The UN’s Crimes of Omission
In the face of violent conflicts that are producing widespread death and destruction, the UN and its most powerful members have a responsibility – as stated in the UN Charter – to do whatever they can to restore peace. They have exercised power without responsibility for too long.
CAIRO – When the United Nations was founded, its primary goals, as stated in its Charter’s preamble, included saving future generations from “the scourge of war” and reaffirming “faith in fundamental human rights.” More than 70 years later, the world has more – and more advanced – weapons than ever, and armed conflicts are raging worldwide, resulting in large-scale death and suffering of combatants and civilians alike.
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Among the most widely discussed conflict is that in Syria, which, according to United Nations sources, has left an estimated 500,000 dead and injured, and displaced millions more. In Myanmar, the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country, have experienced an assault that the UN itself has labeled ethnic cleansing. Yemen has become the site of a devastating proxy war, producing large numbers of casualties. Conflicts also rage in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
For all of its supposed influence, the UN has proved glaringly ineffective in stopping the violence. Here, the UN secretary-general must shoulder significant responsibility. After all, the secretary-general is the ultimate symbol of the UN and, in a sense, the moral compass of the international community. The secretary-general’s mandate is delivered by the entire world, which is especially true of the incumbent, António Guterres, who was selected through a revised process that included a more prominent role for the General Assembly, the “world congress.” He is thus duty-bound to lead us toward a less violent, more humane future.
At the start of 2018, Guterres issued a “red alert” for the world, declaring that, “we can settle conflicts, overcome hatred, and defend shared values. But we can only do that together.” This was a good first step. But to fulfill the responsibilities of his post, he must do far more.
For starters, Guterres must use the bully pulpit of his office to the fullest extent, in order to invoke the moral rectitude and values of the organization. He should also personally and actively support the efforts of the UN’s envoys both publicly and privately, by engaging at the highest level, in order to help find ways to defuse ongoing conflicts. Finally, he must make clear to the Security Council, in no uncertain terms, that its inaction or complacency is inconsistent with the UN Charter and constitutes a crime of omission.
The Security Council has the primary responsibility within the UN for maintaining peace and security. It can engage in diplomacy to resolve conflicts and end hostilities, and it can opt for enforcement measures.
Yet the Council has failed to perform this role to the fullest possible extent, largely because its five permanent members (P5) – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States – have so often acted on the basis of their own interests, using or threatening to use their veto power. But the veto power was intended as a means to facilitate cooperation, thereby enabling the P5 to fulfill their responsibility to help maintain global peace and security.
The one limit on the permanent members’ veto power – the requirement that a party to a dispute must abstain from voting – underscores the importance of maintaining some semblance of neutrality when making decisions in the Security Council. Yet, for the P5, neither violations of international law nor large-scale human suffering trump Realpolitik or “geopolitical considerations.” They even pursue policies that directly undermine the UN, its Charter, and the rules-based world order more broadly.
The P5’s failure to end conflicts – and, in some cases, its members’ contribution to aggravating or prolonging hostilities – amounts, at the very least, to condoning violence and suffering, which disproportionately affects small and medium-size countries. More fundamentally, it has undermined faith in the UN and international law and increased the world’s tolerance of inhumanity. This opens the way for even more death, destruction, and suffering, while discrediting the world order to which we solemnly committed when the UN was established.
The US and Russia bear particular responsibility for the P5’s failures. Instead of using their political influence and military capacities to check and defuse conflicts – working, of course, with regional actors – they have been resuming a strategic competition that, as history shows, is likely to lead only to more disorder and misery.
None of this absolves the other three P5 members of their responsibility to fight for the Security Council to fulfill its role in supporting international peace and security. At the very least, they must step up and act as catalysts for collective action by the Security Council.
All P5 members must fulfill their responsibility not just to uphold the world order that they played central roles in developing, but also to renew faith in that order, including by pursuing needed reforms. That means showing the rest of the world that they will wield their veto power responsibly, by placing a higher priority on shared interests and common values.
Here, a simple rule to follow would be to refrain from vetoing a resolution that a majority of Security Council members support, unless at least two of the P5 oppose it. While this will not eliminate the problem completely, it should make the Security Council more effective, by encouraging more effective discussions in which all Council members, not just the powerful P5, are heard.
International actors must respect individual countries’ sovereignty. But in the face of conflicts that are producing widespread death and destruction, the UN and its power players have a responsibility – as stated in the UN Charter – to do everything possible to restore peace. They have exercised power without responsibility for too long.