Despite ominous warnings from an overwhelming majority of member states both in the General Assembly and the Security Council— against a military attack on Ukraine —Russian President Vladimir Putin stood defiant when he ordered a full-scale invasion of a sovereign territory.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, in a hard-hitting statement, said the invasion was a violation of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine– and inconsistent with the principles of the Charter of the United Nations. However, a lingering question remains; has the 15-member UN Security Council (UNSC), which is mandated with the task of maintaining international peace and security, outlived its usefulness?
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir, a retired professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University (NYU), states that there is no more glaring example of how irrelevant the UN Security Council (UNSC), which is the custodian of global peace and security, has become in its debate. Despite overwhelming opposition from both the Security Council member states and the General Assembly, Putin went ahead with his planned invasion of the Ukraine, knowing that he is grossly violating the UN Charter. “What has transpired was a clear reflection of how the Security Council has outlived its usefulness, and demonstrated the dire need to reform it to meet the changing global order.”
While the UN General Assembly has the ability to pass resolutions criticizing individual member states, it has no power to enforce any measure. “The UNSC does have the power to take action, but it is limited to establishing peacekeeping missions. More often than not, the five permanent UNSC members with veto power almost always exercise that power to defend their interests, regardless of how the issue being debated impacts world peace and security.”
Thus, it is a given, the Russian ambassador will veto any of the security resolutions to which the Kremlin objects. There is no other recourse that the UN can take to correct what is fundamentally flawed in its current structure. “The time is overdue to reform the UN so that the Security Council reflects the changing geostrategic reality and its impact on the global order to ensure that the UNSC lives up to its founding premise to ensure peace and security,” is his statement.
Ian Williams, President of the Foreign Press Association in New York, told IPS: “If Moscow wants to play by the rules, according to the Charter, Russia should not be on the Security Council and should not have a permanent seat.”
The Soviet Union is in the Charter and Russia usurped the seat with no resolution at the General Assembly or on the Council. Russia never applied or was formally accepted into membership, he pointed out. Maybe the Secretary General and the President of the General Assembly, along with other members, could simply deny them.
“Unless such decisive action is taken it’s difficult to see the organization surviving this moment. Others have stretched the Charter – but Putin has taken it past breaking point”, said Williams, a former President of the UN Correspondents’ Association (UNCA) and author of UNtold: The Real Story of the United Nations in Peace and War.
Thomas G. Weiss, Distinguished Fellow, Global Governance, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and Presidential Professor of Political Science, told IPS this is precisely what the Security Council voted to halt when Iraq invaded Kuwait (in August 1990).
“Even if one mouths the fiction that Ukraine was created by the Bolsheviks, Ukraine is more of a state than Israel or all countries created after decolonization. The UN is as central or peripheral as it always has been”.
The veto means that action versus one of the P5 is unthinkable. The only remaining option is the General Assembly, which would at least force China to take a public stand as to whether state sovereignty matters, is the opinion of Dr Weiss.
Samir Sanbar, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General who headed the Department of Public Information, suggests the U.N. could prove its useful role by taking initiatives —perhaps through back channels and the “good offices of the Secretary General ‘to offer practical proposal to diffuse escalating tension. He remembers the role “discreetly played” by the secretary General, U Thant, to diffuse the escalating Cuban Missile crisis and Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold’s efforts to avert a big power confrontation over an American pilot held by China and over the conflict in the Congo. A group of third world member states could move to make potential proposals.
Asked about the irrelevance of the UNSC, Martin Edwards, Professor and Chair, School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, says, “This is an old claim. I remember all the handwringing after the Iraq war. The Security Council didn’t go away then, and it’s not going away now”. Even though Putin launched this savagery during the meeting of the Council on Wednesday, “we need to remember that permanent members are not constrained by the Council. The veto ensures this.” The Council still has value for efficient coalition building. While Russia cannot be meaningfully censured by the Security Council, the speeches make clear that Russia is isolated, thus making it easier for Ukraine’s allies to cooperate by imposing harsh sanctions. “Russia is not getting expelled because no proposal to expel Russia will make it through the Security Council to go to the General Assembly”.
So, the fact that diplomacy is going to shift away from the UN is not necessarily surprising. The US and Europe have a better sense of who stands with them and who supports Russia, and they can work with these allies to impose harsh sanctions quickly, declared Edwards.
Asked if there is a way for a member state, in violation of the UN charter, being suspended or ousted from the UN, Ben-Meir says: although the UN Charter includes a provision for suspending any country that violates the charter, no country had ever been suspended or ejected, regardless of how egregious its violation of the charter might have been.
While many UNSC resolutions have condemned specific countries, such as Israel for violating the Palestinians’ human rights, or threatened to take punitive action against a state, they have largely been rebuffed, as the UNSC fundamentally lacks an enforcement mechanism.
Photo. The veto power of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council leads it to fail to comply with the obligations assigned to it by the United Nations Charter, which could end up causing the International Court of Justice to intervene. Photo © UN