Unhappy birthday, dear UN Security Council

23 October 2015, 17:17 UTC | Worldwide
© UN Photo/Mark Garten
By Carsten Bockemuehl - Advocacy & Research Coordinator, Amnesty International NZ - @C_Bockemuehl

Last night, I was invited to attend a reception celebrating the UN’s upcoming 70th anniversary. Along with colleagues from government, civil society and Wellington’s diplomatic community, I listened to a couple of uplifting speeches on the importance of the UN.

It is true – the world is a better place thanks to the UN and its many humanitarian workers and peacekeepers. What was left unaddressed in last night’s speeches, however, was the fact that the UN today is at a pivotal juncture – one that will determine whether or not it remains relevant in the 21st century.     

For anyone following current events it must be clear that the UN’s de-facto executive body, the UN Security Council (UNSC), is unfit for purpose. Twenty years after its miserable failure to stop the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia, the Council is still struggling to enforce its most basic mandate: To protect ordinary people from mass violence. Its response to the human rights catastrophes in Syria, Yemen, Palestine, Ukraine, Darfur, Myanmar and countless other places have been shameful and ineffective.

"No single process has done more damage to the UN’s credibility in recent years than the misuse of the veto power." 

Carsten Bockemuehl - Advocacy & Research Coordinator at Amnesty International in New Zealand.

No single process has done more damage to the UN’s credibility in recent years than the misuse of the veto power. The veto is a unique diplomatic weapon wielded by the Council's five permanent members (P5) - Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States. It means that one of them can prevent an otherwise united Council from taking action – for example to prosecute war criminals in Syria, prevent the next round of bloodshed in Gaza, or sanction human rights abusers in North Korea.

While there are important historical reasons for the existence of the veto, the world we live in today is fundamentally different from the one in 1945. Most wars are not between nations anymore, but by governments against their own people. As such, we have seen the veto increasingly being used by the P5 to shield their allies – some of which shamefully slaughter civilians and bomb schools on their own territories. While Syria is the saddest example of our time, Russia and China are certainly not alone in abusing their power to protect friends. The Council’s failure for example to intervene during last year’s horrific conflict in Gaza was largely due to the veto threat by the United States.  

So what can we do? Fortunately, the UNSC’s recent failures have given momentum to two separate initiatives to change the way the veto is used in situations involving mass atrocities, i.e. genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Both initiatives require our support, and human rights defenders have a key role to play in mobilising the world’s governments behind them.

The first initiative is a Code of Conduct (pdf link) put forward by a group of 25 states, including New Zealand, for all UN members who currently are or at some point will be on the UNSC. This Code of Conduct includes a pledge to support timely and decisive Council action in response to mass atrocities. It also includes a pledge not to vote against any credible resolution aimed at ending the commission of such crimes. The code will officially be launched tomorrow in New York, and it already has more than a hundred signatories, including two of the P5 (France & UK).   

The second initiative is a political declaration (pdf link) by France and Mexico calling on the five permanent members to suspend using their veto in situations involving mass atrocities. This initiative is directed solely at the P5; some 80 states, again including New Zealand, have signed on to this declaration. Sadly, France is the only P5 member on the list.

This points to a larger problem: An agreement by all the P5 is currently utopian. Russia has called the French initiative an “unworkable proposition”, and neither the US nor China have publicly voiced support for any of the proposals. As such, politics will likely continue to trump human rights – for now.

Both initiatives are potential game-changers regardless. Support among states as well as the public is growing, and the bright glare of scrutiny will only increase the political cost for one of the P5 wielding the veto. Everyone called the idea of a global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) a joke at first, but 20 years later the world came together to adopt this ground-breaking treaty. The same must hold true for the veto.

New Zealand deserves credit for taking a progressive stance on this issue and voicing strong support for both veto restraint initiatives. This is crucial, especially as it allows New Zealand to convince other countries in the region to follow their lead and build further momentum. Essentially cost-free rhetoric aside, however, New Zealand must also work hard for other practical solutions to the world’s multiple crises. This includes doubling its own refugee quota and using a new action plan to support women in conflict-affected countries.     

Cynics joke that the UN exists so that nations unable to do anything individually can get together to decide nothing can be done collectively. If we’d like to celebrate another 70 years of success, all members of the UNSC, including New Zealand, must stop playing political games and re-focus on real people. Limiting the veto power and ending the pointless suffering of civilians is a win-win situation for everyone – governments and the people they claim to represent.

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