The author, a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School and professor of law at the University of Arkansas, explores the UN Security Council's lackluster response to Gaza and other conflicts, and suggests that the time has come to revisit the UN's founding principles and spearhead reform...
On November 15, 2023, more than five weeks after Hamas‘ heinous October 7 attack on Israel, and after thousands of lives were lost, the Security Council, the United Nations body with the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, finally managed to pass a somewhat controversial resolution in response to the crisis. Largely as a result of the use of the permanent members’ veto powers, since the October 7 attack, the Security Council had been unable to take decisive action – to unequivocally condemn the terrorist attack by Hamas, to call for a humanitarian pause or a ceasefire, or to do anything else. Four previous resolutions failed to pass the Security Council. An October 16 Russian-led resolution failed to garner the necessary votes and received negative votes from the United States (US), the United Kingdom (UK) and France. A Brazilian-drafted resolution was, on October 18, blocked by the United States. On October 25, two more resolutions (a Russian-led resolution and a U.S.-led resolution) also failed at the Security Council – the U.S. and the U.K. voted against the Russian resolution, while Russia and China voted against the U.S. resolution. While the Security Council dilly-dallied, Gaza burned, thousands of lives were lost, and the crisis escalated.
The crisis in Gaza and the apparent inability of the Security Council to take meaningful action brings to the fore the urgent need for Security Council reform. The Security Council is a 15-member organ of the United Nations (UN) with five permanent members (China, France, Russia Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and ten rotating members. Since it was created over 75 years ago, the basic structure of the Security Council has remained almost unchanged. Today, concerns about legitimacy, effectiveness, and representation are prompting renewed calls for Security Council reform. Unfortunately, much like the Security Council, talks of reforming the Security Council have gone nowhere. While almost every State that is a member of the UN agrees that reform is urgently needed, there is little agreement on the focus of reform and on the degree of reform that is needed.
The UN Charter and Voting at the Security Council
The voting rules that guide the Security Council, including the controversial “right to veto” that is reserved for the Security Council’s five permanent members, are found in Article 27 of the UN Charter which provides:
- Each member of the Security Council shall have one vote.
- Decisions of the Security Council on procedural matters shall be made by an affirmative vote of nine members.
- Decisions of the Security Council on all other matters shall be made by an affirmative vote of nine members including the concurring votes of the permanent members….
For a measure to pass in the Security Council, nine affirmative votes are required. However, pursuant to Article 27(3), a ‘no’ vote from any of the five permanent members effectively stops a measure from passing. A permanent member can abstain from a vote and allow a measure to pass if it garners enough votes, negative vote effectively vetoes the measure. In effect, throughout its existence, five countries representing three continents (Asia, Europe and North America) have controlled the Security Council and by extension, the United Nations. To put it in context, Africa, with 54 Members States has zero permanent seats on the Security Council. The same is true for Latin America and the Caribbean (33 Member States).
October 16 (Russian-proposed Resolution (S/2023/772)
The Russian-drafted resolution received five votes in favor (China, Gabon, Mozambique, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates) and four against (France, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States), with six abstentions (Albania, Brazil, Ecuador, Ghana, Malta, and Switzerland). While Vassily Nebenzia, Permanent Representative of Russia to the UN, blamed the “selfish intention of the western bloc,” for the failure of the resolution, the U.S. faulted the draft resolution for failing to condemn Hamas. According to Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. Ambassador to the UN, “[b]y failing to condemn Hamas, Russia is giving cover to a terrorist group that brutalizes innocent civilians. It is outrageous, hypocritical, and indefensible.”
October 18 (Brazilian-led Resolution S/2023/773)
On October 18, the US vetoed a Brazilian-led resolution and was the only State to vote against the said resolution. In total 12 members of the Security Council (Albania, Brazil, China, Ecuador, France, Gabon, Ghana, Japan, Malta, Mozambique, Switzerland, and UAE) voted in favor of the draft text, while two (Russia, and the United Kingdom) abstained. One of the reasons the voted against the resolution was because it did not mention Israel’s right to self-defense. According to Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, “this resolution did not mention Israel’s right of self-defense.”
