palestine and un


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No issue highlights the structural deficiencies within the UN Security Council more effectively than the plight of the Palestinian people.
In 2011, Obama wielded his first veto to block a proposed resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West-Bank as illegal. He stood alone among the 15 members of the Security Council, 14 of whom (including Britain and France) backed the proposal. In November 2012, 138 countries voted in favour of upgrading Palestine’s status within the UN General Assembly. One of the main blockades in Palestine’s quest for full UN recognition is the structure of the Security Council itself.

There is little doubt that the root of this problem lies in the veto power possessed by the ‘Permanent Five’ (P5) members within the Security Council. Distributed on the balance of power circa 1945, this veto allows any of the P5 to block a proposed resolution regardless of international feeling or votes from other member states.

The veto power has a reasonable historical grounding. At its conception, the “Big Three” post-war powers (US, UK and USSR) were adamant that their cooperation was key to world peace. Only a decisive say for these powers on the Security Council would do. The failure of the predecessor to the UN (the League of Nations) has often been blamed on an indecisive and convoluted decision making process, as well as a lack of weight attached to key powers (the USA were famously non-committal). A veto for the most powerful states would give this new organisation teeth and an international credibility previously lacking.

What the founders did not count on however were the radical changes in the make-up of the international system that would take place over the next 60 years. The concerns of the post-war world were understandably centred upon preventing another aggressor nation arising to start a global war the like of which had blighted the first half of the 20th century.

But the nature of conflict has long-since ceased to be so black-and-white. The rise of ‘problems without passports’ (such as international and often stateless terrorism) means that the importance placed on national sovereignty by the Security Council can act as a hindrance rather than a strength. And it is the continued existence of the veto power that keeps national sovereignty as the governing principle of the Council.

And so we return to the issue of Palestine. In Obama’s 2011 veto backing Israeli settlements, former US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice stated that it “should not be misunderstood to mean we support settlement activity”. It was, by all accounts, a reluctant veto from the US. But this only serves to highlight the barriers the veto power can erect and its fundamentally undemocratic nature. The strength of relationship between two single sovereign states prevented decisive and collective action from being taken.

Since 2000, nine out of the US’ ten vetoes have involved the backing of Israel. The Palestinian people are left without a voice. This is some distance away from the humanist and collective doctrines at the heart of the UN Charter.

The outdated and undemocratic nature of the veto has by no means gone unnoticed. The P5 are now more cautious with their power, influenced in part by the paralysis caused by excessive use of the veto during the Cold War. The mere threat of the veto is now credible currency, as shown by France’s opposition to the 2003 Iraq War.

But there is a circularity at the heart of the Security Council that has damaged all serious attempts at reform. This circularity is solidified by the existence of the veto power. The P5 won’t give up their position of privilege – the USA and China because they believe it accurately reflects their position in the world; Britain and France (and to a lesser degree Russia) because they realise it gives them a position of power vastly at odds with their actual global influence.

Expansion of permanent membership of the Security Council is another contentious issue exacerbated by the veto power. On the one side the P5 are unwilling to expand the power of veto for reasons relating to self-interest. China for example are reluctant to give Japan a say reflective of their position in the world due to unresolved historical tensions. Likewise Britain and France are unwilling to bow to Germany’s requests as it diminishes their privileged positions within the EU.

On the other side however the main four contenders for permanent membership (India, Brazil, Germany and Japan) are unlikely to accept ‘half-baked’ permanent membership without a veto while the current P5 retain the power.

The veto power therefore is self-evidently outdated. Possible solutions (reform or outright abolition) are a topic for another article. As it stands however, it is clear that the veto is now a significant barrier to effective reform. To quote the former UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser and international relations scholar Edward C. Luck, while the veto power remains as it is, the Security Council will continue to be “undependable, unaccountable and unrepresentative”.

BY: Philip Lewis

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