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UN Security Council lacks teeth

April 16, 2022

As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia can veto any resolution condemning its actions in Ukraine. In which case, the Ukrainian president Zelenskyy asks, what is the point of the Council?

President Zelenskyy on a large video screen in front of the UN Security Council members, seated at a horse-shoe shaped table
The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, addresses the UN Security Council by videolink on April 5, 2022Image: Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP

Last week, a video from the war in Ukraine was played to the UN Security Council (UNSC) in New York. Britain's ambassador to the UN, Barbara Woodward, described it as showing "horrific images from the towns of Bucha and Irpin" — suburbs of Kyiv — "of civilians deliberately killed." In his speech to the members of the Security Council, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, accused Russia of "war crimes."

Yet even if the accusation is proved correct, it will have no consequences whatsoever in this, the UN's most influential body, with its five permanent and ten non-permanent members. This is because, as a permanent member, Russia, the subject of the accusation, has the right of veto. If just one of the permanent members — the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France — exercises its veto, it can block any resolution it wants. Russia already did this one day after launching its attack on Ukraine on February 24. The Council proposed a resolution that called on Russia to stop its assault immediately, but Russia vetoed it.

Security Council has 'primary responsibility' for world peace

According to Article 24 of the Charter of the United Nations, the UN member states — of which there are now almost 200 — "confer on the Security Council primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security." But what happens if one of the permanent members of the Council itself pursues a war of aggression?

In the small town of Bucha, two dead bodies lie in the road in the middle distance next to a burnt-out van. Photo taken April 2, 2022.
Civilians lie dead on the street in Bucha, Ukraine — President Zelenskyy has accused Russia of war crimesImage: Zohra Bensemra/REUTERS

"Where is the security that the Security Council must guarantee?" President Zelenskyy asked, rhetorically. He called on the Council members to consider the options. One, he said, was to "remove Russia, as an aggressor and source of war, from blocking decisions about its own aggression." Without fundamental reform, he said, the Council's only option "would be to dissolve yourself altogether." Indeed, he said, if every state comes to rely on the power of arms to ensure its security rather than on international law and international institutions, the UN itself "can simply be dissolved."

Russia is no longer on the Human Rights Council

It is effectively impossible to throw Russia off the Security Council but it has either resigned or been removed from other international bodies. Russia had already been expelled from the Council of Europe, whose mission is to uphold human rights and the rule of law in the region, and a few days ago its membership of the UN Human Rights Council was suspended. But the vote was far from unanimous: 93 members voted in favor, but 58 abstained, and 24 voted against, including Algeria, Bolivia, China, Cuba, North Korea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran and Syria — countries where Russia has influence, or that, like China, have strategic reasons for letting Russia do what it wants.

Russia is not the only country to have left the Human Rights Council. Under Donald Trump, the United States withdrew in 2018 but returned in 2021 under Trump's successor, Joe Biden.

Russian ex-foreign minister: No diplomacy in Ukraine

However, the Human Rights Council doesn't count for much with the Kremlin. "About this body, we don't care too much," a former deputy foreign minister of Russia, Andrei Fedorov, told DW last week. "For us, of course, the most important thing is [the] Security Council and our ability to continue to be present there, to work there, to bring our views there." Fedorov did, however, admit that there was "the risk of a growing isolation of Russia."

Security Council reflects the world of 1945

The Security Council is condemned to irrelevance if one of the veto countries breaks the rules," says Johannes Varwick, a political scientist at the University of Halle in Germany. "I expect the Security Council to be incapacitated for years, and the United Nations will become less relevant as a result." However, he points out that this is nothing new. Until the end of the Cold War in 1989/90, "We had the same situation: alternating vetos or threats of vetos from one or the other side, resulting in complete paralysis."

In his fiery speech, Zelenskyy called for fundamental reform. For example, he said that there must be "a fair representation of all regions of the world in the Security Council." His demand is as old as the Security Council itself. The ten rotating non-permanent members are selected according to regional groups, but the permanent members, as indicated by the designation, remain the same. And this, combined with their right of veto, gives them enormous influence.

Black and white photo of Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill (seated, left to right), pictured at a conference in Tehran in November 1943.
The victors of World War II have veto power in the UN Security Council. They are, from left: Russia (Joseph Stalin), the US (Franklin D. Roosevelt), Britain (Winston Churchill), plus France and ChinaImage: AP/picture alliance

The composition of this inner circle reflects the geopolitical situation of 80 years ago. The permanent members are the victors of World War II, plus China. Back then, many countries in the world — including almost all of Africa — were still under colonial rule.

All attempts at reform have failed

There have been repeated attempts to reform the UN Security Council. In 2004, for example, Brazil, India, Japan, and Germany announced that they supported each other in their bids for permanent seats on the Council. The idea of a seat for the European Union has also been raised many times. Another suggestion is to scrap the right of veto. Until now, though, nothing has ever been done."

Reforming the Security Council is a hopeless undertaking," Johannes Varwick believes. "This is true of both the abolition of the right of veto and the reconstitution of the membership by admitting more countries, with or without the right of veto. There is simply no formula to which all five veto powers would agree, that would then also gain the necessary two-thirds support in the General Assembly."

Infografik Sicherheitsrat der Vereinten Nationen 2022 EN

But Varwick is not prepared to write off the Security Council altogether. He says it has "always succeeded in playing a role on issues where members' interests were aligned. This will presumably be the case again, eventually, after the war in Ukraine." He can also imagine the creation of "a sort of 'alliance of democracies'"  — something the United States has repeatedly called for — "which could then be something like a counter-organization to the United Nations." However, he adds, "It's very debatable whether that would be a success."

In the meantime, none of these deliberations about reform will help with regard to the war in Ukraine. President Zelenskyy's accusation that the UN Security Council lacks credibility won't alter the fact that Russia is able to block every resolution against itself.

This article has been translated from the German.