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The Security Council’s Credibility Test

CANBERRA – The United Nations Security Council’s membership will be reconstituted in 2015, but it will not look very different from its predecessors. World War II’s victors – the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China – will continue to hold the box seats, which come with veto power. Five new non-permanent members – New Zealand, Spain, Angola, Malaysia, and Venezuela – will rotate in for a two-year term, replacing Australia, Luxembourg, Rwanda, South Korea, and Argentina, respectively. The remaining five bleacher seats will be occupied for another year by Chad, Chile, Jordan, Lithuania, and Nigeria.

Aside from Nigeria, none of the twenty-first century’s other major players – including Brazil, Germany, India, Japan, and South Africa – will have a ticket. All efforts to reform the Security Council’s structure – even an end to prohibiting immediate re-election of non-permanent members, which would enable continuous engagement, if not formal permanent membership – have ground to a halt.

Reconstructing the Security Council to ensure that the most influential powers always have a seat at the table is not the most urgent reform, but it remains one of the most important. The Council’s institutional legitimacy as the world’s foremost decision-maker on issues of peace and security cannot be taken for granted. If the Council continues to look the way it does, it is only a matter of time – maybe another 15 years at best – before its credibility and authority for most of the world diminish to dangerous levels.

The immediate task is to find other ways to boost the Security Council’s global standing. The challenges that the Council faces today are as acute as they have ever been. More crises have been erupting in more places, more breaches of international humanitarian and human rights law have been occurring, and more people have been displaced by conflict than has been the case for decades.

In responding to these challenges, the Security Council’s record has not been all bad. It did well to force Syria to give up its chemical weapons, and to authorize humanitarian access without the regime’s consent. It has authorized more peacekeepers in the field, with more robust civilian-protection mandates, than ever before. It has also maintained some effective sanctions regimes, and referred some cases to the International Criminal Court.

It stopped an imminent massacre in Libya in 2011 by agreeing (at least at the outset) that the internationally agreed “responsibility to protect” justified military action. It responded decisively to the Ebola crisis, and has passed some important counter-terrorism resolutions. And it has been getting better at consulting more widely and debating issues more openly.

And yet, human security issues are overwhelming large swaths of Africa and western Asia. Too often the Security Council goes missing on the world’s most serious security and human rights problems, constrained by Realpolitik, out-of-date thinking, timidity, institutional limitations, or inadequate resources. In the most alarming recent crises – Ukraine, Gaza, Syria, and Iraq – it has been almost totally paralyzed.

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To restore and enhance the Security Council’s credibility, the focus for now should be on changes that require no amendment of the UN Charter. A good starting point would be to apply existing best practice more often, making exceptional cases the norm. The Council can deliver results, as it showed with Syria’s chemical arsenal, when it establishes clear benchmarks, explicit timelines, active monitoring mechanisms, regular reporting processes, and consequences for non-compliance.

The Council needs to devote less rhetoric and more formal process to conflict and crisis prevention, with improved early-warning and briefing mechanisms. It needs to acknowledge that anticipating and responding to major human-rights violations are part of its core business. It should encourage the UN’s secretary-general to be less nervous about using his formidable authority under Article 99 of the Charter to bring matters to the Council’s attention on his own.

There is a desperate need to re-establish consensus on how to address atrocity crimes so extreme that they may require a military response. Efforts must be made to overcome the bitterness still felt toward the US, the UK, and France – which explains much of the paralysis over Syria – for their perceived expansion, without going back to the Security Council, of a narrow civilian-protection mandate in Libya to include full-scale regime change. The solution seems to lie in some variation on the “Responsibility while Protecting” idea first proposed by Brazil (with China and Russia privately showing some sympathy), which would require some form of ongoing monitoring and review of military mandates.

France has proposed a truly transformative change: The Security Council’s permanent members would forswear using their veto in cases of mass-atrocity crimes certified as such by the Secretary-General or by some other acceptable process, at least where no vital national interests are at stake. But getting there will be tough. Though the UK has said that the proposal should be considered, Russia is openly opposed. Meanwhile, the US is quietly uncomfortable, and China, too, has remained silent.

These reactions are a reminder that the biggest changes that the Security Council needs are to the mindset of its permanent members. They need to remember that their global responsibilities are formidable; their overwhelming obligation is to find cooperative common ground; and there is limited tolerance for the naked pursuit of narrow self-interest. If they do not raise their game, the Council’s global authority will wane, and it will face the real possibility of sliding back to the marginalized impotence of the Cold War years.

Gareth Evans, a former Australia’s foreign minister (1988-1996) and past president of the International Crisis Group (2000-2009), is Chancellor of the Australian National University.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.

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