The drafters of the UN Charter laid the foundation for strong multilateralism by expecting the winners of World War II to collectively use their individual know-how for the realization of a peaceful world. But in practice, the five permanent members of the Security Council (P5) have strayed from this laudable ideal. They have instead subscribed to a bipolar world order, molded by permanent tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War and extending beyond. It is imperative that the P5 once again share the leadership role of promoting international peace and security on equal terms.
Since 1945, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has been entrusted with the maintenance of international peace and security, as delineated in Chapters 6 and 7 of the UN Charter. Initially, the number of Council members was capped at eleven, but following the amendment of Article 23 of the Charter—which was ratified on June 12, 1968—the figure was raised to fifteen. It includes five permanent members (the P5), namely the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China, and ten non-permanent members, selected by the General Assembly for two years at a time based on the country’s contribution to the organization and geographical distribution. Although each member holds equal voting power in procedural matters, only the P5 enjoy a special power to reject any resolution that may hinder the maintenance of peace and security in the world. According to Article 27.3, any resolution on non-procedural matters (i.e., sanctions, military intervention in conflict zones, admission of a new member, choice of a new secretary-general, and reform of the UNSC) must be supported by an affirmative vote of at least nine out of fifteen members of the Council, including a unanimous vote of the P5. As such, permanent cooperation rather than rivalry among the P5 would better ensure international peace and security.
With this extra influence in hand, the great powers have a strong incentive to remain in the Council; at the same time, however, it can be used to incapacitate the world organization altogether and result in deep global divisions, thus proving to be a double-edged sword. As the saying goes, old habits die hard. The Truman Doctrine of containing Soviet influence came to fruition when, in February 1948, the Iron Curtain dividing Eastern and Western Europe was established. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was founded in April 1948 with the goal of keeping the potential rise of another hostile Germany in check by allowing America in and pushing communist Russia out of capitalist Europe. Since then, through an alliance-building strategy, three P5 members have stood united under the cover of NATO (France, Great Britain, and the United States), leaving China with no choice but to align itself with Russia in non-procedural matters discussed in the Security Council—the rest is history.
A War-Driven, Bipolar World
For five decades under the watch of the UNSC, the world sunk into the Cold War, transforming legitimate claims for self-determination into proxy wars in parts of Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Although the dividing wall between the Eastern and Western blocs fell in 1989, the continuous contemporary use of veto power deepens the prevalent climate of mistrust among the winners of World War II. All the while, these powers top the list of exporters of weapons of mass destruction. The end of the Cold War made the politics of containment obsolete, but it left behind a world characterized by widespread insecurity and lack of peace. With the 1991 Operation Desert Storm during the Gulf War, the P5 for the first time unanimously endorsed peace enforcement, successfully pulling Kuwait from the jaws of invading Iraq. However, the misuse of veto power has frequently resulted in gridlock that fuels violent conflicts worldwide. Put differently, each time one or more permanent members withdraws their support for collective actions in favor of peace and security, the bottom billions drift into protracted conflicts, from ex-Yugoslavia and Haiti to Liberia, Somalia, and Sierra Leone, to name but a few.
Notably, the 1994 genocide in Rwanda could have been avoided had the UNSC taken a decisive position. Between 1996 and 2002, approximately six million people perished during the “African World War” in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but world leaders applied the “ostrich policy,” pretending there was no threat to international peace and security. The abuse of veto powers and a failure to provide vital support has led to many unjust wars affecting millions worldwide. For instance, in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, US troops invaded Afghanistan in November 2001 without the seal of approval from the Security Council. Similarly, nor did all P5 members support the preemptive war in Iraq that toppled the Saddam Hussein regime, the OTAN bombardment of Libya in 2011 that facilitated the capture of Kaddafi, or the Western support of the Free Syrian Army’s actions against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. It is worth mentioning that the UNSC holds the power to impose an arms embargo on sovereign states deemed untrustworthy, but it falls short of exposing the military capability of armed non-state actors that are engaged in endless wars against legitimate governments. As an illustration, in a September 2022 interview with France24, the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterresescribed the terrorist group M23 operating in D.R. Congo as a modern army equipped with more sophisticated and advanced weapons than the UN Stabilization Mission, MONUSCO. Over the years, such shortcomings of the UNSC have attracted an outpouring of suggestions intended to overhaul the highest decision-making body.
Reforming the Security Council?
