The conflict in Syria has resulted in the greatest humanitarian disaster of recent times. In 1945, the global community said ‘never again’ to loss on such a wide scale. They said the same in 1999 after the Rwandan genocide. Despite the loss of over 140,000 lives, the UN’s only decision has been to boost limited humanitarian aid, after over 3 years of conflict. The vetoes of Russia and China led the U.S. to seek action through alternative institutions such as NATO. This should not be the American response to the paralysis of the Security Council. The answer is not to sideline it. The answer is to reform it.
The root of the problem is the make up of the permanent member states, United States, Russia, France, China and the United Kingdom. They reflect the World War II victors, not the rising economic powers of today. The world is no longer governed by colonial powers of Britain and France; their continued presence is completely anachronistic. Germany does not hold a seat due to their defeat in 1945, despite being the greatest political and economic European nation today. Brazil and India are recognized as the future economic superpowers of tomorrow, yet they receive no permanent status in the most powerful international institution in existence today.
Another anachronism is the size of the Security Council. Whilst the number of member states has increased dramatically, from 51 to 193 states, the number of P5 members has remained the same since the day it was created. To have so much power in so few hands does not reflect the multi-polar world we live in today. Nor is it in the democratic spirit of the UN to have five members dictating the most important decisions about the world we live in.
In fact, whole regions are left without any representation; the Middle East, South America and Africa receive no say in issues that affect them most deeply. It is ludicrous that a decision about future action in Syria is decided upon by a membership that it not constitutive of anyone from the region. It is no wonder the UN is criticized as imperialist.
The reason why these institutional flaws result in policy paralysis is that they put too much power into the hands of individual nations. These are individual nations with self-interested motives, with arguably little reason to consider the native people their decisions concern. For example, Russia’s veto of intervention in Syria was based on their geo-political alliances with the Assad regime, not the interests of the Syrian people. In the same way the United States’ veto of the removal of Israeli settlements in 2011 was based on maintaining good U.S.- Israeli relations, not the interests of the West Bank Palestinians or the majority of Israeli citizens who oppose settlements.
Reforms can go a long way in solving these issues. There have been efforts to modernize the membership and provide greater regional representation. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the UN has called reform, asking for India to be added as a permanent member. Most notably the G4, made up of Germany, India, Brazil and Japan, have lobbied for permanent member status. Given the economic power of these countries, this might be a more realistic and achievable reform. It would be at least a small amount of progress towards wider representation. More importantly it would be a marginally better reflection of current global power structures.
Yet, this would still not solve the problem of vetoes based on individual nation’s self interest, without due concern for regional interests. Therefore, a much more effective Security Council reform would be to designate permanent blocs to regional organizations, such as the African Union and the European Union, not individual states. Many of these types of institutions are already in place, meaning that these changes would not be difficult to introduce. Some of these organizations, such as the European Union, already have democratic procedures in place, meaning the Council could be directly accountable to their citizens.
If whole regions had to co-operate to veto action, it much less likely that decisions would be made on a single nation’s self interest. It would be more likely that decisions were based on cogent arguments and ethical concerns for the people affected, not individualistic motivations.
However, these reforms must come quickly. The current structure of the UN Security Council renders it impotent and its inability to deal with the current Syrian conflict has tragic humanitarian consequences for those involved. Reforms that allow the UN to effectively deal with the crises of tomorrow are an urgent priority. If the Council does not wish to be completely sidelined, it must undertake drastic reform, and fast.