The U.N. Security Council: Ineffective, Country Club, Politics and Policy

Over the weekend while the world waited patiently for movement on the G8 "peace" plan for Kosova, the 15 members of the U.N. Security Council held a retreat to ponder the Council's future.

With the demise of the Cold War, much hope was held out that the United Nations in general would work toward establishing a New World order. But at the end of the 20th century, the lesson is clear: No world order, no matter how new, can last so long as its rules are dictated by the self-interests of a select few world powers. And the U.N. Security Council is most reflective of this elitist control of world politics and policy, thus making the body truly ineffectual.

Show Me the Ineffectiveness

From day one of the Kosova crisis, analysts pointed to the marginalization of the Security Council. And only recently -- in an attempt to show some sort of legitimacy -- was the Council asked to take an effective role in the conflict by lending its approval to the peace agreement drafted by the G8. But what role will the council have beyond this rubber stamp duty? What guarantee is there that the council can work out more complex disputes when it has no real part in preventing or ending such humanitarian catastrophes?

In recent years, the Council has been less than successful in carrying out its simple role of enforcing peace. In fact, the number of active U.N. peacekeepers dropped to 12,000 from a 1995 high of 80,000 while more and more conflicts ignited throughout the wold. But this sidelining is nothing new. The Security Council has never been a fully effective body.

The very undemocratic structure of the Council virtually guaranteed its ineffectiveness from day one. Of the 15 seats, the developed nations hold seven permanent/non-permanent positions while developing countries hold only seven non-permanent positions and one permanent seat. Moreover, of the more than 185 members of the United Nations, a sizable number have never served on the Council, while many have only served once, making the Security Council anything but representative, legitimate or authoritative in the international community.

Another factor contributing to the Council's imbalance is the abuse of veto power by Russia, China and the United States. The Russians, some claim, are to blame because they veto or threaten to veto American proposals to show that it's still a force to be reckoned with. The same accusation is leveled at the Chinese. The argument goes that by not accepting American proposals, these two nations are holding back the council.

But the United States also bears a large amount of responsibility for the Council's current state of affairs. As possibly the world's last remaining "superpower," the United States is often perceived as a bullying influence on the Council. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in U.N./Security Council dealings in the Middle East where the United States is virtually guaranteed to have its way.

Unfortunately, this consistent flexing of U.S. muscle only works to ensure that the Council's credibility will remain questionable. As noted by Leslie Gelb, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, in a recent New York Times article, "Sure on some issues, Russia and China won't budge. But usually when the United States has a clear, convincing policy, it gets its way on the council."

When Washington can't get its way then it often resorts to a regional organization or unilateral action. For instance, the American policy of bombing and starving Iraq to bring Saddam Hussein to his knees, goes beyond Security Council resolutions. But does that matter to the Clinton administration and its foreign supporters? Obviously not.

Pointing fingers at the U.S. alone won't solve the problem however. The international community needs stop looking at America as the great savior. How many times do we hear people condemning the United States for intervening in one breath and with the next breath question why the Americans are sitting idly by while another massacre or disaster unfolds? If the United States is expected to take the responsibility, risking lives and spending its finances, then it is only natural for it to expect to call the shots.

The only solution is a truly reflective and principled international body with a clear mandate, one that strikes a balance between sovereignty concerns and human rights. We can't have state sovereignty sacrificed without some clearly thought out and internationally agreed-upon rules.

In 1951, John Holmes, Canada's former ambassador to the United Nations, raised an important point in a debate on Canada's U.N. policy.

"We are begging the question whether the U.N. ever can or should be a reliable instrument for enforcing collective security," said Holmes. His reluctance to place his trust in the U.N. was due to his belief that the structure dictated that the great powers would "possess disproportionate strength in virtually any future security issue ..." Holmes went on to say that "...this inequality of strength has already rendered null and void the fiction of collective security."

Holmes' concerns are as valid today as they were almost fifty years ago. Given the growing shift from interstate to intrastate ethnic and religious disputes and the growth of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, pursuing collective security without addressing the council's imbalance and mandate may lead to collective destruction.

As we tally up the lessons learned from the Kosova crisis, it's important to rethink whether any one country should have the power to outvote the rest of the world. It's also paramount to reflect upon whether the shift from the pre-eminence of state sovereignty to human rights activism should come about without thorough and transparent debate and discussion.

One can only hope that Council members see these as central questions that need to be addressed well.

  Category: World Affairs
  Topics: Foreign Policy, United Nations, United States Of America
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