by Philip Cunliffe
Tuesday, 4
October 2022
Debate
10:15

The latest Russian veto shows it’s time to give up on the UN

The international body always fails in its defence of weaker countries
by Philip Cunliffe
UN Security Council vote on resolution not to recognise Russian annexation

Ever since the signing of the United Nations Charter in San Francisco in 1945, its legal framework has been seen as offering a bulwark against expansionism and international aggression. The insistence in the Charter on sovereign equality, territorial integrity and non-interference in the internal affairs of member-states allowed ex-colonial states to enshrine their independence from their former masters. The UN also facilitated mobilisation to defend the independence of its member states. It was through the international body, for example, that the US organised an enormous coalition to reverse the Iraqi annexation of Kuwait in the 1990-1991 Gulf War. 

Although UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has openly criticised the Russian annexation of the oblasts of eastern Ukraine, Russia being one of the five permanent members (P5), of the Security Council means that it was able to use its veto to block a UN resolution condemning the annexation. Will the UN be able to offer any further legal and political recourse for Ukraine in the defence of its sovereignty from Russia?

As exemplified by Russian diplomatic behaviour in New York, the problem with UN action is usually cast as the problem of the veto — the fact that the Charter grants the P5, the victors of the Second World War, the legal right to immobilise any collective action that they perceive as threatening their self-interests. Various proposals have been repeatedly floated to discourage and restrain the use of the veto, as well as various schemes to expand and reform the Council. 

However, the problems with the UN run deeper. The rationale for the veto is that it serves as a binding mechanism, so that there is never a scenario in which a permanent member feels compelled to leave the UN in order to defend their vital interest, thereby breaking up the organisation. In other words, the veto is the guarantee of the integrity of the UN system itself. This reflects the intended function of the UN as a ‘trusteeship of the powerful’ in the words of Franklin Roosevelt, one of the founders of the UN. 

In keeping with this vision, the Charter correspondingly concentrates an enormous amount of legal and political power in the hands of the P5. All legal protections that the Charter affords member-states, including the right to non-interference and even the right of self-defence, can be legally overridden by the Council. It can do this if it is deemed to be in the interest of defending international peace and security, which they are also at liberty themselves to define. That the UN came to be associated with the anti-imperial insurgency of the Third World against colonial states was more a reflection of the geopolitics of the Cold War than it was the intent of the framers of the UN Charter.

Indeed, the closest that we came to seeing the UN function as was originally intended was across the 1990s, when the P5 were happy to sign off on each other’s military interventions in their respective spheres of influence. For example, in 1994 the UN authorised Russian intervention in Georgia, US intervention in Haiti and French intervention in Rwanda. This relatively harmonious system of collective legitimation for great power predation could not last indefinitely, as the growing penchant for military intervention inevitably led to the great powers beginning to encroach on each other’s respective spheres of influence. 

It is the breakdown of this system over the last 20 years, beginning with the NATO war over Kosovo in 1999, which was conducted without UN authorisation due to Russian and Chinese opposition, that led to our current impasse. Where does this leave us with respect to Ukraine?

Put simply, the UN prioritises the interests of the P5 above all else. Russia’s annexation of the territory of a neighbouring state makes plain that the UN is redundant as a haven for weaker and smaller states. If sovereignty is to be defended as a principle, we can no longer rely on decrepit international institutions inherited from the mid-twentieth century. Perhaps the fight for Ukrainian sovereignty can also be the start of a new international era, more respectful of national independence than the UN has ever been.

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R S Foster
R S Foster
1 month ago

…personally, I’d accept the reality and abandon the whole worthless enterprise…and operate in future on the basis of the The West vs the (mostly vile) Rest. But unless we go that far, we need the P5 as a brake against the overwhelming UN majority of rotten-dog regimes run by kleptocratic sociopaths.
Anything more democratic would only result in UN agreement to nuke Israel, prior to issuing a mandate to China and Russia to attack and loot the few decent democracies there are on earth, and distribute the spoils between themselves and the various monsters and savages they employ to do their bidding across the World…
…those of us fortunate to be of “The West” need to remember that the overwhelming majority of the rest hate us, want to kill us…and will do so if we give them the opportunity.

