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The failure of the UN: rebuilding from the ruins

Navi Pillay offered a scathing indictment of the UN Security Council's failures to address global crises, most notably in Syria. But the paralysed state of the UN may finally offer the chance to address its inherently undemocratic structure. 

The revealing body language of UN Security Council members during a press briefing on Syria in 2011. Demotix/Europa Newswire. All rights reserved. 

In 1954, the second secretary-general of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, noted that the UN was "an organization not created in order to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell". This calls to mind a fundamental premise of the United Nations: in view of the horrors of two world wars and the Holocaust, it was to prevent mass murder from occurring again in the future.

The UN did not deliver on this promise. Again and again, genocide and crimes against humanity were committed while the UN looked on, unable and unwilling to do something about it, in Biafra, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda or Darfur. Millions of people had to go through hell, countless were killed.

In Syria it is happening again.

Millions of Syrians are displaced, lacking basic necessities, and hopeless in face of their country's descent into brutal civil war and chaos. There are 2.8 million registered refugees. Many more Syrians are in need of help. The UN has stopped updating the death toll at 100,000 last year. It may be at 130,000 now. Four attacks with chemical weapons with thousands of dead and injured are confirmed.

Often it is said that the UN is not perfect but the best we have. This complacent view is an insult to the victims. The time has come to face it: The United Nations is not working.

The UN's biggest problem: the Security Council

No one should forget how the carnage in Syria began. Encouraged by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, nationwide protests erupted in early 2011 calling for democratic reforms. The army was deployed and used massive deadly violence against demonstrators across the country. Those in the military who could not tolerate waging a war against the people deserted, forming the Free Syrian Army to bring down the regime. President Bashar al-Assad and his government bear the responsibility for the bloody crackdown and the subsequent civil war.

The Arab League suspended Syria in late 2011 for the government's failure to stop military action against the civilian population; it was later suspended from the Organization of Islamic Co-operation. At the UN, by contrast, no member state was ever suspended. During the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, the murderous regime even held one of the rotating non-permanent seats of the UN Security Council and continued to participate in the council's deliberations.

The Security Council is not only the UN's most important body; it is also its biggest problem. At the recent G77 summit, the group's current chair, the Bolivian president, Evo Morales, even called for its complete dissolution.

The veto right of the five permanent members (the P5) seriously compromises the council's ability to maintain international peace and security when it matters most. So far, Russia and China have vetoed four resolutions that were otherwise supported by clear majorities condemning the Syrian regime and aiming at a solution of the crisis. All other 13 members, for example, voted in favor of a resolution introduced in May 2014, which provided for a referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

As long as a state can be sure to be backed up by one of the permanent members, and as long as the country concerned has not joined the ICC, there is no international deterrent to the use of excessive force and massive human-rights violations. It need not fear any serious action by the Security Council. From the beginning, this must have been a crucial consideration in Assad's brutal approach.

A formal reform of the Security Council is a hopeless affair. It requires an amendment of the UN's Charter, which is also subject to a veto right of the P5. The international community has been debating the issue for decades and is still divided into opposing camps. The P5 are not ready to abandon their prerogatives. The African Union demands two new permanent seats for Africa that include veto rights as well. Obviously, more members with veto rights would render the council even more dysfunctional. The question rather is how the veto can be bypassed since its abolition seems to be far off, if not impossible.

An initiative of the "Small Five"­–Costa Rica, Jordan, Liechtenstein, Singapore and Switzerland–suggested in 2012 a resolution of the UN General Assembly (GA) calling on the P5 to refrain from using their veto in cases of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. This met fierce opposition from the P5 and eventually was dropped; achieving a two-thirds majority seemed unlikely.

Re-empowering the General Assembly

For a long time, UN member states have fantasized about revitalizing the GA. Resolutions stressed the overall need to enhance the role, authority, effectiveness and efficiency of the assembly, in particular with regard to its role in addressing issues of international peace and security. With sufficient political will, the GA could seize control in cases such as Syria.

