UN Security Council is a perennial bone of contention among nations | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 12.10.2010
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UN Security Council is a perennial bone of contention among nations

On paper, it’s the military command center and thus the most powerful body within the United Nations. But for various reasons the UN Security Council has seldom functioned as it was intended. History shows why.

United Nations Security Council Chamber

The Security Council meets in the Norwegian Room in the UN's New York headquarters

The Security Council, like the United Nations itself, is a child of World War II. The decision to form the Council was the centerpiece of the Dumbarton Oaks Conference near Washington in 1944, at which the UN was founded.

The idea was to create a body that, once Nazi Germany had been defeated, would allow the most powerful of the Allied nations to act as one and prevent any similar acts of aggression.

"They were quite serious about it being a military command center," David Bosco, Assistant Professor of Political Science at American University and the author of a book on the Security Council, told Deutsche Welle. "It was supposed to have what they called a military staff committee and countries were supposed to designate armed forces that would be used by the Security Council."

By the time of the Yalta Conference in 1945, the structure of institution was formalized and the five permanent members - the US, Britain, France, China and the Soviet Union - were given the power of veto. The so-called Big Three - the US, Britain and the Soviet Union - insisted on this provision over the objections of the smaller of the 50 nations that joined the UN.

The veto was intended to prevent the Council from ever being used against its founding members. But it also meant that all substantive decisions had to be unanimous, a situation that proved immediately problematic.

'No' votes and empty seats

Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin

The details were finalized at a meeting between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin in 1945

After World War II, with the United States and the Soviet Union no longer allies but rivals, the divergent interests with the Council were all too apparent. The institution was only a month old when the Soviet Union exercised its veto power for the first time.

In the first 10 years of its existence, the Soviet Union vetoed 79 resolutions. By January 1950, the Soviets were officially boycotting the Council to protest the fact that China's seat was occupied by the Republic of China (today's Taiwan) rather than the Communist People's Republic, which had emerged from the Chinese Civil War the proceeding year.

Ironically, the Soviet Union's "empty seat" policy allowed the Council to show for the first time that it could act effectively.

"The Security Council was able to do relatively little in its first couple decades of operation," Bosco said. "The exception was the Korean War when the Soviets were boycotting the Council. Because they were boycotting, when the Korean War broke out, the United States, the United Kingdom and France were able to use the Security Council to push through resolutions condemning the [North Korean] invasion of South Korea and creating a UN command to respond to that aggression."

The UN sent troops to Korea on September 15, 1950 and succeeded in pushing Communist troops back to the North. An armistice, which remains in force today, was agreed in 1953.

The end of the Cold War

French U.N. soldiers reinforce defensive positions in Bosnia

UN soldiers, in their trademark blue helmets, were deployed most often in the 1990s

American and Soviet interests rarely coincided in the decades that followed, and with very few exceptions, such as the wars in the Middle East in the 1960s and '70s, the Council's effectiveness was limited.

More often than not, as was the case with the Cuban Missile Crisis, the institution was a stage for heated confrontations between the US and the Soviet Union.

That changed when Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet premier in 1985. At the time, one of the world's most pressing security issues was the Iran-Iraq War.

"At a certain point, the permanent members decided to start having very quiet meetings amongst themselves to try to figure out a way to resolve that conflict," Bosco said.

The end of the Cold War and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union broke through many of the ideological loggerheads and ushered in the Council's most productive period. The Council authorized UN troops to drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1990, and the success of that operation inspired further missions.

"The activity of the Council really peaks in 1993-1994, when the Council was passing dozens of resolutions - in the Balkans, Somalia, Rwanda, just a lot of activity," Bosco explained. "Since that period there's been a little of a retreat and some periods of lesser activity, but it's never gone back to the [low] levels of the Cold War."

New dividing lines

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell clenches his fist as he addresses a meeting of the United Nations Security Council

Former US Secretary of State Powell was unable to pursuade the Council in 2003

The bolstered reputation that came with the increased effectiveness of the Council took a serious knock in 2003, when the US, unable to convince all of the permanent members to go to war against Iraq, put together a "coalition of the willing" to topple Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Washington's military-diplomatic run around the Council reinforced stereotypes of the UN as an impotent debating club rather than a global governing institution. Today, the US exercises its veto more often than any of the other permanent members.

The exclusive privileges of the permanent members also remain a perennial target for critics, who feel that the Council's structure no longer reflects the realities of power around the world. Some larger nations, including India, Brazil and Germany, have broached the idea that more permanent members should be added.

But for better or worse, the Council remains the world's premier global peacekeeping body. And despite its inability to bring resolution to issues such as Iran's nuclear program, experts say its actions do have an effect.

"Other countries are watching what's happening with Iran, watching it be isolated and its economy suffer," Bosco said. "And they're thinking: maybe we don't want to go through that."

Fifty-five years on from its founding, the United Nations Security Council still doesn't function the way it was originally envisioned, but it does seem to be heading, however tentatively, in the right direction.

Author: Christina Bergmann (Washington), Jefferson Chase
Editor: Rob Mudge

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