/ 4 October 2022

Time to do away with ‘dysfunctional’ United Nations Security Council

Un Security Council
A high-level meeting of the U.N. Security Council is held at the U.N. headquarters in New York on Sept. 22, 2022, to discuss the Ukraine crisis. (Photo by Kyodo News via Getty Images)

The conscription of an additional 300 000 troops in Russia is a sign that  President Vladimir Putin is hunkering down for the long haul in the Ukraine war, which was launched by a Russian invasion on 24 February this year. 

Despite the escalation of violence and the endless supply of weapons from the West, mainly the US and Western European countries, the United Nations Security Council has failed to de-escalate the crisis, which indicates it is no longer a useful institution when it comes to making peace in the 21st century. There is a clear case for dismantling the council and establishing a new global collective security system. 

The images of millions of Ukrainians, and citizens of other countries fleeing the Russian assault at the outset of the war evokes memories of the millions of refugees from the violence of the first and second world wars. The brutality of the Russian attack on Ukraine cannot be questioned and the urgency of a mediation process is self-evident. Efforts to mediate ongoing and future crises in which one or more members of the permanent five members of the Security Council — Russia, China, France, the United States and the United Kingdom — are involved will be confronted by the same systemic failure. 

The council’s inability to intervene through mediation and preventive diplomacy has led to the resurgence of power politics and the proliferation of authoritarian regimes that are prepared to defy the will of the international system of rules and regulations governing the conduct between states. 

The founding principles of the UN as the world’s self-designated purveyor of international peace and security have become paralysed by the realpolitik of the permanent members of the Security Council, which was already a feature of the Cold War, and which has rendered it impotent and ineffectual in preventing and resolving violent conflict. 

After the subjugation of the fascist and totalitarian powers at the end of World War II, the wartime allies decided to construct a new framework for the post-war world order. The UN was the progeny of this endeavour and its primary purpose was to ensure that there was an institutional mechanism that, according to the UN Charter of 1945, would encourage its members to “settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that the international peace and security, and justice are not endangered’”. 

Through the mechanisms of the Security Council and the General Assembly, the UN was provided with the ability to oversee the peaceful settlement of disputes. Specifically, Article 33 of Chapter VI of the UN Charter states that “the parties to any dispute, the continuance of which is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security, shall, first of all, seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement”. 

To operationalise these interventions, the broad range of institutions in the UN could be used. The UN is the composite formation of its Secretariat, the member states and its numerous agencies. But the Security Council is the most powerful of these institutions and it has a primary responsibility to create and establish the framework conditions for other branches and institutions of the UN to contribute toward the peaceful resolution of disputes.

What seemed initially to be a resourceful array of mechanisms and processes to resolve conflicts were soon to be confronted by the structural limitations and the egotistical imperatives of the superpowers that dominated the Cold War era. The superpowers (the US and the Soviet Union) and their client states in the UN framework, formed de facto alliances along ideological lines and institutionalised an oligarchy of power. 

This appropriation of global power manifested itself through the dominance of the Security Council in all major decisions and meant that the UN’s ability to resolve conflicts and build peace became structurally paralysed. Rarely, if at all, did the interests of the US or the Soviet Union converge. The greatest threat to international peace and security, therefore, arose from the conflict between the Security Council’s most powerful members. 

The Cold War period witnessed over 150 armed conflicts which claimed about 25 to 30 million lives. In this climate of East-West competition the mechanisms and strategies to manage and resolve conflicts relied on coercive political negotiations in the context of the prevailing superpower rivalry. 

In effect, the involvement of other collective security organisations and third parties was restrained and possible only in conflicts in which the great powers did not have a direct stake or in which they had shared interests. So even though the UN established what could have served as institutions capable of creating the framework conditions for peacemaking, it was severely undermined by the exigencies of Machiavellian superpower politics during the Cold War.   

The self-interested agendas and cynical actions of the five permanent members of the Security Council have transformed it into a net contributor to global insecurity, as evidenced by the effect worldwide of the Russian-instigated crisis in Ukraine. The systemic failure of the council suggests the need for an urgent transformation of the international system. 

Since the idea of transforming the global system was muted after the end of the Cold War, in the early 1990s, and after close to three decades of the rhetoric of restructuring, the fallacy of UN reform has become a self-evident truth. Powerful countries in the UN system, in particular the five permanent members, continue to dangle the perpetual promise of reform, which they have no intention of honouring. 

Given the reality of the paralysis of the council and the indefinite postponement of UN reform, the world needs to dismantle it and establish a process for the radical transformation of the international system and the articulation of a new global democratic architecture, which will include a new global infrastructure for mediation, peacemaking and peacebuilding. 

There is a pathway for members of the UN General Assembly to embark on a UN Charter review process that can lay the foundation for the establishment of this new global democratic dispensation. Based on ideas that have been promoted by the World Federalist Movement for close to half a century, the time has come to think about creating a new structure for global governance. 

Such a structure would be premised on a fundamental shift away from privileging the nation-state in global affairs. A newly established World Federation of Nations would feasibly include the following organs: World Parliament, Council of Supra-nations, Assembly of Nation-states, Committee of Sub-national Groups, Global Forum of NGOs, Global Committee of Unions and Transnational Corporations, a Global Court of Justice and an International Security Force.

The founders of the UN recognised that the moment would arrive when it became imperative to transform the organisation and included a practical mechanism to review the body’s Charter. Specifically, Article 109 of the UN Charter provides for a “General Conference of the Members for the purpose of reviewing the present Charter”. 

According to Article 109, of the UN Charter, a Charter Review Conference could be convened at a specific date and place if it is approved by “a two-thirds vote of the members of the General Assembly and by a vote of any nine members of the Security Council”. Therefore in practice, there are no major obstacles to convening a Charter Review Conference apart from securing the necessary percentages described above. 

In addition, the decision-making process at such a Charter Review Conference would be relatively democratic in the sense that “each member of the United Nations shall have one vote in the conference”. This Charter Review Conference could be initiated through a process of mobilising the will of two-thirds of the General Assembly and nine members of the Security Council. The latter provision means that the five permanent members cannot veto any proposed UN Charter Review Conference. 

Such a Charter Review Conference could adopt a recommendation to substantially alter the UN Charter and introduce new provisions including a change in the name of the institution to, for example, the World Federation of Nations. The adoption of these new recommendations could be on the basis of a two-thirds vote of the conference and each member of the UN General Assembly would have one vote.

There are precedents for Charter Review processes leading to the establishment of new international organisations, notably the Organisation of African Unity’s transformation into the African Union, initiated by a meeting of Heads of State and Government in 1999. Therefore, a UN Charter Review Conference could lead to the formation of the World Federation of Nations through broad-based and inclusive consultations that include governments, civil society, business, trade unions, and academics.

The trajectory of the UN Security Council’s dysfunctionality and systemic failure created the conditions that rendered it ineffective in the face of the 2022 Russia-Ukraine crisis. This crisis strengthens the case for the dismantling and radical overhaul of the UN Security Council as an institutional framework. 

The UN began with only 51 members and now includes 193 countries. In a similar fashion, a new global democratic system can begin with a small coalition of like-minded states, and as the UN system withers away, an institution fit for purpose will emerge to address the challenges that humanity faces in the 21st century.

Tim  Murithi is the head of the Peacebuilding Interventions Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town and editor of the Routledge Handbook of Africa’s International Relations.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.