Booting Putin out of UNSC is more complicated than you think

Booting Putin out of the UN permanent five club is more complicated than you think
6 min read

Hassan Ben Imran

10 March, 2022
Calls to strip Russia of its UNSC seat and veto power do not tackle the essential problems undermining international peace and stability. But expanding the UNGA's authority could help hold powerful states accountable, writes Hassan Ben Imran.
President of Russia Vladimir Putin addresses the United Nations General Assembly on September 28, 2015 in New York City. [Getty]

A few days after Russia deployed its armed forces into Ukraine, US senators called for removing Russia’s permanent seat in the UN Security Council (UNSC), citing Putin’s “thuggery.. aggression” and disrespect for international law, reiterating that this should not go unpunished.

The irony could not go unnoticed: Republican politicians who were not against US wars, with some even opposing the withdrawal of troops, are going all out against Russia for doing the exact same thing. The underlined presumption that respect for international law was the criterion to ‘grant’ a permanent seat, and veto power, in the UNSC is also ironic.

Irony aside, it seems that it has escaped the senators’ notice that in order to expel a country, or remove its permanent seat in the UNSC, all the five permanent members (P5) should approve; Russia is one of them.

Regardless of the senators and their intentions, they did bring up a very critical matter that paralysed the United Nations, whose absence is felt in this crisis.

Attempts to expel

Attempts to get rid of any of the UNSC’s P5, particularly Russia and China, is not new. From the UN’s formation in 1948 until 1971, when China’s seat was held by the Taiwan-based government of the Republic of China (ROC) and the Nixon Administration recognised the Beijing-based communist government as the Government of China and hence the Chinese UNSC seat was given to Beijing’s People’s Republic of China (PRC). This experience should make it unquestionable for the Chinese government to have a discussion on removing any one’s veto power.

Similarly, Russia’s seat was debated following the collapse of the USSR, revolving around whether the Russian Federation had the right to get the USSR’s permanent seat and veto power in the UNSC.

The debate was on if Russia is a ‘Successor State’ or a ‘Continuing State’ under international law in which a successor state is basically a new country that emerged after the collapse of an older one, and hence it would not keep the same rights and liabilities of the older one, and would have to renegotiate them – this is the current Ukrainian stance.

On the other hand, a continuing state is the larger part of a previous country that lost some of its territory, and therefore it would still maintain its rights and liabilities. This was Russia’s position, and what had eventually happened.

Interestingly enough, the UK is also one country that is uncomfortable about this issue. Imagine if another independence referendum takes place in Scotland and ends with separation, would England and Wales be a continuing or successor state(s)?

On the necessity of reform

Yet, it is vital to talk about reforming the UN Security Council, which has paralysed the whole UN system. Undoubtedly, the chief reason is the veto power held by the P5, those who have this power, simply use it whenever they need to; as seen with Russia recently, and as well the US over time to protect itself and its allies.

Calls for reforming the UNSC date back to the independence of the Global South from colonisation after European powers were exhausted by WWII. Seeing it through the lenses of equal sovereignty among states, the UN was supposed to be the place to manifest and reinforce that equality. But in reality, it was quite obvious that “some states are more equal than the others”.

From a realist perspective, France and Britain, both permanent members with veto, has dramatically decreased in power since the formation of the UN, and we can see that certain emerging powers, like Germany, Japan, India and Brazil (the so-called “G4”), arguing that them are ‘more entitled’ to be permanent members. No doubt, other emerging powers will soon argue the same.

What could be done?

Russia’s war has clearly shown that the current international order is on the brink of collapse and reforming the UN is crucial.

There have been many proposals regarding the UNSC; whether increasing permanent membership (the most well-known is Kofi Annan’s 2005 proposal), or regulating it in a way that makes the veto harder to use. So far, all these proposals were merely mental exercises since the P5 are comfortable with the status quo.

As it stands, it seems that the most feasible way to fix the UNSC is by re-balancing its relationship with the UN General Assembly; the more democratic and truly representative body of the UN.

Currently, the only mechanism available within the UN’s legal regime is UNGA Resolution 377, or ‘Uniting for Peace’ resolution which allows the UNGA, in cases where the UNSC is paralysed by the lack of unanimity among its P5 members, to maintain international peace and security, including, if necessary, the use of force.

Systematically activating ‘Uniting for Peace’ could help redefine the relationship between the UNGA and the UNSC until a significant structural change occurs.

Would expelling Russia fix things?

It is important to remember that the veto power was not negotiated nor rewarded for good conduct, but rather imposed by the logic of gunfire, in which WWII’s victors dictated the terms.

To be able to hold Russia accountable for its conduct requires the same towards the US, China, France and the UK - all of whom have their crimes. So, who is going to hold accountable who? That’s why serious reform is so important so the UN performs the role it was created for.

Reforming the UNSC is not simply a matter of administrative reform, but rather an international security priority to save the entire institution and increasing the UNGA’s authority and mandate could be the first step. Today, the world has a choice to make: peacefully negotiate reform or face another total war, with new victors dictating a new imperfect and unfair regime.

Hassan Ben Imran is a Board Member at Law for Palestine and an analyst and writer on international law in conflict zones, Palestine and Middle Eastern affairs.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.