above the law. 

Unchecked veto power is not the only thing keeping back the UN’s effectiveness. Slow bureaucratic processes and states’ individual political interests often lead to inaction. 

For example, the Rwandan genocide in 1994, which killed 800,000 to 1 million Tutsis, was largely ignored by the international community. President Bill Clinton’s administration was supposedly unaware of the full scale of the genocide. Yet, intelligence reports show that Clinton had been made aware of a “final solution to eliminate all Tutsis.” His reluctance to help likely links back to the deaths of 18 U.S. soldiers during a UN humanitarian mission in Somalia that ended that same year. 

Despite the pleas of the commander of the United Nations peacekeeping forces General Romeo Dallaire, the UN Security Council reduced peacekeeping personnel in Rwanda to 270 within days of the start of the Genocide. General Dallaire had been pleading from December 1993 to when the killing unfolded in April 1994. When the genocide began, the UN sent troops to evacuate foreigners with strict orders not to intervene in the slaughter. This massive failure still weighs heavy on the hands of major international superpowers who ignored the genocide. 

Still, UN peacekeepers were able to save almost 30,000 lives in Rwanda. Indeed, peacekeepers are often effective; it is the lack of support and limited mandates from the UN that prevent greater success. 

In contrast to the lack of direct intervention in Rwanda, since the 1990s, the Security Council has regularly employed sanctions to alleviate aggression. But do they work? Recently, they have proved ineffective in the Russia-Ukraine war. And the arguably fruitless and sometimes gratuitous use of sanctions is dated. 

The 1990-2003 sanctions on Iraq, following its invasion of Kuwait, have been described in the Middle East Research and Information Project as “the worst humanitarian catastrophe ever imposed in the name of global governance.” The sanctions prohibited any trade, except for a couple of medicines, with Iraq. This led to “persistent deprivation, severe hunger and malnutrition” in the country, especially among young children and mothers. 

The sanction-induced bankruptcy of the state also resulted in detrimental institutional damage. More than 40,000 teachers had to quit their jobs, technician shortages left infrastructure in shambles, and many skilled doctors and scientists fled the country, all because the state could not pay livable salaries. The basic literacy level profoundly deteriorated in Arabic, the native tongue, and in English. 

And even when the Security Council attempts to exert its authority, it does not have enough political sway to hold superpowers accountable. Despite Security Council opposition to U.S. military action in Iraq, the U.S. influenced its allies to join a “coalition of the willing” against the Middle Eastern nation. With 30 countries in support, the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 under the suspicion that it was harboring weapons of mass destruction. The resulting war left an estimated 461,00 people dead. No weapons of mass destruction were ever found in Iraq. 

With the past failures and continued inequities of the Security Council, it is no surprise that many are questioning the future of the UN. Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, former UN human rights chief, has warned that “without institutional change, the United Nations could collapse.” 

Is reform possible? The last attempt, in 2005, was brought by the High-Level Panel on UN System-Wide Coherence in the Areas of Development, Humanitarian Assistance and the Environment. The new approach, called “Delivering as One,” aimed to allow the UN to collaborate with pilot countries in creating new initiatives and motions to strengthen the UN. Their purpose was to enhance the UN’s performance, but the initiative ended up being fruitless. According to William Moloney, a Senior Fellow in Conservative Thought at Colorado Christian University’s Centennial Institute, this just meant “the usual cascade of goal statements and no subsequent results.”

The P5 is unlikely to relinquish power and diminish its veto power. Thus, a radical change is far from the realm of possibilities. Nevertheless, the call for reform is becoming increasingly exigent under the current socio-political climate. Smaller goals will perhaps be the unexpected solution for a bigger change. 

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