Global Affairs

United Nations risks turning into theatre of comedy

Russia's veto of the UN resolution to set up a tribunal on the shooting down of MH 17 drew outrage, but was entirely expected. Permanent members should not use the UN Security Council to try to embarrass opponents.

"Deeply saddened, frustrated and disappointed" is how British ambassador to the United Nations Matthew Rycroft described last week's events in the United Nations Security Council.

And for good reasons, since the Security Council was proposing to establish an international tribunal to deal with the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines MH17 airliner over Ukraine exactly a year ago.

Most of the Security Council's members agreed that such a tribunal should be established, bar one: Russia, which exercised its veto to ensure that the resolution failed. Justice won't, therefore, be done for the 298 passengers who lost their lives, a perverse outcome sure to stir the conscience of any ambassador.


The only snag is that although Ambassador Rycroft's anger was genuine, the standoff with Russia which so "frustrated" him was also utterly predictable.

Nations such as Britain, which supported or pushed the resolution through the council, knew from the start that Russia was never going to accept it, but still did so in the full knowledge their effort would fail.

Welcome to the surreal world of the United Nations, where resolutions are tabled for effect rather than outcome, and diplomats plan their fits of anger well in advance. This is a game which risks depriving the UN of its remaining credibility, just as the organisation celebrates this year the 70th anniversary since its foundation.

Criticism about the composition and functions of the UN Security Council are legend, and by now well-worn.

The body's five permanent members - the so-called P5 composed of Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States - represent a post-World War II order that is not only woefully outdated, but also ignores the existence of either Africa or Latin America.

The Security Council, its critics claim, is therefore a platform for yesterday's rather than tomorrow's world. It offers no scope for existing big powers such as Germany or Japan, or rising ones such as Brazil, India or South Africa.

In theory, the UN's General Assembly does not suffer from this basic lack of democratic legitimacy: It includes every single member state on a position of equality so that China has exactly the same vote as, say, the Republic of Nauru, an island of 21 sqkm and a population of 9,500.

But with democracy also comes chaos: Once a year each September, the body is transformed into a veritable mayhem of all the world's leaders, all jostling for attention. Peace is most definitely out of the question.


Far from providing coherence, the General Assembly usually just supplies free entertainment.

This is certainly the case with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who in 2006 opened his speech to the assembly by referring to US President George W. Bush as the "devil" whose "smell" still permeated the debating chamber.

Few can also forget Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who in 2009 exceeded the 15-minute time slot granted to every leader by no less than 70 extra minutes with a performance which included the stunt of tearing up a copy of the founding Charter of the UN and throwing its loose pages to the audience.

For a number of years, there was also the regular spectacle of tens of leaders ostentatiously leaving the assembly hall whenever Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad engaged in one of his ridiculous conspiracy theories about the "invention" of the Holocaust.

But probably the most memorable event in this special category of UN comedies belongs to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who during the 1960 General Assembly yearly plenary meeting took out his shoe and banged it on the table in protest against the representative of the Philippines, whom Khrushchev publicly branded a "jerk". Allegedly, British Premier Harold Macmillan added to the giggles, which spread through the chamber, by demanding a translation of the Soviet leader's "speech".

Yet although this litany of complaints and farcical anecdotes remains deeply engraved in people's memory and does nothing to enhance the United Nations' reputation, they should not be taken too seriously.


A good case can be made that, notwithstanding all the comedies and errors, the General Assembly is still performing the job assigned to it when the UN was founded in 1945: that of being the parliament of humanity, the one and only global platform where every nation big or small has the inherent right to speak and be heard.

And that principle is hardly a laughing matter.

The same can be said about the Security Council. Although its composition is anachronistic and unjustifiable, the fact remains that its P5 members are all nuclear powers and that, together, they also still account for most of the world's economic might.

Enlarging the circle of the veto-holders won't make the Security Council function better, but could well paralyse it forever, so it's a curious argument that suggests it is preferable for the council to be more representative, even if this means that it is rendered far less efficient.

Furthermore, it is not Britain or France who are blocking reform by clinging to their old colonial power status, but China and Russia, who are opposed to any change in the existing composition of the Security Council; only last week China scuppered an Indian attempt to circulate a fresh reform proposal to the UN General Assembly.

Besides, although the Security Council is occasionally rendered impotent by disputes between its P5 members, the organisation's contribution to global security remains impressive.

UN peacekeeping operations have been overhauled beyond recognition since the end of the Cold War. And for every conflict which is ignored, there are plenty of others on which the Security Council acts in quasi-unanimity.


Still, the real problems facing the Security Council are considerable. Chief among them is the fact that Russia is increasingly using its veto - not for the practical purpose of defending its national interests, but as a symbol of its prowess and great power status - as a battering ram against the West.

Nobody on the Security Council adopts such an obstructionist approach, and if Russia's behaviour continues, it could spell disaster for the organisation.

But Western powers also share a heavy responsibility for prompting this Russian behaviour.

Since the Cold War ended, the West enticed Russia to vote or to acquiesce in the adoption of resolutions to various crises.

All these resolutions were initially presented by Western governments as just theoretically raising the possibility of using force, and only in extreme circumstances. But, once the resolutions passed through the Council, they were seized upon by a variety of US-led military coalitions to do more or less as they pleased, without ever bringing the issue up again to the UN.

That's what happened in 1995 when Nato went to war against Serbia; in 1999 when the US-led military alliance in Europe unleashed a war in Kosovo; in 2003 when the US invaded Iraq; and in 2011 when Western powers launched air attacks in Libya, specifically promising the Russians that their purpose was entirely humanitarian rather than regime change, only to proceed to overthrow the existing Libyan government.

And now, Western governments are going even further, by tabling resolutions which they know the Russians won't stomach, just in order to embarrass Moscow.

Russian officials had warned for weeks that they would veto the motion to establish an international tribunal to try those responsible for downing the Malaysia Airlines jet. But the resolution was still pushed through because of the discomfort this would cause the Russians.

Russia should never be allowed to shirk its responsibility for the Malaysia Airlines tragedy. But using the UN Security Council as the platform to humiliate the Russians for no particular practical purpose amounted to a self-defeating game.

Ultimately, it diminished the importance of the UN and of the rule-based international system which the West is constantly urging Russia to respect.

The UN won't ever be the institution meeting the lofty aspirations of its founders. And the Security Council will probably never be reformed.

But at the very least, the world's most important security forum is entitled to expect fewer childish pranks and less of cheap score-settling from its permanent members.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 03, 2015, with the headline 'United Nations risks turning into theatre of comedy'. Print Edition | Subscribe