Last edited 1 month ago by R S Foster
Jürg Gassmann
Jürg Gassmann
1 month ago

Yes and no.
Anticolonialism was a cornerstone objective of both the US and by extension the UN from its very inception. Having traded Britain’s colonial commercial assets for Lend-Lease (e.g. Cable & Wireless’ assets in the Caribbean, later AT&T’s international business), FDR was insistent on dismantling both the French and British colonial empires. That remained US policy, and informed Eisenhower’s decision to pull the rug from under the Brits, French and Israelis in the Suez Crisis.
The Soviets too of course were happy to support an anti-colonialist agenda. Like the US, they counted on adding the newly independent countries to their sphere of influence and client list.
The primacy of the anti-colonialism principle can still be seen in the ICJ’s advisory opinion on the 2008 Kosovo declaration of independence, which has provided the template for Russia’s modus operandi in Crimea and the recent referenda.
Realistically, we have no alternative to the UN. As with so many institutions, the truly powerful do not need it, and are happy to undermine it when it does not serve their purposes; in this respect, the US is as guilty as Russia and her predecessor, the Soviet Union. No procedural or organisational wheeze will fix that. But this misses the point that it is the only avenue for the less powerful to have any voice at all.

chris Barton
chris Barton
1 month ago

Anyone with any sense gave up on this cartel ages ago. The only things it is good for is back handers to corrupt tyrants (the ones we don’t mind dealing with), an old folks home for failed politicians and money laundering. Its just an extension of the US political system essentially.

Scott McCloud
Scott McCloud
1 month ago

The UN is a marvelous solution to the problem of what to do with powerless but venal and self-important men, to allow them the fiction of believing themselves to be necessary to good and proper order.

Last edited 1 month ago by shootist.mp
Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
1 month ago

The UN was never intended to take sides against a great power, and realistically that was the only way it could be created, and to do so would be the end of the institution. The Security Council was an improvement on the League of Nations, which only had the equivalent of the General Assembly and found it very difficult to take any action at all.
The UN has its uses, as a forum for discussion, as a meeting place where people from different countries get to know each other so they can do bsuiness and even negotiate when necessary, as the base for ongoing international organizations, and to arbitrate or regulate among lesser powers when great power conflicts are not intrinsic.
There is a case for doing away with it altogether, its Secretariat is much too big and incredibly corrupt, and that is for structural reasons that will not be cured by throwing out a few bad eggs. But it is foolish to expect it to do things it was never intended to do, and structured not to do.
If there is a problem with the structure it is that it froze 1945 in place. This was adjusted for China’s case by some clever steps, but the rationale for vetoes for France and the UK but not India or maybe Indonesia or Brazil, is getting thredbare and will only become more so. But that is a completely different issue.

Last edited 1 month ago by Martin Johnson
Methadras Aszlosis
Methadras Aszlosis
1 month ago

There is a reason that the UN really means the United Nothing. When are people going to continue to allow bureaucrats to rule their lives? It is an absolute corrupt organization with little to no effect on anything of value or note. Eject them from New York. Let Brussels take up the mantle of this devious den of thieves and turn the entire property into luxury apartments.Then it will serve an actual purpose.

Mike Fraser
Mike Fraser
1 month ago

BUT…United Nations General Assembly (UNGAresolution 377 A,[1] the “Uniting for Peace” resolution, states that in any cases where the Security Council, because of a lack of unanimity among its five permanent members (P5), fails to act as required to maintain international security and peace, the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately and may issue appropriate recommendations to UN members for collective measures, including the use of armed force when necessary, in order to maintain or restore international security and peace[2] The resolution was designed to provide the UN with an alternative avenue for action when at least one P5 member uses its veto to obstruct the Security Council from carrying out its functions mandated by the UN Charter.

Jürg Gassmann
Jürg Gassmann
1 month ago
Reply to  Mike Fraser

Yes, but General Assembly resolutions are not binding, whereas Security Council resolutions are.
As with the EU, the organisation’s lack of power and democratic legitimation is a feature, not a bug; it is a deliberate choice of the organisation’s members.
GA resolutions may inform international law, but as Dean Acheson said during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the survival of nations is not a matter of law.