It seems that the rallying point of every call for reform consists of creating additional seats for permanent UNSC members with veto power. The European Union lobbies for one seat in the Council that would carry the aspirations of the European people. The African continent has yet to agree on whether South Africa, Nigeria, or Egypt would rightly represent its culturally diverse people. The Middle East too would want to hold a permanent seat and defend the interests of the region. This persistent call for membership expansion suggests that more members holding veto powers would be better for world peace, when the opposite seems to be the case. It requires just one negative vote from any permanent member to nullify a resolution, regardless of broad support among the Council. Initiated recently by the United States and supported by ten out of fifteen members, a draft resolution condemning Russia’s attempt to annex four regions of Ukraine was struck down by Moscow’s veto.
Given that veto power hides behind military power, expanding the membership of the UNSC is like dealing with symptoms while ignoring the cause of the disease. As long as the sale of weapons of war remains a lucrative business among Western nations with veto power, violent conflicts will still affect poor nations. The reason behind the rejection of any structural change in the UNSC is nothing more than a tacit resolve on the part of the P5 to preserve their privileges while maintaining the status quo that benefits powerful nations the most. No Council member has raised the question as to whether or not Russia should be expelled from the organization in line with Article 6 of the Charter, given that a veto-wielding Russia will reject the agenda. Arguably, the ongoing Russian war against Ukraine is not just another breach of the UN Charter by a permanent member of the UNSC but an indication that the veto power does not guarantee peace in the world. It was simply an incentive to keep the P5 together. It seems that the bone of contention is the misuse of veto power rather than the creation of additional seats in the Council chamber. Therefore, a rework of the role of the P5 is worthwhile.
Back to the Basics: Multilateralism
When the Allies excluded the Axis Powers and their cobelligerents from the Council for causing WWII, they committed to putting their differences behind them and working together for peace and security. By bestowing the privilege of holding equal powers upon the winners of the war, the drafters of the UN Charter intended to establish a multipolar system based on five centers of power participating independently on equal terms, not grouped into alliances. However, in an attempt to circumvent the obstacles associated with the veto power discussed earlier, it is important to reimagine the specific mandate of the victorious powers in terms of multilateralism rather than a military power play.
Multilateralism presupposes strict adherence to the Charter by the entire membership of the UN for smooth cooperation between nations. As far as the UNSC is concerned, it points to a system of coordinating actions among various stakeholders based on established principles of conduct with a goal of achieving results in particular areas of common concern. Multilateralism provides an antidote to alliance building because the latter expects weaker states to bandwagon the stronger ones for their respective survival while erecting walls of separation among people and nations. More than ever before, developing nations long for multilateralism which gives each party the liberty to choose their business partners on a win-win basis.
Therefore, the P5 symbolizes corporate leadership that allows peace at the top to run through the entire body and reach the bottom level. In discharging its noble mandate of maintaining international peace and security, the P5 set the world on the path of multilateralism, creating international cooperation and diplomacy on a permanent basis to ensure enduring world peace. Satisfying human needs and aspirations requires more than the one-size-fits-all approach displayed by unilateralism with its attendant power and domination. Only through a multilateral approach can sustainable solutions be found to address the prevalent climate crisis, international migration, pandemics, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, violent conflicts, and terrorism.
Multilateralism calls for an open, rules-based game that ensures all nations and people participate fairly. Observing the International Day of Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace, Guterres admitted that the commitment to multilateralism, which is at the heart of the UN Charter, is eroding, and urged governments and leaders to renew this mandate through dialogue as the only sustainable path to peace. In particular, the five permanent members of the UNSC must share the leadership role in such a way that no nation would be able to unilaterally impose its whims on others if they stand for peace.
The intended multipolar system of leadership at the UNSC has since given way to bipolar options through alliance building. The greatest danger is for the P5 to become the P1, with one member playing a hegemonic role in the UNSC. The ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia testifies to the growing polarization of the Security Council extending well beyond the Cold War era. It is a reminder that unilateralism breeds international wars. The way out of the quagmire is for the leaders of the P5 to recognize that the power configuration has dramatically changed since 1945. Yesterday’s Axis Powers are trusted democracies today. Similarly, many emerging powers beg for inclusion in the highest decision-making body based on the volume of their respective economies, the size of their populations, the strength of their military establishments, and other relevant metrics. Collectively, they must accept individual responsibilities and commit themselves once again to upholding the spirit of the UN Charter by fostering mutual respect and their common interests: peace and security. Maybe at the next G20 Summit in Indonesia, the handshakes will signal a new dawn of multilateralism.
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Dr. Jean-Marie Kasonga Mbombo is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin and a senior lecturer and researcher at the Centre for Peace and Strategic Studies. His research interests include liberal peacebuilding, the United Nations, conflict management in the Great Lakes region of Africa, and restorative justice. Dr. Mbombo is also the founder and CEO of Peace People Network, an organization whose vision is to give peace a human face.
Image Credits: Flikr, UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe