Det danske Fredsakademi
Kronologi over fredssagen og international politik 13. februar
2012 / Time Line February 13, 2012
12. Februar 2012, 14. Februar 2012
How to Strengthen the UN’s Ability to Maintain
International Peace and Security
By Lawrence S.
Conservative politicians often portray the United
Nations as a powerful monster, poised to gobble up the United
States and other countries and put them under alien rule.
The reality, of course, is quite different. When it comes to
international peace and security, the United Nations is notably
lacking in power. Its resolutions along these lines are often
ignored or go unenforced. Frequently, they are not even adopted.
This situation leaves nations free to pursue traditional practices
of power politics and, occasionally, much worse.
The weakness of the United Nations was illustrated once again on
February 4, when Russia and China joined forces to veto a UN
Security Council resolution dealing with Syria. The resolution was
designed to halt eleven months of bloodshed in that nation, where
more than 5,400 people had been massacred, mostly by government
military forces. Backing an Arab League plan for Syrian President
Bashar al-Assad to step aside, the resolution was supported by 13
members of the Security Council. But, with Security Council rules
allowing even one great power to veto action, the resolution was
The rules establishing a great power veto were formulated late in
World War II, when three Allied nations (the United States, the
Soviet Union, and Britain) agreed to create a UN Security Council
to maintain international peace and security. The Security Council
would have 15 members, but just 5 of them would be permanent
members (the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France, and
China), and each of these members would be empowered to veto any
resolution or action. Thus, from the start, the great powers made
sure that each of them had the ability to frustrate any venture of
which they disapproved. And this, in turn, meant that, like the
League of Nations, the United Nations was woefully weak when it
came to enforcing international peace and security.
In the first decade of the postwar era, the Soviet Union led the
way in drawing on the veto to defend what it considered its
interests. But, in later decades, the United States surpassed the
Soviet Union (and its successor, Russia) in use of the veto to
block international security action. Indeed, since the
establishment of the United Nations, all of the permanent members
have relied upon the veto, which they have used hundreds of times
to frustrate the majority in efforts to maintain international
peace and security. As in the case of two Security Council
resolutions dealing with the mass killing in Syria, this includes
action to protect civilians in an armed conflict.
The result has been a dangerous world in which, all too often,
rulers of nations (especially, the rulers of the great powers)
simply go their own way—squandering their resources on
never-ending military buildups, invading other nations, and
massacring civilian populations.
In the context of this continuing disaster, wouldn’t it make
sense to eliminate the veto in the Security Council? After all,
there is no justifiable reason why great powers—and
particularly individual great powers—should be legally
accorded the right to frustrate the wishes of virtually the entire
international community. Although scrapping the veto is no panacea
for conflicts among nations, it seems likely to result in a more
equitable and more secure world.
Furthermore, even if the veto were abolished, the great powers
would still hold onto their permanent seats in the Security
Council, thus ensuring that they would retain—albeit in a
more democratic fashion—some influence over world affairs.
And if, as supporters of the current structure insist, it is
important to match authority with power, why not elevate additional
great powers to permanent membership in the Security Council?
Nations that have sometimes been mentioned as useful additions to
that UN entity include Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan.
Plagued by dangerous arms races, bloody wars, and human rights
violations, the world desperately needs an alternative form of
governance. The great powers have the power to provide it, but not
the legitimacy to do so, while the United Nations has the
legitimacy but not the power. Hasn’t the time finally arrived
to supplement the legitimacy of the United Nations with enough
power to maintain international peace and security?
Lawrence S. Wittner is Emeritus Professor of History at the State
University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Confronting the
Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement
(Stanford University Press).
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