Ahmadinejad points the finger at the UN system


“The question needs to be asked: if the governments of the United States or the United Kingdom, who are permanent members of the Security Council, commit aggression, occupation and violation of international law, which of the organs of the UN can take them to account? Can a Council in which they are privileged members address their violations?”


These are the words of President Ahmadinejad of Iran in a speech to the UN General Assembly on 20 September 2006 [1].  His question identifies the gross inequity at the heart of the UN system - the “privilege” which the US, UK and the Soviet Union accorded themselves in the Security Council after World War II, and granted to France and China as well, a privilege that remains 60 years later.


The answer to Ahmadinejad’s question is that no organ of the UN can hold the US or the UK to account.  They can engage in aggression against other states, as and when they like, as they did against Iraq in 2003, without fear of a slap on the wrist from any organ of the UN, let alone economic or military sanctions.


The Security Council is the only organ of the UN with the authority to pass resolutions binding on UN members and to impose sanctions under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to enforce these resolutions.  But, since the US and the UK are both permanent members of the Council and have a veto over each and every decision of the Council, it is impossible for them to be sanctioned by the Council.  And the same is true for the other permanent members - China, France and Russia.


Veto-wielding permanent members also protect their close allies from sanction by the Council, which is why there was never any question of Israel being condemned by the Council for its recent assault on Lebanon, let alone having sanctions imposed upon it because of its assault.  The US ensured that Israel was protected from this.  The US even ensured that for a month there were no unwelcome calls by the Council for an immediate ceasefire.


Written into UN Charter

This extraordinary privilege for 5 UN members is written into the UN Charter [2], and has been from the outset.  Today, there are 192 member states in the UN, but 5 out of these 192 are immune from sanction by the Security Council - it says so explicitly in the Charter.


Article 2.1 of the Charter states:


“The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members.”


That is a lie.  It was a lie in 1945 when the Charter was approved, and it is still a lie today.  That it is a lie is abundantly clear from the Charter itself.   All the evidence you need is in Article 23 of the Charter, which grants 5 named states permanent seats on the Security Council, and in Article 27, which gives each of them a veto over each and every decision of the Council.


Article 23.1 reads:


“The Security Council shall consist of fifteen Members of the United Nations. The Republic of China, France, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the United States of America shall be permanent members of the Security Council. The General Assembly shall elect ten other Members of the United Nations to be non-permanent members of the Security Council, due regard being specially paid, in the first instance to the contribution of Members of the United Nations to the maintenance of international peace and security and to the other purposes of the Organization, and also to equitable geographical distribution.”


Article 27.3 says:


“Decisions of the Security Council on all other [non-procedural] matters shall be made by an affirmative vote of nine members including the concurring votes of the permanent members …”


So, a single permanent member can prevent the passing of a resolution of the Council by voting against, even if the other fourteen members vote in favour.


(Article 27.3 states plainly that for a resolution of the Council to pass all 5 permanent members must concur with it.  However, when the Soviet Union boycotted the Council in the early 50s, absence was interpreted as concurrence, and, from then on, as long as a resolution received at least 9 votes, with no permanent member voting against, a resolution has been deemed passed.  Many Council resolutions have been deemed passed, despite the fact that they never received “the concurring votes of the permanent members”, as required by Article 27.3.)


The Security Council is the only organ of the UN that can pass resolutions that are binding on member states and take measures to enforce them.  The UN General Assembly can only make non-binding recommendations (see Article 10) and then only with regard to matters that are not under consideration by the Security Council (see Article 12).


Referring matters to the UN means referring them to the Security Council, since it is the only body that has the authority to do something about them.  Practically speaking, the Security Council is the UN.  And the Security Council is dominated by the veto-wielding permanent members.  Although it also has 10 non-permanent members elected for 2 years, they are merely window dressing, since they don’t have a veto.  They carry little weight and can normally be browbeaten (if necessary) into doing what the permanent members want.


