A clearly anguished Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on April 5, 2022, castigated the UN security council members for their inaction on alleged Russian atrocities in Ukraine: “Are you ready to close the UN? Do you think that the time of international law is gone?” We asked Thomas G. Weiss, a veteran scholar with expertise in the politics of the United Nations, to discuss the historic role of the security council and what its failure to stop the carnage in Ukraine means over the long term.
What did you think when you heard Zelenskyy’s questions?
I was impressed by his honesty. There’s a saying in Washington that a gaffe is when truth is spoken inadvertently. Well, he wasn’t speaking it inadvertently. He was speaking openly and directly. He was speaking truth to power in that instance. The UN Charter has been violated many times, but this really was an egregious violation by a single country, Russia.
However, we all know the shortcomings of exaggeration. The number of times that, as Mark Twain would have said, the UN‘s death has been prematurely declared are numerous. But this inaction really is a black eye for the UN that’s in the news, day in and day out. It’s going to be impossible to ignore this tragedy and ignore his testimony in front of the security council.
What did you mean by saying Russia’s actions were a violation of the UN Charter?
The Kellogg Briand Act at the end of the 1920s was an international treaty that outlawed war. Well, that didn’t go very well. But the UN Charter was a step in the right direction by trying to eliminate the illegal use of force, backed up by the threat of military action.
The use of force was only supposed to be permitted in self-defence or when the security council authorized it. The Charter’s provisions have been violated on numerous occasions. But this time is the most egregious violation seen recently, with a major power trying to swallow up a smaller country next door. That’s one of the things that supposedly was put behind us, but clearly it hasn’t been.
When the UN was established, what was the security council supposed to be and do?
The idea was that there would be an automatic response to aggression, with the condition that the five permanent members — at that time, China, France, the Soviet Union, the UK and the US, all allies who defeated Germany’s fascism in World War II — would agree.
Later, that meant the UN would respond if the permanent members at least didn’t object, including economic, judicial and military responses. You didn’t need five affirmative votes, but you couldn’t have any negative votes, which constituted a veto. Unless the five agree — and that obviously is not a lot of the time because they all have friends and foes — there is no decision, and this was the way it was supposed to function.
So while you can agree with Zelenskyy, actually the security council is functioning exactly the way it was supposed to work.
So one country could exercise veto power straight from the beginning. Was there a recognition then that such a structure ran the risk of disempowering the organisation?
A greater risk was that there would be no organisation.
Without the veto, Congress wouldn’t have signed on to the US joining the UN, and clearly, without the veto the Soviet Union’s Josef Stalin would not have signed on either. The idea was during World War II these allies got along, and they were supposed to continue getting along, but that working proposition obviously evaporated. I mean, the ink was hardly dry on the 1945 UN Charter before this cooperation ended — recall that Winston Churchill already spoke of the “iron curtain” in March 1946.
But there’s also a second reason behind the structure, which applies currently. In terms of the war on Ukraine, it explains, I think, the prudence that certainly U.S. President Joe Biden and the West, in general, have applied. Part of the logic at the founding was, “Listen, it’s all for one and we come automatically to the rescue if there’s aggression – unless, of course, it’s a major power. And if it’s a major power, let’s not at least make things worse. Let’s not start World War III by taking on China or the US or the Soviet Union.” And that principle continues to apply, alas, to other nuclear powers. The security council would never agree to take on India, would never agree to take on Pakistan, and wouldn’t even agree to take on North Korea.
Has the five-member veto power diminished the UN’s status with the public?
It certainly means that the United Nations in the area of international peace and security is really hamstrung.
The awful truth is that this beast works when member states want it to work, and it doesn’t when they don’t. Once governments decide to do something, and they’re on the same wavelength, it works, but that certainly is not the majority of the time.
I think we should still remember that, even while the hopeless Security Council is acting hopelessly in Ukraine, other parts of the UN continue to help. There are four and a half million Ukrainian refugees that the UN High Commissioner on Refugees is trying to assist. At the same time, there happens to be UNICEF struggling to help children in Ukraine and refugee kids elsewhere while trying valiantly to further girls’ education in Afghanistan. That is the bulk of what the UN does most days of the week, serving in other humanitarian emergencies, protecting human rights, trying to publicise the disastrous condition of the human environment and climate change.
Is there a danger — through the current lack of action by the security council — that it could be damaged by what’s going on in Ukraine? So Vladimir Putin in one way has assured the cohesion of NATO, but this war could hurt the United Nations?
It certainly might. It’s a little hard to know whether the war in Ukraine would be lethal to the institution’s future. As I say, the UN has been declared to be on life support on numerous previous occasions. Yet, despite all of the black eyes, an annual Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll has found for decades that around 60% of the U.S. public support the UN I’d be very surprised if the handling of Ukraine ended up inflicting terminal damage on the UN, but it is going to take a while to recover. And we still don’t know what the end of this mess is, so we’ll probably have to have the same conversation in a month or six months.
The UN could have done better on numerous occasions, as I argue in my book “Would the World Be Better without the UN.” But it also could have done far worse. The planet would be worse off without a secretary-general to do shuttle diplomacy during the Cuban Missile Crisis or the U.N.’s deployment of peacekeepers on the Golan Heights.