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The UN's temple of the veto

By Graham Cooke - posted Monday, 21 July 2008

The recent double veto by Russia and China, scuttling a United Nations resolution that would have imposed further sanctions on the brutal regime of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, is further evidence of just how futile recourse to the international body has become in recent years.

There was a clear majority on the UN Security Council in favour of sanctions, but because two of the minority that voted against were Russia and China, permanent members with the right of veto, the resolution is dumped into the wastepaper basket.

The reasons given by the Russian delegation were breathtaking in their arrogance and cynicism. The Security Council had “exceeded its mandate” in bringing the resolution forward. The Zimbabwe situation was “not a threat to international security” and therefore no business of the UN. What went on inside Zimbabwe was an internal matter and the sanctions would be “excessive interference” in that country’s affairs.


It is probable that China, while no friend of democracy and human rights, would not have exercised its veto if it had stood alone, but was encouraged by the support of Russia. While Britain and the United States were right to proceed with the vote in order to expose Russia and China to world opinion, the outcome does nothing to assist the people of Zimbabwe from being beaten, starved and murdered by a regime that has abandoned the last shreds of legitimacy in order to cling to power.

However, this article is not meant to be a condemnation of Zimbabwe’s government, nor is it an attack on an ineffectual United Nations - that can be safely left to others - what I wish to advocate is a reform of the UN that will once again make it an effective voice for what is right and decent on the international stage.

I am just about old enough to remember Dag Hammarskjöld. The second Secretary General of the United Nations was appointed in 1953 and re-elected unanimously for what would have been a five-year term in 1957. This was cut short by his death in a plane crash in Africa while on a mission seeking to end the Congolese civil war in September 1961.

Hammarskjöld was an activist Secretary-General. He represented what I believe the founding fathers of the UN wanted it to be. His personal intervention resulted in the release of 15 American airmen captured by China during the Korean War; he pursued a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, involved himself in the 1956 Suez crisis and even before the Congolese situation blew up had already visited 21 African countries. With the situation in the former Belgian colony rapidly deteriorating he managed to broker a decision to send UN forces there which were dispatched within a month.

Compare this to the dickering, dithering and political game playing that plagues the Security Council today of which the Zimbabwe debacle is just one example, yet I believe it would be a disaster if the UN were allowed to slide into total irrelevance or become as the former unlamented American Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, would have it, simply “a useful instrument in the conduct of American foreign policy”.

The UN does outstanding work through its 17 agencies, ranging from the high profile United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Health Organisation to the little known but very necessary World Intellectual Property Organisation. When disaster strikes, as in the Boxing Day tsunami, or the Chinese earthquake, it is best placed to co-ordinate relief efforts. For every headline-grabbing scandal, such as the rorting of the Oil for Food Program, there are a dozen successful but largely unheralded projects.


These continue despite the malaise at the top. The UN, and in particular the Security Council, is trapped in the era of its formation in the aftermath of World War II. Its five permanent members, all with veto power - the US, Russia, China, Britain and France - represent the victors or the successors of the victors, in that conflict. It has become, in the words of the late Peter Wilenski, Australia’s UN Representative from 1989-92 “so at odds with the modern world [that] this dysfunction undermines its legitimacy”.

This is why I was interested in the proposals for reform advocated by American Professor Richard Hartwig, a visiting fellow at the ANU, at a recent meeting of the Canberra Branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. A quiet, thoughtful man, he has devoted a significant part of his recent academic career to devising a fair and equitable Security Council system which would replace the current temple of the veto, while accepting that any hope of immediate change is remote and that it will probably take a major world crisis to shake the major players into action.

Hartwig’s Regional-Economic Proposal (REP) would scrap the current membership of the Security Council and replace it with 10 geographic regions made up of the countries in the world with more than four million population or $40 billion economies. The remainder, mainly the so-called micro states, would retain their membership and their voice in the General Assembly.

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About the Author

Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.

He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.

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