As one of the six organs of the United Nations, the UN Security Council is tasked with maintaining international peace and security. It has 15 members; 10 of which are elected and serve on a two-year basis, and five that are permanent. However, on a fundamental basis, the decision-making processes of the Security Council are inherently flawed.
After the fallout from WWII and the disappointment of former US president Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations, the international community was optimistic. It thought creating a security council with the five major powers: France, China, the UK, US and Soviet Union would be conducive to international peace.
The chief problem with the system that resulted from this idealistic notion is that for a resolution to pass the Security Council there needs to be nine votes in favour of it and for none of the five permanent members to have voted against it. This essentially gives those five original member states a veto which any of them can use to completely block a resolution from passing. The US entry into the UN was contingent on this design.
Yet still, adhering to the liberal ideologies which formed the UN, the five permanent members should put aside positive-sum gains for the betterment of the international community, right? This is where another fundamental flaw in the Security Council arises.
Russia, China and the US are all competing for levels of hegemonic influence in international politics. As a result, their foreign policies often have inherently different goals.
There are several examples of strategic vetoes from Russia, China and the US.
From a statistical standpoint, Russia and the US have vetoed a significantly higher number of resolutions than the other permanent members.
This high number of vetoes is due to resolutions not coinciding with their independent foreign policy goals. For example, Russia’s involvement in Syria.
Russia backs the Syrian dictator, Bashr al-Assad, while also it also conducts operations against ISIS in an ostensible attempt to promote itself as a team player.
According to Genevieve Casagrande, a Syrian analyst, Russia backs Assad in order to maintain its geopolitical influence in the Middle East and military presence in the Mediterranean Sea. Russian president Vladimir Putin cannot withdraw his forces, nor push for real political change in Syria as both avenues would promote American influence in the Middle East and tarnish Russia’s prestige.
Operations in Syria also have the added benefit of providing a testing ground for Russia’s modernising military capability.
Russia has vetoed UN resolutions 12 times – more than China’s total vetoes in history – since the conflict began in 2011. The vetoes have regarded Assad’s use of chemical weapons, which under the Geneva Protocol is an international war crime. Further, both China and Russia have been blocking attempts by other Security Council members to charge Assad’s government with human rights abuse or even investigate its known use of chemical weapons.
China now backs Russian military involvement in Syria, as it sees Syria as a strategic economic opportunity for its One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project. Additionally, by backing Syria, China and Russia strengthen its military and economic ties with Iran, projecting its influence in the Middle East.
Of course, the United States has its own agenda in Syria. Since 2014, the US has conducted the most airstrikes of any country on Syria. The US bombed chemical weapons stores, Islamic State fighters and played a leading role in the coalition that has killed an estimated 6,000 - 9,600 civilians in air strikes.
The US and UK have vested interests in the result of the Syrian War. A victory for the Assad government would leave a dictator in power and be a great strategic boon for Russia and China, weakening Western influence in the Middle East amidst a constantly shifting geopolitical battleground for power; similar to the years of the Cold War.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union (USSR) recorded 68 vetoes, while the US had 61. This is the clearest example of the Security Council’s functions being outdated. The vetoes during the Cold War essentially blocked any unified UN involvement in the proxy wars between the USSR and the US; as a result, both were able to significantly further their own national interests unhindered.
It must be mentioned that the Security Council has achieved victories, such as the joint dissolution of apartheid in South Africa, as well as achieving ceasefires and promoting meaningful change in the international community.
Yet, are these victories enough in the face of greater, long-term challenges? The Security Council veto is a major force hindering the full actualisation of the UN’s raison d’etre: achieving global peace and security.
It was a myopic compromise for the UN to create a system where one veto from a major power could have such an influence on the stability of peace and security. George Sagris is a journalist and Honours graduate in Japanese-Chinese politics based in Adelaide.