I spoke in parliament this week about proposals to reform the UN Security Council.
United Nations Security Council Reform
17 August 2011
In 1994 the genocide in Rwanda shook the world’s collective conscience. A mixture of international unwillingness and poor procedure meant that effective action was not taken to prevent the killings. The next year, in what became the largest mass murder in Europe since World War II, United Nations forces in Srebrenica failed to protect those who had sought refuge in a so-called UN ‘safe zone’. In 1999, fear of a veto in the Security Council prevented UN forces from intervening in atrocities in Kosovo. All of these failures revealed structural defects in the way the international community responds to mass atrocities.
Almost since its inception, reform has been on the agenda of the UN. In helping me better understand the various proposals for UN Security Council reform, I am grateful to William Isdale, who interned in my office and worked on this issue.
The UN Security Council plays a vital role in world affairs. Except in cases of self-defence, the Security Council is the only international body legally entitled to authorise the use of force. Yet the council currently has two major challenges: membership and procedural effectiveness.
The fact that the council’s five permanent members are essentially the victors in World War II has riled developing countries, whose member states are often those most affected by UN peacekeeping operations. There is a strong push for greater geographical representation in the council and an emerging consensus that we should boost the number of permanent members and make the deliberations of the council more transparent. Among the countries most often mentioned are Japan, Germany, Brazil and India. Others suggest that the permanent members should include representatives from Africa and from majority Muslim nations. Australia is among the many countries that support India’s current bid for a permanent seat, which India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, reportedly declined when it was offered in 1955.
A major issue in Security Council reform is the veto. The veto power of the permanent members has always been contentious—Australia opposed its introduction in the council from the start—and at one stage the conflict on this question threatened to break up the 1945 San Francisco conference at which the UN Charter was drafted. The threat of veto has prevented effective intervention in atrocities as recently as Darfur in 2005. Yet a resolution to remove the veto power would almost certainly itself be vetoed. Bodies like the African Union are aggrieved by the potential that their members will be offered second-class permanency, but additional vetoes in the council could make the body even less effective.
If we add permanent members, they should participate without a veto. Indeed, it would be better if the existing permanent members did not veto intervention to prevent mass atrocities. Thanks in part to the tireless efforts of former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, the council unanimously affirmed its ‘Responsibility to Protect’ in 2006 and again in 2009. Where intervention is approved, it should be done swiftly and with minimal casualties. One challenge is that the UN currently lacks its own standing army and instead relies on member nations willing to commit forces. At present, a large number of such forces are provided by developing countries who hope that their soldiers will be trained up in the process. The UN must ensure that it has the best people for the job.
The UN also has a way to go in ensuring that the procedures for authorising action on the ground are clear and transparent, as they were not in Srebrenica or Rwanda, and that it builds upon the infrastructure required for such operations. Progress has been made, such as the creation of a UN ‘situation room’ in 1993, but more could be done to strengthen the UN’s capacity to monitor the security situation of countries and predict the likelihood of an outbreak of ethnic violence.
In a world of ‘problems without passports’, multilateralism is no longer a second option, especially when it comes to issues like genocide and other mass atrocities. Strengthening the ability of the United Nations to deal with such crises is in everyone’s interests. Martin Luther King once said:
“Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilisations are written the pathetic words: ‘Too late.’”
Let us hope that reform of the UN Security Council can help avert another Rwanda, Srebrenica, Kosovo or Darfur.