Why the United Nations is not fit for purpose


Only through proper reform can justice be achieved on the world stage

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By Omar Omar

With the recently issued warrant from the International Criminal Court (ICC) calling for the arrest of Putin and other Russian politicians, the world has been wondering whether this move by the ICC will culminate in more than just a symbolic gesture of support for the Ukrainian resistance. On one side, international organisations like the United Nations (UN) and the ICC claim to be effective in their efforts of peacekeeping and prosecuting international criminals. Yet these organisations are far from impartial and just: an increasing body of evidence points to an outdated, undemocratic hierarchy, plagued with copious amounts of red tape. So, this begs the question of how effective these international bodies are in upholding justice.

Founded less than a month after the end of WW2 in 1945, the UN was the allies’ solution to maintaining world peace and ensuring that the atrocities of the war didn’t happen again. It was intended to facilitate international discourse between its member states and act as an overseer over any global cooperation initiatives. Its general assembly allows every member state to vote for non-binding recommendations, called resolutions. Topics that affect international peace and security are overseen by the security council, which has powers to issue binding resolutions and take actions ranging from imposing sanctions to authorising military operations. Considering the importance of such a council, one may assume that every country is allowed to vote on its resolutions. However, that is far from the current reality.

The security council contains 15 seats, with ten rotating between member states and five permanently reserved for the US, UK, China, Russia and France. Permanent members also have elevated powers in the form of a veto that allows them to stop any resolution, even if all other council members agree. That is where the heart of the problem lies: veto powers exempt the permanent members from any accountability, allowing them to protect their interests to the detriment of the rest of the world without ever being challenged. Just last September, Russia used its veto powers to stop a resolution condemning its attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure in Ukraine. Similarly, in 1956, the UK and France both vetoed a draft resolution aimed at resolving the Suez Canal crisis, in which both countries, along with Israel, were in military conflict with Egypt.

The veto power not only absolves the permanent members from any accountability, but it also extends this accountability to allies of these permanent members. The US has used its veto power over 53 times to block all resolutions condemning Israeli actions in the occupied Palestinian territories. Likewise, Russia and China have used their vetoes to protect allies such as Syria. The unbalanced power dynamic between states leads to the bizarre concept of ‘The Hidden Veto’, where permanent members will threaten other states with their veto power in private meetings if a proposed resolution is not to their liking. A horrific example of this occurred during the Rwandan genocide, where the US and France both threatened to veto, preventing an effective intervention by the UN.

Thankfully, other bodies both within and outside of the UN can help: the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is a UN body that can settle disputes between states and advise on international legal disputes. The court is composed of 15 judges of different nationalities, who are sworn in through General Assembly and Security Council elections. In the past, the court has been successful in resolving disputes. However, its rulings don’t always go smoothly. The court does not have an enforcement arm and relies instead on the security council to impose sanctions and take necessary interventions.

This all came to a head when, in 1986, the court found that the US interventions in Nicaragua violated international law. In the security council, the US vetoed multiple resolutions regarding the matter and is yet to pay the fine levied on it by the court. Since then, the US only takes the ICJ’s rulings as general guidance.

The problems with the ICJ don’t stop here, either: the court does not have the power to compel states to appear before it. Instead, states must submit a special agreement to the court, be part of a treaty that provides the ICJ with jurisdiction over the dispute, or provide consent. Couple that with the lack of means to execute its ruling, and you reach a powerless court. The ICJ is not alone in this predicament: the International Criminal Court (ICC), which operates independently of the UN and prosecutes individuals, faces similar problems. In 2009, it issued an arrest warrant for the then president of Sudan, Al Bashir, for crimes against humanity. The ICC relies on signatory states of its treaty to apprehend suspects and hand them over to the court. In 2015, Al Bashir visited South Africa, an ICC member. In a controversial move, South Africa refused to arrest the president, arguing that immunity should be extended to heads of state. So, with the recent arrest warrant for Putin, and his planned visit in August of this year to South Africa, it is unlikely that he will be arrested.

For now, it seems that justice on the world stage needs to be improved on several fronts. For the UN, abolishing the veto would help to instil democracy into its hierarchy. Though, it remains to be seen if this is possible, considering that the veto nations contribute the most funding to the organisation. Similarly, the ICJ and ICC must revise their treaties to include clauses about consequences should member states not follow their rulings. This is not to say that the proposed solutions here are perfect. International law and foreign policy are often murky, but we must take steps to improve them.