Failure of the International Security System

Since its inception, the United Nations Security Council has been paralyzed by the political agendas of the great powers. If the Council is to achieve its main goal of maintaining peace and security, the international community must reconsider the veto power and its impact on the Council’s effectiveness.

A quick look at the contemporary international order reveals that the collective security system established by the United Nations Charter and put into place following the end of World War II has failed to protect international peace and security. The tragedy last year in Aleppo and throughout Syria at present is the biggest proof of this failure.

For many years, the system’s inability to achieve peace has been attributed to the Cold War. So when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union collapsed, there was a wave of optimism that mirrored the preamble to the UN Charter which states: “We the peoples of the world are determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” This was essentially the purpose of founding the United Nations, whose main objective was “to maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace.”

Hopes were high that these lofty goals would see the light of day after the end of the Cold War, and that the world would renounce the law of the jungle so that peace and justice would finally prevail.

Indeed the first ever Security Council summit meeting following the end of the cold war on January 31, 1992 saw world leaders ask the new UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, to report on the nature of post-Cold War international relations. Boutros-Ghali presented his famous report “An Agenda for Peace”. In May 1992 the general assembly appointed a committee of the whole, which I presided, to put the proposed contained in the “Agenda for Peace” into effect. However, it soon became clear that the maintenance of world peace would not come about with the end of the Cold War, because the interests of the great powers still conflicted with one another. Thus the Security Council’s inability to take effective and urgent measures to impose peace will, regrettably, continue.

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To understand the reason for this we must look back at what I call the “grand design” that was concluded in 1945 at the San Francisco Conference when the UN Charter was adopted. It was agreed then to establish a Security Council that would oversee the protection of international peace and security. The Council was given unprecedented wide powers to eliminate all threats to peace. It was also agreed that the five permanent members would have the power to veto substantive resolutions but not procedural resolutions.

Unfortunately, the Charter did not clearly delineate the nature and delimitation of the procedural resolutions that could not be impeded. More importantly, the Charter granted the five permanent members veto power, which means that they could block resolutions even with the majority vote needed to pass. The argument behind this open-ended unprecedented license was that it was the responsibility of these five great powers to protect world peace, not their own narrow interests.

The five great powers at the San Francisco Conference tried moreover to gain the right to veto non-procedural resolutions regardless of their content, and to incorporate this right explicitly into the charter, but they failed because of the opposition of most countries. At present, it is clear that the interlocking political and economic interests of the five great powers make it inconceivable that any action taken by the Council would directly or indirectly affect those interests. Simply put the Security Council, with its present structure, has been made to be in a state of permanent paralysis the recent deliberations in the council on Ghouta-Syria reflect this paralysis.

As a result, the international protection system enshrined in the UN Charter no longer exists. This is what the Arab countries have struggled with over the past seven decades when it came to Palestine, and what the region is struggling with now when it comes to Syria.

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It is noteworthy that the Security Council’s paralysis does not hinge solely on the actual use of the veto power. I was the representative of Egypt in the Security Council in 1996 and 1997. I chaired the Council in June 1996 and witnessed first-hand the five great powers threatening in the negotiation phase to veto many crucial resolutions. Ultimately, when the G-5 accept to pass a resolution, it usually ends up formulated as follows:

  • Refraining from taking the action required to end the conflict, and merely appointing an envoy to manage the conflict. The best example of this are the resolutions on Palestine.
  • Imposing sanctions that do not change the situation much but often harm many innocent people.
  • Using distorted ineffective verbal formulations such as the repeated condemnations and denunciations we see now in the Council’s resolutions that do not call for any action that would change the tragic situation in question.
  • The net result is that the Council is being confined to managing conflicts, not ending them.

Of course there are some exceptions. For example, in June 1950 during the Korean War, the Council adopted a clear and decisive resolution in response to North Korea’s aggression against South Korea. The reason behind this “success” was that the Soviet Union had boycotted the Council’s sessions when the People’s Republic of China had not been allowed to join the United Nations. After the resolution to deter the North Korean aggression passed, the Soviet delegation immediately returned to its seat in the Council and no permanent member was ever absent again.

Another important exception was the strong and clear position adopted by the Council in 1990 against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait under Saddam Hussein’s rule. The Council did not hesitate to adopt the resolutions stipulated in Chapter VII of the Charter on curbing aggressions and the threat to international peace.

In this context it should be noted that in recent years the veto has not been used as often as in the past. Britain and France rarely resort to the veto, and China only exercises it alone in the case of Taiwan. Russia still uses and threatens to use the veto without hesitation. In recent years, the United States has been using and brandishing its veto power only to protect Israel. But at the end of the day, the veto and the threat of exercising it are clearly the main reason behind the paralysis of the Security Council.

The solution lies in my view in exploring alternative means of protecting peace, by amending the UN Charter. The Charter expressly provides for considering its amendment to keep abreast of international relations ten years after its adoption. Thus, the consideration of amendments should have actually begun in 1955. In point of fact, consideration of amendments had already been included in the agenda of the General Assembly in 1955, the five great powers, however, have succeeded in stalling it thus far because they know full well that if the Charter is amended—which is not guaranteed—it will lead to a reduction of their veto license.