October 25 (U.S.-Led Resolution)
On October 25, 2023, Russia and China vetoed a US-led Security Council resolution that called for “humanitarian pauses” and safe passage of relief into Gaza. While ten countries (Albania, France, Ecuador, Gabon, Ghana, Japan, Malta, Switzerland, UK, and the US) supported the resolution, three countries (Russia, China, and the UAE) voted against it, and two (Brazil and Mozambique) abstained. Among other things, the resolution had called for the release of the October 7 hostages and stressed Israel’s right to defend itself. Why the veto? According to the Chinese ambassador to the UN Zhang Jun, the U.S. draft “[did] not reflect the world’s strongest calls for a ceasefire and an end to the fighting,” was “seriously out of balance,” “confuse[d] right and wrong,” and made no mention of Israeli army’s controversial evacuation order that called for over 1 million people to leave northern Gaza.
October 25 (Russia-led Resolution)
On October 25, another Russian-led resolution failed to secure a sufficient number of affirmative votes and also received a ‘no’ vote from the U.K. and the U.S. Four Security Council members (China, Gabon, Russia, and UAE) voted in favor of the resolution, two (the UK and the U.S.) voted against it, and nine abstained (Albania, Brazil, Ecuador, France, Ghana, Japan, Malta, Mozambique, Switzerland).
Security Council Vote on On-going Israel-Hamas War
|Negative Vote by Permanent Members
|5 – 4 – 6
|U.S., U.K., France
|Russia and China
|U.S. and U.K.
Complied by Author based on Information on the UN Website
Security Council Resolution 2712
Security Council Resolution 2712 – the first successful Security Council resolution on the Israel-Palestine crisis – is not without controversy. Twelve members voted in favor, none against and three abstained (Russia, United Kingdom, and United States). The Resolution called for “urgent and extended humanitarian pauses and corridors” in Gaza for “a sufficient number of days” to allow full, rapid, safe, and unhindered access for UN agencies and partners. Resolution 2712 also called “for the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages held by Hamas and other groups, especially children, as well as ensuring immediate humanitarian access”, by the terms of the resolution. Significantly, the resolution does not condemn the Hamas attacks of 7 October and does not call for a ceasefire.
Failure, Paralysis or Healthy Diplomacy?
Most analysts see the inability of the Security Council to respond decisively to the Gaza crisis as a sign of failure. Significantly, both the Israeli ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, and the Palestinian representative at the U.N., Riyad Mansour, believe that the Council has failed them. Israel is unable to fathom how the Council can fail to collectively condemn Hamas’s terrorist attacks. Israel’s Deputy Permanent Representative, Brett Jonathan Miller, thought that Resolution 2712 was “detached from the reality on the ground” and “falls on deaf ears when it comes to Hamas and other terrorist organizations”. According to Miller, “[t]he resolution focuses solely on the humanitarian situation in Gaza” and “makes no mention of what led up to this moment.”
The Palestinian people also feel let down by the Security Council’s inability to unequivocally call for a ceasefire. According to Riyad Mansour, Permanent Observer of the observer State of Palestine, the Security Council “should have heeded the call by the UN and every humanitarian organization on Earth calling for a humanitarian ceasefire.” To Mansour, the Security Council “should have at least echoed the call of the General Assembly for an immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce leading to a cessation of hostilities.” Overall, Representative Mansour is disappointed that the Security Council “is unable to say the one thing that truly matters: stop the bloodshed”.
Reforming the Security Council – An Unending Journey
Reforming the Security Council is easier said than done. Although work on reforming the Security Council started well over thirty years ago and although all five permanent members of the Security Council claim to be in support of reforming the body, meaningful, comprehensive, and lasting reform remains very elusive. In 1993, the UN General Assembly established the ‘Open-ended Working Group on the Question of Equitable Representation on and Increase in the Membership of the Security Council and Other Matters related to the Security Council’ (A/RES/4/26). In September 2003, the then UN Secretary-General established a High-Level Panel to analyze the future threats to peace and security and recommend measures for ensuring effective collective action. The so-called Group of Four (G4) nations, consisting of India, Brazil, Germany, and Japan, has since 2004 when it was created pushed for Security Council reform. In 2005, the African Union adopted the Ezulwini Consensus, which represents the African common position on Security Council reform. In 2008, at its sixty-second session, the General Assembly decided to commence intergovernmental negotiations on the Security Council Reform (Decision 62/557). The General Assembly has, since the launch of the intergovernmental negotiations, passed numerous resolutions on the Security Council reform.
