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UN Security Council: A Critique

In the run up to the United States war against Iraq early this year, the UN Security Council has stormed into the centre of all-round criticism and disappointment. Divergent moods have been discernible.

india Updated: Nov 10, 2003 22:21 IST
Professor C.S.R. Murthy
Professor C.S.R. Murthy

In the run up to the United States war against Iraq early this year, the UN Security Council has stormed into the centre of all-round criticism and disappointment. Divergent moods have been discernible.

Some (like our PM Vajpayee) were sad that the Security Council failed to achieve a consensus on the issue. Many were annoyed that the Council failed to stop the United States from attacking and occupying Iraq. President Bush and his officials scorned the insensitivity of the Council to the dangers from Saddam’s Iraq and called for urgent restructuring of the body.

It is apt, therefore, for us to understand the compositional and functional aspects of the Council that make it the most powerful organ of the United Nations.We should also put the Council’s present in the context of its historical evolution.An informed critique of the Security Council is never more necessary and timely than now.

Why the need for aCritique?

The United Nations was created to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”.To grapple with pressing issues of war and peace, a “security-specialist” organ - the Security Council - was conceived with care. Indeed, as it seemed then and now, the success of the United Nations would hinge on efficient and effective performance of this organ alone.

SC Membership was simply a self-conferred status that acknowledged their individual and combined military power that defeated enemies in the War.

To this end, the Council’s size was kept small, with a few hand picked countries that won the Second World War at its core as permanent members while a limited number of other countries were allowed on the fringe as non-permanent members.

The basis on which America, Britain, China, France and Russia were named as (and others denied) permanent membership was subjective, not objective.

It was simply a self-conferred status that acknowledged their individual and combined military power that defeated enemies in the War.

In contrast, the election of non-permanent members is guided by vaguely worded criteria touching upon the countries’ contribution to peace arena and wide geographical representation.To get elected, a country must secure two-thirds majority in the General Assembly. After election, only a short term of two years is permissible, and no retiring country is allowed immediate re-election. This hierarchy is UN version of caste system.

Little wonder, the Council remained virtually inaccessible to bulk of 191 member countries.Nearly 80 of them never got a chance to serve in the Council, while another 40 barely had one term.So much for the principle of democratic character of the Council!India is among the more well placed as it got elected six times, never mind our humiliating defeat in the hands of Japan in 1997.

Equally notable is the hole in the claims that the Council decides democratically. For record, the requirement for making decision is support of any nine of the 15 members.On security problems, a negative vote by one permanent member can defeat a proposal, even if it crossed the magic number of 9.

This privilege of any one permanent member to incapacitate the Security Council is called the “veto power”. All permanent five (ab)used their power–some 300 times so far-to prevent the Council from acting to preserve peace and security. The veto power is widely seen as a blot on the equality claims of the promoters of the UN. Ironically, US, a gross abuser has now proposed whittling down of the veto!

The Council’s significance also rests on its enforcement powers.With the support of P-5, if the Council invokes the mandatory powers under Chapter VII of the Charter and decides on a course of action against an enemy, it becomes the bounden duty of every country (member or non-member of UN) to act strictly in accord. All these, alas, have not helped the Council in doing the job satisfactorily. World without wars remains a dream; more than 350 wars occurred since 1945. In the past 10-12 years alone, 5-6 million (mostly non-combatants) were killed.The reasons for this staggering performance deficit may be analyzed in terms of five intersecting phases in Council’s historical evolution.

The first phase refers to fifteen years (1947-62) showing effects of Cold War on the Council.Faced with the Soviet vetoes, US sidelined the Council and promoted the General Assembly where it easily mobilized majority support. Korea, Suez and Hungary testified this trend. For another 15 years in the second phase (1964-1979) US lost control of the Assembly and returned to the Council to pursue a strategy of mutual non-embarrassment with the Soviets. But this did not go far, because of two developments: Maoist China’s arrival in the Council to condemn collusion between the superpowers coupled with the collective bargaining clout of the nonaligned to push anti-Apartheid and anti-Zionist agenda thanks to the limited addition of non-permanent seats in mid-1960s. The ten year long third phase beginning 1979 marked depressing stagnation under the spell of the second cold war.

The Council reverted to East-West recriminations on Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, and Nicaragua problems. Neither the Council performed nor could the Assembly assert as an alternative peacemaker. The prestige of the Council reached its nadir, as warring nations ignored even its binding calls for calm (Iran-Iraq war is an example).

The fourth phase reflected the euphoria of early years of the post-cold era (1990-99).Peace dividend eluded humanity. US, as the single remaining superpower dictated to the Council as to where to act, against whom, etc. Other permanent four and the Third World either acquiesced or collaborated with the United States. The Council invoked its mandatory powers some 60 times, imposed sanctions against 20 governments and groups, sent 40 peacekeeping operations, and authorized military actions in 10 instances.

Along with casting its shadow on Council, US conveniently avoided going through the Council.NATO’s ‘humanitarian’ intervention in Kosovo in 1999 was perhaps a turning point to signify a new momentum in the Council to rally behind the cause of multilateralism, to stand by the multilateral value of the Council and resist the American attempts to dictate.At least 3 of the 5 permanent members have criticized the American unilateralism vis-à-vis Iraq.Others such as the Non-Aligned countries began to speak up.Belatedly, the Secretary-General himself has become vocal. US victory in the war against Iraq made little difference to the momentum. If present indications persist, yet another worth-watching phase of some promise in the Council’s history may be in the making.

(The author is Professor of International Organization and Chairperson, Centre for International Politics, Organization & Disarmament at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. Prof. Murthy has authored one book (India's Diplomacy at the United Nations, 1993) and edited three books, the latest beingIndia and UNESCO: Five Decades of Cooperation (1997)

First Published: Nov 09, 2003 21:44 IST