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The UN Security Council, Functioning Amid Disasters


In mid-December 2015, the UN Security Council finally outlined a pathway to end the long war in Syria. Many foreign ministers attended the Council vote, including Laurent Fabius of France, left, and Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany, center. ESKINDER DEBEBE/UN PHOTO

There is no easy way to describe a book about the United Nations that is nearly 1,000 pages long, with dozens of authors, all experts in their fields. “The UN Security Council in the 21st Century” is that book, a collection of situation reports, analyses and prophesies published as the 70th anniversary year of the UN ended and the organization moves into 2016 with old problems but also new agendas.

More by coincidence than by planning, 2015 became a watershed year for the UN: new development goals, a promising agreement on slowing the warming of the Earth, stocktaking on the status and rights of women and girls 20 years after the landmark Beijing conference in 1995 and a bold demand by the General Assembly and an army of civil society organizations that the process of electing a new secretary-general be completely revamped.

The Security Council may not have a direct role to play in all these fields, though it sits at the center of a new secretary-general selection, which takes place later this year. But the Council operates in a changing world being created by UN member nations and reflected in all the hallmarks of 2015. It does not work in a vacuum.

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The book’s editors are David Malone, rector of the United Nations University in Tokyo and former Canadian diplomat; Sebastian von Einsiedel, director of the UN University’s Center for Policy Research, and Bruno Stagno Ugarte, deputy executive director for advocacy at Human Rights Watch and former foreign minister of Costa Rica. Malone was also the editor of earlier studies of the Security Council, including “The UN Security Council: From the Cold War to the 21st Century.”

“The UN Security Council in the 21st Century” is a comprehensive reference book, divided into sections dealing with the competing interests of Council members, thematic issues from humanitarian action to confronting organized crime and weapons of mass destruction, the enforcement of mandates, the evolution of the institution itself, key country cases and the Council in the international order.

The book appears, its editors write, amid “a proliferation of serious international security failures” met too often by checkmate in the Council through vetoes that make agreement on action arduous if not impossible as millions of people are displaced or become casualties of conflict.

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Syria stands out. Since this book was published, the Council finally moved beyond the four Russian vetoes protecting President Bashar al-Assad to an outline agreement on how to proceed in ending the civil war. Of special interest as the UN earnestly takes up the future of Syria this month is the chapter on the place of Russia in the Security Council by Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Moscow Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Trenin emphasizes the importance Russia places on it permanent membership in the Council as a sign that the country still counts among world powers. “Moscow regards the veto power on collective decisions that it enjoys at the Council as a guarantee that its national interests will be safely protected, at least legally,” Trenin writes. The permanent Council seat, inherited from the Soviet Union after its collapse, allows Russia to “punch above its weight.”

Trenin writes that Russia’s high hopes in the early 1990s that a new era of international relations was beginning, built on cooperative security with the West, were falling apart by 1995 as a drift back into acrimony began. The causes are well known: the enlargement of NATO and the tensions between Moscow and Washington over events in the Balkans, where Russia remains a strong ally of Serbia long after the breakup of Yugoslavia. In the West, Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs are seen as perennial troublemakers, even as Serbia moves toward membership in the European Union. Moscow’s overt attempts to dismember Ukraine make matters worse.

Two elements stand out in Russia’s actions in the Council: its resistance to any one power — obviously, the United States — taking unilateral action on peace and security, especially military intervention, and a working partnership with China on numerous issues.

“Russo-Chinese interaction on the Security Council requires special attention,” Trenin writes. The partnership is not necessarily based on shared analysis of the crisis of the day. It is more basic. “What unites the Chinese and the Russians is their rejection of US global supremacy.” This basic principle, Trenin notes, “is likely to last for the foreseeable future.” Meanwhile, Russia continues to build its military strength and improve relations with major developing nations.

Jeremy Greenstock, who was an extremely effective ambassador of Britain at the UN from 1998 to 2003, looks ahead in broader international terms in his essay on the Security Council in a fragmenting world.

“The opening years of the twenty-first century have not gone well for global governance,” he writes as a starting point. His thought-provoking comments on new global realities, while still acknowledging the UN’s central role in numerous areas, include an account of how more strident assertions of sovereignty made at the end of the colonial era have “widened the gap between different national cultures and experiences.”

This trend is certainly playing out in the fragmentation of global projects such as the new Sustainable Development Goals and the recent statement of intent by nearly 200 governments meeting in Paris in December on steps to reduce climate change. In both cases, individual nations, not the UN itself, are framing the goals and choosing how to implement them.

Greenstock writes: “The inherent rationality of globally shared interests — easily recognized in such fields as conflict prevention, trade liberalization, sustainable development and disease control — has been offset by a growing polarization in culture, religion, identity, and therefore politics. Human society has the tribal instinct as its default setting.”

It is a sobering description of the world in which the Security Council must work.

“The UN Security Council in the 21st Century”; Lynne Rienner Publishers; 978-1-62637-259-7

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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