Recent events in Syria have highlighted a key problem with the UN Security Council. Although the use of chemical weapons shocked the world, the UN was paralyzed due to the threat of Russian veto.
Currently, the UN Security Council (UNSC) consists of five permanent members (Russia, China, France, Britain, and the United States) and ten non-permanent members that are elected for two-year terms by the General Assembly. The five permanent members (P5) of the UNSC can veto any decision that the Council makes. Even if the Council favors a resolution 14 to 1, one of the P5 can block it.
It is ridiculous that a country like Russia could block such crucial action as a resolution against Syria’s employment of sarin gas. Regardless of whether or not the U.S. should intervene in Syria, we can agree that Russia is hardly the country that should be allowed to block such an action. Russia has jailed people for exercising their right to free speech (e.g. Pussy Riot), banned “homosexual propaganda,” and killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in Chechnya. Russia is not the kind of country that should have so much power over important human rights decisions.
The other permanent members are implicated in human rights abuses as well. China has killed over one million people in its occupation of Tibet. France tortured hundreds of thousands of Algerians during Algeria’s War for Independence. Britain engaged in rampant colonialism for over a century. The United States has directly supported numerous human rights abusers, from the Contras in Nicaragua to Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
Furthermore, the P5 nations often veto based on their narrow national interests. Russia has threatened to veto a resolution condemning Syria because Syria houses one of Russia’s last oversea bases. China has vetoed a peacekeeping mission in Guatemala simply because Guatemala is friendly with Taiwan.
That’s not to say that the P5 nations haven’t done good things for the world; the UNSC did pass a resolution that stopped human rights abuses in Syria in 2011. However, no one country should have so much power over the rest of the UN. All countries act to promote selfish national interests and commit moral lapses from time to time. Thus, the P5 veto power should be abolished.
Some would argue for the elimination of the P5 altogether, claiming that it is an elitist “nuclear club”. However, the P5 possess the most powerful militaries in the world. They are the most likely nations to contribute large numbers of resources to any UN military intervention. Accordingly, it makes sense to give them increased influence over security decisions. It would be ridiculous for a nation like Costa Rica, a country that lacks a military, to have the same say as the United States or China on a decision to deploy military force.
An additional problem with the current P5 membership is that it still reflects outdated post-WWII realities. The P5 membership has not changed much since the 1940s and it is entirely composed of the victors of WWII. However, the world has changed a lot since the end of the Second World War. New nations have become great powers in the last 60-70 years, including nations that were considered weak and irrelevant in the 1940s. Therefore, the UNSC should add more permanent members to reflect changing realities in the world arena.
One country that should definitely be added to the P5 is India. India is the third largest contributor to UN peacekeeping missions, having committed 100,000 troops over the past 50 years. India is also ranked eighth in military expenditures and tenth in GDP, with its economy growing rapidly. India has a population of one billion people and may eventually replace China as the most populous country in the world.
Germany is also a strong candidate, having both the largest economy and population in the EU. It is ranked ninth in military expenditures. Germany is also the third largest contributor to the UN’s budget, and is a founding member of the G8, G20, and the EU. A recent BBC poll found Germany to be the most popular nation in the world. Finally, Germany has served as a non-permanent member of the UNSC several times before (three times while unified, three while divided.)
Brazil is probably the most popular candidate for UNSC membership, and it is not hard to see why. Brazil is the largest Latin American country in terms of land, population, and GDP. Furthermore, Brazil regularly provides troops to UN peacekeeping missions and contributes substantially to the UN’s budgets. A 2011 report from the Council of Foreign Relations recommendeds that the US support Brazil’s bid for membership. In fact, Franklin D. Roosevelt recommended that Brazil be added to the Security Council prior to the UN’s founding, but Britain and the Soviet Union refused. Three permanent members of the UNSC (Russia, France, and the UK) support Brazil’s permanent membership. Indeed, although South America is an increasingly important continent in the globalized modern world, it remains without a permanent member in the UNSC.
Japan is the second-largest contributor to the UN’s budget, has the third-largest economy in the world, and ranks fifth in terms of military spending. Also, Japan has served ten terms as a non-permanent member of the UNSC. Many Asian nations support Japan’s bid, as do France and the UK.
Africa, the site of much of the turmoil and unrest that concerns the UNSC, certainly deserves a permanent member on the council. In my point of view, South Africa is the strongest candidate. South Africa has the largest GDP on the continent and possesses one of the most powerful militaries. It is also one of the few countries in sub-Saharan Africa with a functioning democracy. Finally, South Africa has sent troops to numerous UN peacekeeping missions, including current deployments in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan.
The UN is often criticized for failing to stop atrocities and human rights abuses. It is also criticized for only representing the interest of a select few. While increasing the number and diversity of nations on the Security Council won’t completely solve these issues, it is a step in the right direction. Additionally, abolishing the veto power for members of the UNSC could increase the UN’s efficacy in humanitarian interventions across the globe. No individual nation should be able to stop the global community from action simply to promote their narrow self-interests. There’s no question about it: the UNSC needs reform.