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Our modern world is in desperate need of its humanity. This can be achieved by agreeing on a collective security system that has teeth and can impose peace and bring an end to the massacres and atrocities still being committed, as agreed upon at the San Francisco Conference in 1945.

In a similar vein, the Security Council did not carry out one of its most important responsibilities according to Article 26 of the Charter which states that it shall be responsible for formulating plans to be submitted to the Members of the United Nations for the establishment of a system for the regulation of armaments.

It is worth noting here that the Charter was drafted before the nuclear age began, which means that after the use of nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the Council should have exercised the powers agreed upon in the Charter in the pre-nuclear era with regard to creating a credible disarmament system.

The Security Council, however, refrained from assuming this responsibility and left the matter to the General Assembly, which does not have the same powers. The General Assembly has indeed been active within its responsibilities and concluded under its auspices the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which was meant to be universal.

As Article 7 of the treaty states that a number of countries can add other commitments, the countries of Latin America established a nuclear-weapon-free zone in Latin America. Africa also succeeded in establishing an African zone free from nuclear weapons in 1996. Despite numerous resolutions, the establishment of a similar zone in the Middle East has been impeded by Israel.

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The current chaos in some parts of the world, especially in the Arab region, demonstrate that reforming the UN is necessary in order to respond to the repercussions of world developments in the past seven decades. After the Second World War, the victorious states prevailed and established a new international order the faithful implementation of which should have guaranteed a future free of destructive wars. The threat in the current phase in international relations is not only conventional wars between states, but wars within states that turn into proxy wars, as we witness in Syria, or the spread of terrorist attacks. These must be brought to an end by the Security Council taking the appropriate collective measures as the UN Charter ordains.

We must face the truth and acknowledge that the Security Council cannot carry out these responsibilities in light of the legal framework that determines the course of its work. Therefore, we must strive to change the rules of the game in the Council.

At this point one should seek to see if the collective security system does not guarantee protecting nation-states, does the international judicial system provide such protection? In other words, does a state have in its power the right to have recourse to an international judicial body to correct an injustice?

To answer this question, we must look at the contemporary international legal system, and by this I mean the set of international conventions adopted by the international community that regulate relations between states. There are conventions governing all aspects of international relations on land, in the sky, in outer space, in the seas and on the seabed. These conventions entail rights and duties that states must respect. The main obstacle lies in the application of these conventions, since, as it is well known, resorting to international jurisdiction is optional. Therefore, a state cannot be forced to accept to go to an international court to consider whether it a rule of law has been violated or missed an obligation without its consent.

Indeed some states do accept the compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice, but only one-third of the world has done so and usually with many reservations. For example, Egypt accepted the compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice in 1957 with regard to the management of the Suez Canal and only between the states that signed the Constantinople Convention of 1888.

I have chaired the Charter committee at the UN for many years and despite my calls for amending the Charter at international fora and in many articles, I, unfortunately, do not think that it would be possible to seek to cancel the veto system in the current international setting. However, I have hope that in light of the tragedies and massacres taking place in the world, the international community will succeed in removing some issues from the scope of application of the veto. After the tragedies that occurred recently in Syria and other parts of the world, we must ask: How can great powers prevent the delivery of humanitarian aid to the people in dire distress? Why do great powers prevent the adoption of cease-fire resolutions to save lives?

In such blatant cases as when wars erupt or when there is a serious threat of using weapons of mass destruction such as chemical weapons, the Security Council must carry out its responsibilities unhindered and the international community must allow the Council to maintain peace and security.

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There is an alternative road that can be considered, but its outcome is not guaranteed: resorting to the General Assembly, which has political powers under Article X of the Charter but whose resolutions are non-binding. The General Assembly can issue resolutions with overwhelming majority demanding that aggressor states stop their violations. This happened in the Suez War of 1956 when Britain and France colluded with Israel and invaded Sinai and then exercised their veto power in the Security Council to frustrate the adoption of resolutions. The tripartite aggression was then referred to the General Assembly with the backing of the United States and the Soviet Union and with unprecedented overwhelming support from the rest of the states. The aggression ended and the invaders withdrew.

What are the lessons learned from this precedent? The General Assembly succeeded in taking action in this case due to: firstly, strong support from the two superpowers the United States and the Soviet Union; second: a strong and clear position from then Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, in support of international legitimacy; and thirdly, overwhelming support from all other states.

The question to be raised here: Can this precedent recur now and does it have a chance to succeed? We must try to save humanity from the scourge of war and destruction. Having recourse to the General Assembly is not the ideal course of action but when all doors are closed the residual thought limited “power” of the general assembly should be tested again. However, an attempt to reform the Security Council must be the ultimate goal for humanity.

Translated from the Arabic by Asmaa Abdallah

Nabil Elaraby is an Egyptian diplomat and lawyer. He served as Secretary General of the League of Arab States from 2011–16. Prior to his appointment as Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs in March 2011, he served as Egypt’s permanent representative to the United Nations in both New York and Geneva and participated in several peace talks, notably the Camp David Middle East Peace Conference and the Taba dispute arbitration. He was also a judge at the International Court of Justice from 2001 to 2006.

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