Meetings of the permanent five - the so-called P5 - are the normal prelude to action by the Security Council (for example, about Iran’s nuclear activities) and there is very little pretence that the opinions of the 10 non-permanent members matter.  When the Security Council speaks, it speaks for the permanent members, and there is absolutely no guarantee that what it says reflects the broad opinion of the international community, that is, the 192 member states of the UN.


Written in forever

What is more, the extraordinary privilege enjoyed by 5 out of the 192 UN member states, which was hard wired into the Charter 60 years ago, cannot be changed without the consent of the privileged 5.  It cannot be changed because the Charter cannot be amended without the consent of each of the 5 veto-wielding members of the Security Council, none of whom is going to volunteer to give up its extraordinary privilege.  Article 108 reads:


“Amendments to the present Charter shall come into force for all Members of the United Nations when they have been adopted by a vote of two thirds of the members of the General Assembly and ratified in accordance with their respective constitutional processes by two thirds of the Members of the United Nations, including all the permanent members of the Security Council.”


Thus, whereas it is possible for the General Assembly to recommend an amendment to the Charter removing the privilege - at present it would take the support of 128 out of the 192 member states to do so - no amendment to the Charter can take effect unless it is ratified by all 5 of the permanent members.


Instrument of victor states

These extraordinary arrangements were brought about by the victor states in World War II, in order to maintain their dominance of the post-war world.  As Ahmadinejad told the UN General Assembly on 20 September 2006:


The present structure and working methods of the Security Council, which are legacies of the Second World War, are not responsive to the expectations of the current generation and the contemporary needs of humanity.”


Unlike the UN, the pre World War II League of Nations was actually based on the principle of the equality of its members.  No member had a veto on the decision-making processes specified in the Covenant of the League [3].  These, generally speaking, required unanimity, but in certain circumstances the League could decide to take action against a member.  In other words, joining the League implied a state ceding a degree of sovereignty to the League.


The League was the creation of US President Woodrow Wilson in 1919, but the US Congress refused to ratify US participation in the League - it refused to countenance the ceding of any sovereignty whatsoever to a foreign body.


The United Nations was the creation of US President Franklin Roosevelt in 1944/45.  He constructed it so as to avoid the problem that had prevented the US Congress ratifying US participation in the League.  Central to this was a permanent seat and a veto for the US (and other Great Powers) in the decision-making processes of the UN, that is, in the Security Council.


With these arrangements, the US did not have to cede any sovereignty to a foreign body by ratifying the UN Charter and participating in its deliberations, because it was impossible for the Security Council to make a decision contrary to US wishes.  The US had the appearance of belonging to a multi-national body and participating in decision-making on a multi-national basis, while in reality it retained absolute sovereignty, with the freedom to act contrary to the wishes of the body if it wished, without fear of being sanctioned by the body for doing so.


In 1944/45 Churchill was opposed to Roosevelt’s grand scheme for a world organisation, favouring instead a series of regional organisations, each of which would be in the sphere of influence of one of the Great Powers.  But, in the course of World War II, Britain had increasingly become the junior partner in the Anglo-American alliance, and Churchill felt obliged to go along with Roosevelt’s scheme for a worldwide United Nations organisation.


Stalin agreed that the Soviet Union would participate in the scheme as well once it became clear that, as a permanent member of the Security Council with a veto, the Soviet Union would also retain absolute sovereignty.  Nationalist China was added to the list of permanent members at the insistence of Roosevelt, and Churchill insisted that France be added as a counterweight to China.  This happened at a time when neither France nor China existed as an effective state.


(Nationalist China retained this privileged status on the Council even after it was expelled from mainland China to the island of Taiwan by the Red Army in 1949.  It wasn’t until the US rapprochement with Communist China in 1971 that, contrary to the UN Charter, the UN General Assembly voted to expel Nationalist China from the UN and Communist China was given its permanent seat on the Security Council.  But Article 23 specifying the permanent members of the Council wasn’t amended to take account of this, nor was it amended when the USSR broke up in 1991 and the Russian Federation took over the Soviet seat.  The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics still exists in the UN Charter, if nowhere else.)