The famous “Uniting for Peace” resolution adopted in 1950 by a two-thirds majority of the GA created the prerequisite for a check on the Security Council. It stated that “if the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, the GA shall consider the matter with a view to making recommendations for collective measures, including the use of armed force when necessary”.

The resolution gives the GA an ability to overrule vetoes in the Security Council. Although contested by some, this is by now a prevailing view in international law. The international legal scholar Wolfgang Friedmann noted already in 1964 that the resolution "can be regarded as an indirect amendment of the Charter, transferring certain functions from the Security Council to the Assembly without the complex process of amendment."[1]

In 1974 there was an attempt to expel apartheid South Africa from the UN. Due to vetoes by Britain, France and the United States, the Security Council did not pass the necessary resolution. The GA then decided to deny South Africa participation in its work, effectively suspending the country's membership. This was only revoked after the democratic elections of 1994. There is no legal obstacle to applying this procedure again in the case of Syria. This would be a strong signal for a new approach.

The Security Council has been unable to adopt resolutions that clearly identify the responsibility of the Syrian government for the carnage in the country. Not so the GA. In five resolutions, the first adopted in December 2011, the GA condemned the continued and escalating, systematic human-rights violations, and the use of deadly violence and heavy weapons by the Syrian authorities against the population.

Based on the "United for Peace" instrument, the GA could go much further.

Is the General Assembly democratically representative?

After all, the GA is the world organization's most universal body. This implies a strong political legitimacy. But does it really? Let's do some math. As outlined before, in terms of figures, the 128 smallest countries constitute a two-thirds majority although they only represent about 8% of the world's population. Of course it is just a theoretical scenario that the smallest countries actually vote in a bloc. The point of this exercise is to show that the system of one state, one vote is hardly representative or democratic if we look at it from a cosmopolitan view, according to which every world citizen should have an equal democratic weight.  

This imbalance is one of the basic dysfunctions of the UN. It is no wonder that large countries sidestep the UN and deal with questions such as global financial policy in fora such as the G20. At the UN, they would always be dominated by the dwarfs. On the other hand, it is also questionable that small countries are excluded in such a way. Here we can see that the UN's problems go deeper and beyond the Security Council.

The former GA president Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann of Nicaragua suggested that the assembly should be able to adopt binding resolutions. Under current conditions, this is actually a frightening prospect because small countries representing only little fractions of the world population have an excess weight. In the last resort, especially when it comes to decision-making on military action to stop mass murder, neither the Security Council nor the GA seem to offer working and legitimate solutions.

A fundamental step to strengthen the General Assembly's democratic legitimacy is to complement it with a parliamentary body. A UN Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA) would be composed of democratically elected representatives, including from the minority and opposition parties, and the seats would be roughly distributed according to population sizes. It could be provided that, under the "Uniting for Peace" instrument, decisions would have to be adopted with qualified majorities by both the GA and the UNPA. Such decisions would be hard to come by, but their democratic legitimacy could hardly be questioned.

What is more, if it comes to implementation, the UN is once again empty-handed. In fact, the system of collective security, as envisioned by the UN's founders, was never implemented. Chapter VII expects the conclusion of special agreements that would put armed forces at the disposal of the Security Council. A rapid reaction force under UN command is an indispensable necessity. Ideally, this force would be fully independent from voluntary contributions of UN member states and a UNPA would exercise democratic oversight over its operations.

As the former UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who is also a strong supporter of a UNPA, explained in his Agenda for Peace in 1992, "The ready availability of armed forces on call could serve, in itself, as a means of deterring breaches of the peace since a potential aggressor would know that the Council had at its disposal a means of response."

This program might sound utopian. But for millions of people it might make all the difference between life and death. The same applies to the UN itself. Despite all talk about UN reform, it is highly questionable whether UN member states actually will be willing to take the required leap, without being pressed to do so by civil society and the world's citizens.


[1] Friedmann, Wolfgang. The Changing Structure of International Law. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964. p. 153f.


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