– Ralph Waldo Emerson
The RTP recognizes that states have a duty to act as a “moral agent,” and that states which fail to act in a morally responsible manner and abuse the human rights of their citizens necessitates intervention by the international community. Thus, the RTP helps overcome a primary roadblock to intervention: the fetishisation of sovereignty. The doctrine answers Kofi Annan’s call by providing a framework for the international community to respond to gros and systematic violations of human rights. By itself, however, the RTP does not address the root cause of the international communities indolence: the lack of political will.
Article 24(1) of the U.N. Charter vests the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in the Security Council. To effectuate this responsibility, the Security Council is authorized to utilize a variety of powers, including provisional measures, economic or diplomatic sanctions, and, as a last resort, the authorization of the use of force. Article 23 established the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China and Russia as permanent members of the Security Council. Although the veto power is not explicitly mentioned, Article 27 states that “substantive” decisions of the Security Council require “the concurring votes of the permanent members.” The U.N. Charter therefore mandates “great Power unanimity,” such that if one permanent member objects to an action of the Security Council, the Council cannot proceed.
Legalistic nations, which perceive the legal system as the primary institution responsible for the protection of individual civil and political rights, exist in constant tension between idealism and selfishness. As an outgrowth of this self-interest, nations consistently hesitate to intervene in a foreign conflict unless they themselves have been harmed. The veto power is therefore considered a necessary prerequisite for the “Great Powers'” engagement in the United Nations, even though it continues to paralyze the Security Council where one or more permanent members has an interest in avoiding deliberate action. And because any change in the institutional structure of the Security Council requires the approval of all five permanent members, reforming the veto power is often seen as a practical impossibility: “We see no practical way of changing the existing members’ veto powers.”
As a result, recent discussion of U.N. reform has almost exclusively focused on an enlargement of the Security Council to make it more representative. However, the focus of U.N. reform must be broadened, and both avenues of reform (addressing the underrepresentation of member states and the paralyzing effect of the veto) need to be addressed concurrently. One reform without the other would render the exercise meaningless and the changes toothless.
First, the Security Council must be enlarged to make it more representative of the international community. As Former Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali has stated, “there is widespread agreement among Member States that the Council’s present membership and composition do not reflect the realities of economic and political change, and are unrepresentative of the membership at large.” Although this is widely accepted, and states have considered reforming the structure and purpose of the Security Council for decades, little progress has been made to make it truly representative and democratic.
The same is true with respect to the decision-making procedures regarding the RTP. Although the ICISS acknowledged the “significant support” among non-Western states in favor of making the U.N. system more representative, it argued explicitly against making the final authority more democratic:
An inhibiting consideration always is the fear that the tiger of intervention, once let loose, may turn on the rider: today’s intervention could become the object of tomorrow’s intervention. The numerical majority of any collective organisation [sic], almost by definition, will be smaller, less powerful states, suspicious of the motives of the most powerful in their midst, and reluctant to sanction interference by the powerful against fellow-weaklings.
To combat the imbalance of international power, the Security Council’s membership should be increased to twenty-two members. The number of permanent members of the Council should be increased from five to twelve. The five permanent members to the Council should remain unchanged (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China and Russia). But the addition of any individual member states as a permanent member would only compound the problem and make the Security Council more unrepresentative. Therefore, the remaining veto-wielding seats should be distributed to better reflect the U.N.’s five geopolitical regional groups:
- Two representatives from the African Group. The African Group has 54 members (28 percent of all U.N. members) and is the largest regional group by number of member states. Members states of the African Group, as of 2011: Algeria, Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkin Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Republic of Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Swaziland, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe.
- Two representatives from the Asia-Pacific Group. The Asia-Pacific Group has 53 members (27 percent of all U.N. members) and is the second largest group by number of member states. Member states of the Asia-Pacific Group, as of 2011: Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, Darussalam, Cambodia, China, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Lebanon, Malaysia, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nauru, Nepal, Oman, Pakistan, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Qatar, Republic of Korea, Samoa, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Syria, Tajikistan, Thailand, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Turkmenistan, Tuvalu, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Vanuatu, Vietnam, Yemen.
- One representative from the Eastern European Group. The Eastern European Group has 23 members (12 percent of all U.N. members) and is the regional group with the least number of member states. Member states of the Eastern European Group, as of 2010: Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Modova, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine.
- One representative from the Latin America and Caribbean Group (GRULAC). The Latin America and Caribbean Group has 33 members (17 percent of all U.N. members. Member states of the GRULAC, as of 2010: Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay, Venezuela.
