The human story has taught us that tensions are a universal phenomenon of social life… in the domestic no less than in the international sphere.
It is on this basis that our world has experienced two world wars in a generation. And the potential for nuclear warfare has made the establishment of international order – by preventing war among nations and the preservation of international peace issues – of paramount concern. As a result, a need arose for the formation of a political organisation, an international government that would serve as the rational political voice of humankind; its chief duty to blunt the edges of conflict inside and among nations. That is how the League of Nations, which later became the United Nations, was born.
Now, in this age, signs are that the UN Security Council is like an aged godfather who tells the same story every day. It is failing to realise even the first tenet of the preamble of its charter which is “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind”.
What is most intriguing is that with all the global brains that gather in that international government now (and then), the UN Security Council is still clinging to a system that is a reflection of the 1945 geopolitical world map.
It is crystal clear that in the Security Council’s internal struggle between the desire for change and the status quo, the cause of the status quo has for all these years been upheld. It is mainly the lack of desire to embrace the assertion that change is a constant that has cost our world enormously in domestic and international conflicts. Even now there is no sign of change on the political horizon.
The UN is made up of three political agencies, namely the General Assembly, the Security Council and the Secretariat. The General Assembly is the representative body of virtually all the nations of the world. It is composed of all members of the UN and according to Article 10-14 of the UN Charter, has only the power to debate and make recommendations in political matters either to the parties concerned or to the Security Council. With regard to the maintenance of international peace and security, the General Assembly can debate, investigate, and recommend, but it cannot act. It can recommend to the Security Council a solution of a national or international problem which the Security Council can disregard at its discretion owing to the dynamics of self-interest or ideological orientation. So, the General Assembly is powerless in this regard. It really resembles a mere debating society. Why has this not changed for all these years?
The Security Council is the political executive. This is where real power lies. There are five countries in the UN Security Council that hold permanent seats – the US, China, Britain, France and Russia. China, France, Britain and the 10 non-permanent members elected by the General Assembly are like mice in a stable of two elephants, namely the US and Russia. The two countries are giants of unchallengeable superiority and are, in most cases, divided. This organ has repeatedly compromised world peace through divisions within itself.
From March 2011, Syria has been involved in a civil war which has claimed more than 60 000 people and turned more than 650 000 into refugees. The Security Council has once again dismally failed because of divisions in its house and the powerlessness of the feeble voices in the General Assembly. Interestingly, the US supports the rebels and Russia backs Syria’s Bashar al-Assad’s government. The situation can get worse as Saudi Arabia and Iran have already entered the conflict by supporting the opposing sides. The potential that the Syrian civil war can move to Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey is a great concern. Meantime, the Security Council is at ease as if Syria is not in flames.
The occasional abuse of the veto power in the Security Council has also frustrated any efforts to shape a peaceful world. The result has always been a spectacular failure to provide remedies for international anarchy.
With so many years having passed after the formation of the UN, it is surprising that at this moment, Africa still is not a permanent member of the Security Council. This continent has the highest number of members in the UN. Out of 193 member states that make up the UN, Africa has 54. It came as no surprise that in 1994 there was no UN intervention in the Rwandan genocide when an ethnic conflict that claimed the lives of 800 000 people erupted between the Tutsi and the Hutu tribes. As if that was not enough, again in 2003, there was no intervention in the Darfur region in western Sudan when 300 000 people lost their lives at the hands of the radical Janjaweed militia. Permanent members of the UN Security Council folded their arms instead of standing up to initiate a move to guard the victims.
If the US and Russia fail to act in unison to prevent wars among other nations or a civil war like in Syria, and given the lack of power of the General Assembly, one wonders who will prevent a war between them? Such a war will threaten humankind as a whole. And as global peace seems to be in continuous sharp retreat, it means that we must look elsewhere than the UN Security Council for intervention. Change is the only answer.
l Abe Mokoena is a Polokwane-based commentator.