My insecurity about the Security Council



As I write this (on 24 October) it is international UN Day. Of course, you all knew that already, right?

Well, the day celebrates the entry into force of the UN Charter in 1945. With the ratification of this founding document by the majority of its signatories, including the five permanent members (P5) of the Security Council, the United Nations officially came into being. Currently, there are 193 member states of the United Nations (that’s a good pub quiz question).

The UN Charter speaks of the “purposes and principles of the United Nations”. Focused around the promotion of international peace and security, it also talks of the sovereign equality of nations and for encouraging the respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Chapter V of the Charter establishes the Security Council, including the P5 members: China, Russia, France, the US, and the UK. Chapter VII of the Charter provides that the Security Council, but only when acting under that Chapter, passes a resolution it is binding on states as a matter of international law.

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It is this specific power that distinguishes the Security Council from the General Assembly. The Security Council is ultimately responsible for international peace and security and has the power to make binding resolutions. General Assembly resolutions, however, do not have the same power lacking any binding effect.

The Charter also describes the election of non-permanent members of the Security Council for the period of two years. Following the recent election, that now includes us, for the first time since the early-mid 1990s. So, we are back at the grown ups table!

But, we all know that things are not so rosey. The UN does not operate as a functioning example of transnational democracy. Rather, there are significant hurdles to representative decision-making dominated by old fashioned power politics. Many people rightly question the effectiveness of the UN today.

In light of this, The Guardian recently hosted an excellent and timely discussion called: Reflecting on ‘Collective Failure’: is the United Nations still relevant? The introduction to the discussion states in relevant part:

“The UN Security Council’s lack of achievement has been well documented. Last year Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon called the war in Syria “our collective failure” which would “remain a heavy burden on the standing of the United Nations”. UN human rights commissioner Navi Pillay went further: “The killers, destroyers and torturers in Syria have been empowered and emboldened by the international paralysis,” she said when she left her post in August.

Pillay’s accusation centred on the security council’s inability to pass a resolution. In September, France proposed changing the process so that in the case of “mass crimes” the five permanent members do not have the power of veto. Britain’s UN ambassador supported the change and so did other representatives, but Russia, China and the United States stayed silent. The US is also guilty of frequently falling to pay its UN member fees.”

The discussion takes part in the comments section of the article. If you are interested, it is worth following, but it does require a baseline knowledge around some of the key UN agencies and operations.

The failures of the UN and the Security Council are all too evident. We live in a world full of conflict – there is a distinct lack of international peace and security.

More, it would be naïve (if not negligent) to ignore this state of affairs is contributed to significantly by the P5 members of the Security Council. The power of the veto is an anachronistic tool directly leading to the “international paralysis” Navi Pillay refers to above and quoted by The Guardian.

Recent behaviour of Russia speaks volumes to this, but Russia is not the only one to blame. Each P5 country uses the power of the veto in favour of its own interests over and above actually maintaining international peace and security. This is no surprise and the power given to the P5 would always be used in this way.

The P5 members themselves illustrate a regional imbalance with far too heavy an influence on Europe, a hangover from a western enforced view of global power. Representation on the Security Council is far from equitable, and does not truly reflect an empowering international representation.

Despite the failings of the UN, I supported our campaign for a seat on the Security Council. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) – in spite of a micro-managing and responsibility averse Minister – put together an excellent campaign leading to our appointment. They should be applauded for a job well done.

The main reason for my support is that I believe in the role of strong transnational organisations in the development of human rights. The UN has been the platform for significant advances in the international human rights law framework. That framework has been used by advocates across the globe, including myself, to argue for increased protection of marginalised groups.

I also try to remember that the UN is actually a very young exercise in terms of human history and international cooperation. Yes, there are significant issues and concerns, but these are to be learned from, not the basis for rejecting the project entirely. The imperfections will no doubt remain, but I see the UN as a work in progress, one where reform is necessary and inevitable.

So, yes, I was supportive of our attempt to be at the grown ups table. But, when it happened, I felt totally deflated.

We campaigned on a platform of being a small, independent nation. Unafraid to speak up, represent other small nations too, and not be influenced by these power games. We also campaigned on a platform of reform.

The unfortunate thing is that I see no evidence of this government being able to meet those commitments.

All the evidence points distinctly to a foreign policy completely lacking in independence. Even when John Key is acting in his capacity as Prime Minister, his speeches could easily be written in Washington DC or Canberra (well, I guess a lot of them are written in Canberra – Crosby Textor styles).

Ultimately, independence and bravery are not hallmarks of this government.

I sincerely hope that I am wrong. I genuinely hope that the good people at MFAT manage to present in New York a strong, independent Aotearoa. I know that they will work tirelessly behind the scenes to do so, trying to link objectives in support of those commitments we made when campaigning. I really hope that we see tangible progress on reform of the Security Council. I hope we can look back on our two years with pride.

But, the odds are long at the TAB on all of that. Shorter odds are on us toeing the line, McCully making some sort of embarrassing speech, and the Security Council continuing to compound our “collective failure”.

Let’s hope I am wrong.


  1. It’s interesting to note that the nuclear armed states are the most aggressive ones.

    I think vetoes should be restricted to only things that directly effect that nation or nations bordering that nation.

    And seats should be given to continental unions that have an, at least mostly, democratically elected parliament. Like the EU today and hopefully USAN, AU and SAARC in the future.

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