Reforming the Security Council – The Challenges
There are admittedly many challenges to reforming the Security Council. Procedurally, reform would entail amending the UN Charter, a herculean task in its own right. Under Article 108 of the UN Charter, to pass, an amendment (i) must be adopted by a vote of at least two-thirds of the members of the General Assembly (129 countries) and (ii) must be ratified in accordance with the respective constitutional processes of two-thirds of the members of the United Nations, including all the permanent members of the Security Council. In simple terms, all five permanent members of the Security Council must approve any proposed amendment of the UN Charter and any of the five permanent members of the Security Council can block a proposal to reform the body.
Substantively, there is little agreement on the fundamental thrust of any reform. There is of course the question of equitable representation on and increase in the membership of the Security Council but there are also questions about efficiency and credibility of the body. Should reform focus on increasing the number of countries that have a seat on the Security Council or should it focus on improving the effectiveness of the Security Council?
Regarding equitable representation on and an increase in the membership of the Security Council, many questions beg for answers. Should the number of countries with permanent seats on the Security Council be increased? Should the number of countries with veto power in the Security Council be increased? Even if the number of countries with permanent seats and/or veto power is to be increased, which countries should be accorded this privilege? There are no easy answers to these questions. Emerging and middle powers like India, Brazil, Japan, and Germany want a seat at the table but so does the continent of Africa and the Latin America/Caribbean region. It gets even more complicated. While there is a broad consensus that African countries deserve to be permanently represented in the Security Council, there is less agreement on which country or countries in Africa should get this honor and whether such an honor should come with all the rights and privileges of permanent membership, including the veto power.
Ambassador Sérgio França Danese of Brazil was absolutely right when he said that “[Security] Council paralysis in the face of a humanitarian catastrophe is not in the interest of the international community.” The consequences of Security Council paralysis are many.
First, the toll on civilians of inaction by the Security Council is likely to be significant incalculable. As was the case with the Rwandan genocide, precious lives are lost when the Security Council fails to act in a timely manner. In April 1994, the Security Council “refused to recognize that genocide was being perpetrated against the Tutsi in Rwanda and failed in its responsibilities to reinforce the UN peacekeeping mission [there] in order to protect as many innocent civilians as possible.”
Second, as was the case in Rwanda, the inability of the Security Council can result in a regional spillover of the war and a ‘cascade of human tragedy’ across the region. According to Colin Keatin, the former Permanent Representative of New Zealand, who, in April 1994, held the presidency of the Security Council, “[t]he failure in Rwanda in 1994 caused not only genocide, but it also led to an appalling humanitarian catastrophe in eastern DRC in 1995. And this led directly to the civil wars in the DRC and to human tragedy on an even more massive scale. Some estimates suggest that up to 5 million died. Major instability afflicted the region.” There are growing fears that the Security Council’s paralysis could birth something worse than the current crisis – the breakout of a regional conflict, for instance.
Nearly thirty years after the Rwandan genocide, the paralysis that gripped the Security Council remains. In the aftermath of the Rwandan crisis, some analysts and policy makers called for “better political and operational and financial mechanisms for the Council and the wider UN system to achieve better outcomes,” believing that new mechanisms for improved early warning, better systems for briefing and presenting options to the Council at early stages of potential crises, enhanced preventive diplomacy, quick preventive deployment, and, robust deterrence, is what is needed for the Security Council to act.
From Rwanda to South Sudan, to Srebrenica, to the Central African Republic, and beyond, the landscape of conflict suggests that efforts to protect populations from atrocities remain very elusive. It is time to revisit some of the very foundations of the UN system.
Uche Ewelukwa Ofodile (SJD, Harvard) is a Senior Fellow of the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She holds the E.J. Ball Endowed Chair at the University of Arkansas School of Law where she has taught a broad range of courses including Public International Law.
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