Why the UN is like a failed state

Aidan Hehir

The double veto cast by Russia and China blocking the draft Security Council resolution on Syria provoked a chorus of international outrage. William Hague called it ‘cold-blooded cynicism’. Hillary Clinton said:

To block this resolution is to bear responsibility for the horrors that are occurring on the ground in Syria.

The US, the UK and France may be lamenting the use of the veto this month, but they have never shown any interest in scrapping or even amending it. Though occasionally inconvenient, it gives the five permanent members of the Security Council (P5) privileges too great to rescind, regardless of its detrimental effect on the UN's efficiency or the consequences for victims of atrocities.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has used the veto more than the other members of the Security Council combined, often in obviously cynical ways. In 2002, it threatened to veto a routine resolution extending the mandate of the peacekeeping force in Bosnia until it secured special concessions for its troops to put them beyond the reach of the International Criminal Court. The US admitted it was in favour of extending the Bosnian mandate, but used the threat of the veto to bully the Council into submitting to its demands on a largely unrelated issue. Last Saturday, Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, condemned Russia and China for their ‘outrageous’ behaviour, less than a year after she vetoed a resolution condemning illegal Israeli settlements, the US standing alone against the other 14 members of the Security Council.

The Security Council was designed to prevent, and if necessary halt, inter-state war, especially between the major powers. The veto was created to ensure that the use of force would be sanctioned only if the entire Council agreed. But during the Cold War the veto quickly became a political tool and its use, or the threat of its use, made the Security Council largely impotent. Since 1991 the Security Council has increased its involvement in intra-state crises and passed an unprecedented number of resolutions under its Chapter VII powers – those related to the collective use of force – but its record has been erratic to say the least. Indicatively, in 1994 it passed Resolution 940 mandating the collective use of force to depose the military junta in Haiti, but failed to respond to the genocide in Rwanda.

Under Articles 24.1 and 24.2 of the Charter, the Security Council is charged with acting on behalf of the member states of the UN and in accordance with the purposes and principles of the Charter. This responsibility has rarely interfered, however, with the decisions made by the P5. Since there is no provision for judicial review of the decisions taken by the Security Council, the commitment to ‘act in conformity with the Charter’ is highly subjective. Since the end of the Cold War, the P5 have creatively interpreted their Chapter VII powers to broaden their reach significantly: the Council today routinely involves itself in issues considered beyond its jurisdiction twenty years ago. But there has been no concomitant strengthening of the means by which the P5’s decisions are regulated.

The P5, therefore, have negligible obligations but enormous discretion as to how the Security Council responds to situations, including when and where it will use force. It can intervene to prevent or halt mass atrocities, but has no duty to do so. So long as this discretion is codified in international law, the decision to intervene will be dependent on the political will of the P5. States that show a comparable degree of political interference in domestic law enforcement are described as ‘failed’ and ‘corrupt’. The General Assembly is set to discuss a new draft resolution on Syria today. The bombardment of Homs continues.


  • 14 February 2012 at 11:18am
    IanGFraser says:
    This only makes sense if international alliance to use force is like law enforcement, and the UN is like a government. Neither is even remotely valid.

    We may dream of an international law not based, as the UN Charter is, on state sovereignty; we may work for it; but it misses the point to criticise the UN as if that were not a dream but reality.

    For obvious reasons Russia & China do not wish to validate interference by outside forces in how a state deals with obstreperous populations, and no amount of waving arms & papers will change that.

  • 16 February 2012 at 6:32pm
    George Hoffman says:
    America has killed over 100,000 innocent civilians during its illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq. And Hillary Clinton, as one of the senators representing the state of New York in the US Senate, voted for this travesty of international law. So I find her moral condemnation of China and Russia rather ironic.
    The UN isn't really like a failed state. It's just a reflection of how its members on the Security Council interpret their obligation to conform to international law when it is convenient and aligned with their own foreign policy interests.