Reforming the Security Council

For years, there has been talk of reform of the Security Council.  The UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, proposed two different models for reform to the UN World Summit in September 2005 [4] (see Section IV), but no decision was taken at the Summit on the matter.


Kofi Annan’s proposals originated from the report of a High Level Panel of international figures, which he set up in 2003 [5].  One of them was David Hannay, a former UK Ambassador to the UN. Paragraphs 244 to 260 of this report deals with Security Council reform.  Both models proposed by the High Level Panel increase the membership of the Council from 15 to 24, but, crucially, neither changes the existing set of 5 veto-wielding powers. 


Model A proposes that there be six new permanent members without a veto - 2 from Africa, 2 from Asia and the Pacific, 1 from Europe and 1 from the Americas, the obvious candidates being Nigeria and South Africa, India and Japan, Germany and Brazil - and 3 additional non-permanent elected for 2 years as before, making a total of 5 permanent members with a veto, 6 permanent and 13 non-permanent members without a veto.


Model B proposes a new class of 8 non-permanent members elected for 4 years with a renewable term, plus an additional non-permanent member elected for 2 years, as before, making a total of 5 permanent members with a veto and 19 non-permanent members, 8 elected for 4 years and 11 for 2, all without a veto.


The High Level Panel gives the impression that it would like to have seen the veto abolished altogether, but knows that it is impossible to do so, since the veto-wielding states each have a veto on its abolition:


We see no practical way of changing the existing members’ veto powers. Yet, as a whole the institution of the veto has an anachronistic character that is unsuitable for the institution in an increasingly democratic age and we would urge that its use be limited to matters where vital interests are genuinely at stake.” (Paragraph 256)


The latter is disingenuous: the people who wrote this report know very well that the importance of a veto is its possession, not its occasional use to bloc Security Council resolutions.  The possession of a veto greatly enhances a state’s bargaining power in the Council - which is why the views of the non-permanent members of the Council that don’t possess a veto rarely have any impact on the Council’s decisions.


Ahmadinejad’s reform proposals

In his speech to the UN General Assembly, Ahmadinejad spoke about reform of the Security Council:


Today, serious reform in the structure and working methods of the Security Council is, more than ever before, necessary. Justice and democracy dictate that the role of the General Assembly, as the highest organ of the United Nations, must be respected. The General Assembly can then, through appropriate mechanisms, take on the task of reforming the Organization and particularly rescue the Security Council from its current state. In the interim, the Non-Aligned Movement, the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the African continent should each have a representative as a permanent member of the Security Council, with veto privilege. The resulting balance would hopefully prevent further trampling of the rights of nations.”


If there is to be a set of veto-wielding states on the Security Council, then there is an obvious case for spreading them around the globe.  Ahmadinejad’s proposal seems to be that, as an interim measure to produce some form of balance on the Council, there be additional veto-wielding states which represent groups of states and change from time to time.  As it stands, no state in the Non-Aligned Movement (about 120 of them) has a veto, and neither has any of the 56 states in the Organization of the Islamic Conference or the 53 African states.  (Some states are in more than one of these groups).  The US and EU wield 3 vetoes between them, but the Muslim world with more than twice the population (and around a quarter of the world’s population) has none.  Asking for one doesn’t seem unreasonable.  Likewise Africa has a greater population than the US and EU combined (about a sixth of the word’s population in all) and no vetoes.


One can but hope that Iran and others mount a campaign for more veto-wielding states, so that a bright light is shone on the inequity of the present system and how it came about.  That is not to say that exempting further states from the international rules is a desirable (or achievable) objective, even if the exemption isn’t permanent.  The principle must be no state is exempt from the rules.



David Morrison

30 September 2006

Labour & Trade Union Review




[1]  www.irna.ir/en/news/view/line-17/0609207699160531.htm

[2]  www.un.org/aboutun/charter/

[3]  www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/leagcov.htm

[4]  www.un.org/largerfreedom/executivesummary.pdf

[5]  www.un.org/secureworld/report.pdf