- One representative from the Western European and Others Group (WEOG). The Western European and Others Group has 28 members (15 percent of all U.N. members). Member states of WEOG, as of 2011: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom. Note that the United States voluntarily chooses not to be a member of any group, but attends meetings of the WEOG as an observer only.
Distributing the Security Council’s permanent membership in such a way ensures that the Council adhere to the Preamble of the U.N. Charter, in which the General Assembly reaffirmed its “faith in . . . the equal rights of . . . nations large and small.” The representative(s) from each group should be selected by an agreement of each region, independent from the General Assembly, and the representative selected shall not be one of the five original permanent members. To promote stability within the Council, each representative should serve a three-year term. In contrast to the permanent membership, the non-permanent membership without veto power would remain unchanged, with ten rotating seats for two-year terms selected from the remainder of the General Assembly.
Second, after enlarging the Security Council membership, it will be necessary to reform the veto power. Once a humanitarian crisis triggers the RTP, there must be procedures in place to override a veto from the Security Council’s permanent membership. The ICISS recognized this fact in its 2001 Report. Focusing on the dangers of the U.N. being sidelined by the major powers, the ICISS considered it “unconscionable that one veto can override the rest of humanity on matters of grave humanitarian concern.” The Commission acknowledged that it was “unrealistic to imagine any amendment of the [U.N.] Charter,” and instead suggested that the permanent members adopt a “formal, mutually agreed practice” to refrain from exercising their veto rights when “quick and decisive action is needed to stop or avert a significant humanitarian crisis.”
Albeit in weaker terms, the Secretary-General’s report A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility reiterated this proposal when it suggested that the permanent members of the Security Council should restrict the use of the veto power to matters of vital interest. And an earlier draft of the 2005 World Summit Outcome included language to this effect, “invit[ing] the permanent members of the Security Council to refrain from using the veto in cases of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.” After the permanent members of the Security Council objected to such a restriction, however, any reference to a restrictive use of the veto power was deleted from the text.
The ICISS proposal for reforming the Security Council’s veto power is a step in the right direction, but it does not go far enough. Because the Report calls for voluntary, “constructive abstention” of the veto power, it does not insulate the RTP from the political will and self-interest of the permanent members. To do so, and to ensure that the international community is taken at its word and its spirit, there must be procedures put in place to override a Security Council veto.
First, consistent with the Secretary-General’s report, permanent members of the Security Council should only permitted to utilize the veto power when “vital state [or regional] interests” are threatened. In determining what constitutes a vital state or regional interest, the Security Council should, on a case-by-case basis, weight that interest against the cost of inaction. The vital state or regional interest must be more than merely a desire to avoid international intervention. Second, even if vital state or regional interests are threatened, the Security Council should be permitted to override that veto if two-thirds (fifteen members) of the Security Council approves intervention. A simple majority of the permanent members of the Security Council (seven members) must be included in the veto overriding voting bloc. Third, rather than being a sweeping reform, these procedures should be limited only to contexts in which the RTP has been triggered.
As the ICISS recognized, “[t]he task is not to find alternatives to the Security Council as a source of authority, but to make the Security Council work better than it has.” Implementing these reforms would make the Security Council better reflect the political realities of the twenty-first century, not that of post-World War II. Moreover, it would strengthen the RTP. By making the Security Council more representative and democratic, when the Security Council actually authorizes intervention, that intervention would reflect the authoritative voice of the U.N. General Assembly, rather than that of a select few. In addition, restricting, but still retaining, the veto power recognizes that member states may have a legitimate rationale for opposing intervention.
These reforms also recognize, however, that while “unbridled nationalism and the raw interplay of power” will continue to affect the international communities response to human rights violations, it should not paralyze the international community. These factors should instead be “mediated and moderated in an international framework . . . dedicated to protecting peace and promoting welfare.” Although the U.N. must make some concession to political realism, “the organisation [sic] is also the repository of international idealism, and that sense is fundamental to its identity.” Living up to this ideal requires the international community to ask “where lies the most harm: in the damage to international order if the Security Council is bypassed or in the damage to that order if human beings are slaughtered while the Security Council stands by.”[Next Article in the Series – “Taking Up The Mantle”]
Note: This article is Part Five in a series of articles, entitled “Syria and ‘The Mantle of Leadership,'” produced by Of Politics and Men and exploring the international communities responsibility to both promote and protect human rights. A list of all articles in this series can be found in the Archives.