By Maya G. Garner
The United States, China, Russia, United Kingdom, and France are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. In addition to Germany, they are also the top arms exporters in the world. All the Permanent Members also happen to be nuclear states. The history of the creation of the UN Security Council, as well as the powers granted to it, raise the question of whether the structure of the UN Security Council is inherently flawed, based on dominance of the powerful rather than on the interests of human rights around the world.
After the Second World War, the United Nations Security Council was established; the principle victors of the war were named permanent members of the Council. While these positions and the maintenance of international security were given to the victorious nations, the creation of the United Nations and the shaping of international law had the official purpose to serve humanity as a whole by ensuring peace and upholding human rights. In the wake of the war, the famous Nuremberg trials were conducted by the International Military Tribunal, established by Allied forces. In Europe, these trials were held by the London Charter, which only considered the war crimes committed by people acting in the interest of Axis powers; the actions of the Allied powers were not prosecuted, however. Human rights atrocities committed by Allied powers include the United States’ nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed over a hundred thousand civilians; mass rapes committed by the Red Army against German women, with estimates ranging up to 2 million women raped; and cases of massacres, killing of prisoners of war, and other likely qualifiers for war crimes. These acts were not prosecuted. In this sense, the positions as permanent members of the United Nations were granted to those who emerged victorious, but not necessarily righteous, from the war.
Article 23 of the UN Charter signed in 1945 declared that the UN Security Council would consist of 15 UN Member States, and gave the five countries permanent status. The General Assembly was given the role to elect ten non-permanent members of the Security Council for a two-year term, based on their contribution to “maintenance of international peace and security,” and to equitable geographical distribution. Then if at any point the permanent members do not live up to the standards imposed on the non-permanent members, then what justified their continued occupation of this position? At the time the UN Security Council was established, many of the Allied powers had colonies around the world and were, in essence, states with wealth built on colonialism. The geography of nations in the contemporary world has changed, and the areas under sovereignty of the permanent members have shrunk.
Permanent UNSC Members
The permanent members hold unconditional veto power in the Council. They were granted this power in Article 27 of the UN Charter, which does not however mention the veto power directly. Instead, it phrases the need for the vote of nine Security Council Members including the “concurring votes” of the permanent members. However, abstention will not prevent the adoption of a draft resolution. The notion of the veto is not new. In the League of Nations, all members (permanent and non-permanent) of the League Council had the power of veto, leading to a case of 15 states holding veto power, which made actions difficult to undertake. In the making of the United Nations, the U.S. refused to join the UN in 1945 unless it would hold veto power. In discussions among the Big Five, the states about to become the permanent members, there would either be “a Charter with the veto or no Charter at all,” as reported by Francis O. Wilcox, an advisor to the U.S delegation to the 1945 conference. In this way, the victorious nations in a sense threatened to veto the UN as a whole if they were not granted the veto power. The power of the veto was hence imposed upon smaller states. After the failures of the League of Nations, it was seen as essential to have the major powers be members in order for the UN to function.
The unconditional veto power held by permanent members is criticized as being undemocratic. In this way, any permanent member can veto any proposed action of the Council. Furthermore, in this fashion a country can veto any action against itself. Amnesty International stated that the five permanent members had used their veto to “promote their political self-interest or geopolitical interest above the interest of protecting civilians,” and suggested that an option could be for the five permanent member states to surrender their veto on the issue of genocide. The critical question here is how not to leave the powers held by the permanent members of Security Council unchecked. One issue is the global arms trade and the role of the Security Council.
No Arms for Atrocities and Abuses
In 2012, Amnesty International published a report entitled “No Arms for Atrocities and Abuses,” detailing ways in which global arms sales have resulted in serious human rights abuses. The report was published prior to the vote on the first Arms Trade Treaty, which entered into force in 2014. In basic terms, the Treaty set down the rule that if a country knows that the arms about to be sold will be used for genocides, crimes against humanity, or war crimes, they must stop the transfer. Before the vote, Amnesty International listed the “Big Six” arms traders, the five members of the Security Council and Germany, and expressed concern that these countries may seek to water down the text’s human rights protections. The Treaty was eventually passed with the U.S., U.K., and France among those voting in favor while China and Russia abstained. Amnesty listed the passing of the treaty as a big win after twenty years of campaigning on the issue, yet continued to call on all states to sign on to and ratify the treaty. The call requests that states create or amends national laws to reflect the rule of the treaty, and to implement these laws effectively.
The position as permanent members of the UN Security Council was created by the victors of a war, in which they themselves committed severe human rights abuses. In a changing political landscape, the permanence of the Big Five still remains. They hold the power of unconditional veto, which may undemocratically prevent effective action toward human rights violations. The goal to keep the major powers in the Council risks taking priority over the case for human rights. As the top arms exporters of the world, the structure of the permanent members boils down to the notion that the nations already in power should be the ones to stay in power, regardless of their positions on human rights and irresponsible arms sales, and the work of human rights groups toward effective implementation of arms trade treaties is a slow uphill journey.