This past week the United Nations General Assembly has participated in a now almost routine masquerade of fruitless debate over Security Council reforms. In light of the Security Council’s recent handling (rather mishandling) of the Syrian crisis, the need to reform seems stronger than ever. Upon proposing the enforcement of economic sanctions on Syria for its negligence towards the implementation of a peace plan in July, Britain was swiftly knocked down by Russia and China. Despite vehement criticism expressed by the international community, the Security Council has failed to put an end to the bloodshed in Syria. Instead, the organization meant to serve the interests of the international community finds itself trapped at the helm of those in the Permanent Five.
This instance, unfortunately, is only the soup du jour on the Security Council’s menu of P5 hegemony. Although Russia and China play the role of the villain in this scenario, with the valiant rest of the permanent states donning the thin veil of an institutionally imposed victimization, they are not the only ones to put their interests before those of the international majority.
Consider the U.S. embargo on Cuba that once again raised tensions at this year’s UN General Assembly meeting. Echoing many member-state views, Vice President and Minister of Woman Issues of the Republic of Gambia requested that the U.S. “end the blockade and… throw it off to history[‘s] recycle bin where it belongs.” Once appropriate within the context of the Cold War, it has over time evolved into a fish out of water, swimming against the tides of today’s “smart sanctions” movement, which favors targeting the offending government instead of its citizens.
Dating back to Eisenhower’s Trading with the Enemy Act in 1961, the U.S. is able to impose sanctions on countries during wartime and states of emergency, which was further clarified and enforced under the Toricelli and Helms-Burton laws in the 1990s. Such restrictions have obstructed Cuba’s access to U.S. markets and goods. To add insult to injury, the embargo imposes severe travel restrictions, blocka Cuba from accessing global financial institutions, and prohibits U.S. dollar transactions. Cuba estimates a loss of over $100 billion in damages caused by the United States’ foreign policies.
Such extraterritorial interference in the economy—disobeying international law—has resulted in backlash from trading partners such as Canada, Mexico and the EU. The counterblast has gained traction with statements of condemnation from organizations such as the Non-Aligned Movement and ALBA. More important is the response of the international community at the UN General Assembly. Last fall, in a vote on the embargo, every country except for the U.S. and several of its dependent countries voted in support of Cuba. Parallels between this issue and that of the dealings with Syria cannot help but be drawn.
Professor of Political Philosophy at Fairfield University, Joy Gordon, contrasts reactions towards the embargo: uproar in the General Assembly, inaction in the Security Council. Here we have two forums bearing the cross of international interests. Unfortunately, while one is equally representative, the other subsists on the counter-majoritarian rule of the veto.
Initiated by the Great Powers of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin at the Tehran Conference of 1943, the veto has remained a wellspring of controversy. The 1997 Razali Plan, proposing an increase of inclusivity by way of introducing 5 new permanents members, still fell short tipping the balance of power, as the new members were not to be granted the veto. Again, Kofi Annan’s reform proposals did not allot the veto to new potential members. And in 2005, debates over reform resurfaced, but—locked into a classic stalemate—gave out in a fruitless whimper.
While this brief outline paints a landscape of futility, Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, PhD, author of the recently published UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations, posits a more optimistic outlook. Analyzing the dynamics of the recent GA with expectancy, he asserts that factors such as the ‘dissatisfaction of emerging powers with the status quo’ and the ‘growing influence of developing nations via outlets such as the Non-Aligned Movement’ may give chances of reform a new edge. This year, it was not just the Global South that expressed grievances over the state of the Council.
French President Francois Hollande has perhaps established himself as a pioneer of a new, Western stance on reform: with explicit backing of an enlargement of the council, which would even include an African presence on the permanent board, Hollande has shed light on the anachronism that is the current structure of the Security Council.
Although Afrasiabi speculates that the P5 is unlikely to unanimously support profound shifts towards inclusion, there is no denying that in the face of global change the Security Council must adapt in order to shed its snowballing reputation of a living museum. With international pressures cornering the UN, we can only wait and see how much arm-twisting it will take for the ‘Great Powers’ to step down from their outdated pedestals.
– M. Polar
(Featured Image: riacale, Flickr, Creative Commons)