The history of the United Nations is a relatively short but storied one. Created in 1945 to replace the League of Nations as the main international body for the promotion of world peace, the United Nations has, for the most part, lived up to its mission. It was initially touted as a venue where world leaders could peacefully work out their differences and where countries could work together to make the world a safer place. In the post-Cold War era, as world leaders became capable of having meetings and summits without the threat of one participant declaring nuclear war on another, the UN put more focus on humanitarian efforts. With 120,000 peacekeepers worldwide, scores of world health initiatives, and a great deal of organized relief efforts, the UN has managed to remain relevant in terms of the social welfare of the world.
But what about in terms of its original goals of multilateral diplomacy and world peace? No. The Security Council, the body that most exemplifies these goals, no longer reflects the balance of power in the world and therefore can no longer be the sole authority on what is in the best interest of the world. When first created, it consisted of the five victors of World War II: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China. Now those five countries have permanent seats and veto power, and there are ten other non-permanent members. Five non-permanent members are elected every year to serve a term of two years.
However fair and balanced it may be in theory, in reality the Security Council is incredibly lopsided. The five permanent members are consistently at the top of the list of countries with the highest military expenditures. They account for 60% of global military expenditures, 40% of which is attributed is attributed to the United States alone. Along with Germany, they are the five largest arms exporters and are the only nations officially recognized as “nuclear-weapon states.” When another country is elected to become a non-permanent member of the Security Council, they get to play with the big kids. Bigger kids means bigger perks. When a country is elected to become a non-permanent member, that country’s aid from the United States increases by 59% and its aid from the UN increases by 8%.
This increase in aid from arguably the most powerful country on the Security Council and from the United Nations itself to a country that is elected to join the body looks like a shrewdly strategic plan. The country vying for a spot has two opportunities– to become involved in international politics in a significant way, and to expose their needs to the rest of the world. It is entirely plausible that a prospective member could trade their vote for political and financial favors during their term. For a political body that is supposed to be of the utmost importance, it all sounds rather nefarious.
The Security Council is also lopsided in that it no longer represents the balance of power in terms of demographics. The permanent members are from North America, Europe, and Asia. There is no permanent representation for Africa or Latin America. There are many who argue that in order for the Security Council to fully be able to make decisions about what is best of the safety of the world, the entire world needs to be represented.
Another bloc of counties that does not have permanent representation is the Arab counties. Currently, a representative from an Arab country is chosen alternatively from the African or the Asian bloc. As Arab counties become bigger players on the world stage, they should be included in the conversation about missing representation.
The Security Council is the UN body whose role and power is most overemphasized. Symbolically, the Security Council carries a lot of weight. In reality, it functions like any governing body that is chaired by large egos. As previously mentioned, the five permanent members have the power to veto any resolution. According to the bylaws of the UN, a vote of “no” by any permanent member is enough to strike down any given resolution. Permanent members most often utilize this power to strike down a resolution that runs contrary to their own interests. Most recently, the United States vetoed 32 resolutions that were critical of Israel. The liberal use of the veto has lead to permanent members meeting privately to discuss resolutions before presenting them to the full council, effectively circumventing the rest of the Security Council.
As for the resolutions that do make it through a vote, countries who violate them rarely face repercussions. In the aftermath of both the Srebrenica massacre and the crisis in Darfur, there were no sanctions placed on any country. The United Nations acknowledged that grave errors of judgement were made on its part in Srebrenica, and those responsible in Darfur have been charged by the International Criminal Court, but the fact remains that the Security Council did nothing about it.
The Security Council needs to put aside whatever political agenda it may have, and actually focus on the safety and security of the world. As idealistic as that sounds, it is true. Politics have no place in an area where the welfare of thousands of people is at stake. If each of the permanent members checked their country’s ego at the door, a lot of progress could be made. Five of the most powerful countries in the world, along with ten others, should be able to use their combined power to make the world a better place.
Hannah Buckley may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org