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Opinion

UN Security Council again fails to act in a time of crisis


Published : 26 Oct 2023 08:35 PM
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The UN Security Council, which the UN Charter entrusted with the “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security,” has been unable to take action on the ongoing situation in the Middle East. The council last week failed to adopt a Brazilian resolution that called for “humanitarian pause” in the Israel-Hamas conflict. The US used its veto to block the resolution, which was supported by 12 UNSC members, including two permanent members, China and France. US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the council needed to let the hard work of diplomacy undertaken by the US “play out” because of President Joe Biden’s trip to Israel.

Brazilian Foreign Minister Mauro Vieira, president of the Security Council this month, noted during the open debate on the Middle East, including the Palestine question, that, “since 2016, the council has not been able to pass a resolution on the situation in the region.”

And, with Russia blocking any action on Ukraine, the UNSC is now completely paralyzed during two dangerous conflicts that threaten international peace and security. This bodes ill for multilateral cooperation and the prevention of larger wars.

The veto and its use by the five permanent members has been one of the biggest obstacles to the work of the UNSC since its early days. In the early years of the UN during the Cold War, Moscow used its veto frequently (it totaled 152 vetoes as of February), because the US was the dominant power in the council and was getting its way.

The US has now used its veto power 88 times. Its last veto before this crisis was in 2020. The majority of the American vetoes are related to Israel and the situation in the Middle East.

China used to be more cautious about using its veto power, but it has been using it more frequently recently. It has used it 19 times (a very small number compared to Russia and the US), but 16 of these have been since 1997. France and the UK have not used their veto power since 1989.

This great power blockage in the UNSC is not new. Throughout its history, when tensions rise between the big powers, the council becomes paralyzed and ceases to play its role in terms of managing conflicts and international crises. The most productive cooperative work in the history of the council was during the post-Cold War era, when the great power competition was at its lowest. But now, as tensions rise between the US, China and Russia, it is hard to imagine how the UNSC and the UN generally will be able to play a role in preserving international peace and security and managing conflicts around the world.

The UN General Assembly and its member states have been trying to deal with this problem since the establishment of the current international order. Two serious initiatives have tried to unblock the gridlock in the UNSC.

The first, known as the Uniting for Peace initiative, was born when the UNGA adopted Resolution 377, on Nov. 3, 1950, to offer a way out when the UNSC was blocked and prevented from taking action. The resolution states: “If the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in any case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression, the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately with a view to making appropriate recommendations to members for collectives measures, including in the case of a breach of the peace or act of aggression, the use of armed force when necessary, to maintain or restore international peace and security.”

The UNSC is now completely paralyzed during two dangerous conflicts that threaten international peace and security.

If the UNGA is not in session, the resolution says it “shall therefore meet in emergency special session within 24 hours of the request.” An emergency special session can be convened by a request from nine members of the UNSC or by a majority of the UNGA. This process has been used 11 times since its adoption, with more than half of them relating to the Middle East.

The last request for an emergency special session was sent to the UNGA president on Monday. Dennis Francis announced that he had received a letter from the representatives of the Arab Group and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation requesting, under the Uniting For Peace resolution, the “resumption of the 10th emergency special session of the General Assembly as rapidly as possible.” Another group of 12 countries, including Russia, Malaysia, Indonesia and Syria, made the same request. Francis said he would convene an emergency special session of the UNGA on Thursday.

The second scheme, known as the veto initiative, came after the UNSC was blocked by Russia on Ukraine, which led to growing criticism of the inaction of the council. An UNGA resolution, adopted by consensus on April 26, 2022, aims to hold the five permanent members of the UNSC accountable for their use of the veto. The resolution states that, every time a permanent member uses the veto, the UNGA president shall convene a formal meeting within 10 days and the country that used the veto has to explain why it did so.

The resolution stipulates that the UNGA should not hold a debate under the veto initiative if it is meeting for an emergency special session. This prevented the veto initiative sponsors from going ahead with a plan to request an UNGA debate on the US’ veto of last week, since the emergency special session request by the Arab Group and the OIC overrides their request.

The frustration with the blocked UNSC was apparent during the open debate on the Middle East, including the Palestinian question, in the presence of a large number of foreign ministers. The debate gave the different parties an opportunity to express their disappointment with the deadlocked council.


Dr. Amal Mudallali is an American policy and international relations analyst.

Source: Arab News