Why the United Nations is impotent in the face of genocide — and what needs to change

Analysis: Crippled by a veto system and the inability to hold its members to account, the U.N. is failing in its mission to preserve world peace. Here’s how it can restore its relevance.
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Members of the United Nations Security Council meet on the day of a vote on a Gaza resolution that demands an immediate ceasefire for the month of Ramadan leading to a permanent sustainable ceasefire, and the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages, at U.N. headquarters in New York City, U.S., March 25, 2024.

REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

Three months into Israel’s war on Gaza, 153 of 186 nations in the U.N. General Assembly voted for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, the immediate release of all hostages and humanitarian aid access to the Gaza Strip. While non-binding, the gesture spoke of the international will for an immediate cessation of Israel’s assault on Gaza. 

But the violence against Palestinians has continued unabated.

That’s because the U.N. Security Council, a 15-member branch of the U.N. responsible for maintaining international peace, is the only body with the power to make decisions that are binding upon member states. 

In short, there would be no respite for the Palestinians without the Security Council passing a ceasefire resolution. And there could be no resolution as long as the United States — one of the five permanent members of the Security Council — continued to exercise its veto power to block ceasefire resolutions, trumping the U.N. members’ overwhelming will.

“As long as the Security Council is paralyzed and vetoes casted, then it is costing the Palestinian people their lives,” Palestinian Ambassador Riyad Mansour told reporters in February. 

With global conflicts raging from Haiti to Ukraine, the U.N.’s bureaucracy, undemocratic veto system, and unwillingness to restrain its members have paralyzed the world body, rendering it impotent in the face of brazen violations of international law.

The U.N.’s bureaucracy, undemocratic veto system, and unwillingness to restrain its members have paralyzed the world body.

“The U.N. is handicapped by the veto from intervening more effectively and regulating this conflict,” Avi Shlaim, a leading British-Israeli historian, tells Analyst News. “In effect, Israel was, until now, able to exercise the American veto to neutralize the United Nations.”

In March, with almost 100,000 Palestinians killed or injured and growing international pressure, the U.S. abstained from a vote calling for a ceasefire — finally allowing the Security Council to pass the resolution.

Back in 2018, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, then the U.N.’s human rights chief, warned the U.N. could “collapse” because the Security Council’s permanent members were “running too much of the business.” By giving a few major powers the authority to dictate global affairs with no checks and balances or effective mechanisms to restrain them, the world body is doomed to fail, promising even more global conflict and violence.

History of the U.N. veto 

When the Allied powers emerged victorious from World War I and formed the League of Nations, the U.N.’s predecessor, they gave the power of veto to all its members. That veto contributed to the body’s paralysis and ultimate failure to maintain world peace. By the 1940s, its powers were transferred to the newly established United Nations.

Lessons were not learnt when at the end of World War II, five powerful nations — the United States, China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom — were given the right to block any resolution at the U.N. Even then, just as the Cold War was beginning, the U.N. found itself deadlocked with Russia and the United States vetoing each other’s resolutions, leaving the U.N. unable to intervene. 

“It was the victors of the Second World War who decided the machinery of the United Nations and determined that the five of them — the current permanent five — would have a veto in order to protect their interests,” Carne Ross, former U.K. diplomat to the U.N., told Al Jazeera. “They are not going to give that up any time soon.”

When the U.N. was formed in 1945, concerns emerged that its setup would devolve into an imperialist structure where five global powers rule the world. World War II veteran Cord Meyer, who was part of the U.S. delegation to the San Francisco Conference which ultimately led to the creation of the U.N. charter, noted that major powers were unwilling to accept “any interference by others in its internal affairs” and wanted to be “equally free in its external affairs to make any decisions that it wishes.”

He said of the veto: “A major power can violate every principle and purpose set forth in the Charter and yet remain a member of the organization by the lawful use of the veto power expressly granted to it.”

In essence, one of those five countries — permanent members of the Security Council — could carry on committing atrocities, and block any attempts for investigation or repercussions by the other members, with absolute impunity. This is exactly what has happened since.

How the veto paralyzed the United Nations

The veto has long been recognized as a barrier to effective action in resolving conflicts. 

Some of the biggest perpetrators of international conflicts continue to wield immense power and influence in the U.N. as permanent members of the organization’s Security Council. 

The United States has vetoed U.N. resolutions against Israel at least 53 times over the past 50 years, maintaining a convenient ally to consolidate its vested interests in the Middle East and exert its influence in the region. On three separate occasions, it has blocked calls to stop the war in Gaza, finally abstaining in March.

“Once again the U.S. cynically used their veto to prevent the U.N. Security Council from acting on Israel and Palestine at a time of unprecedented carnage,” Human Rights Watch said after the first veto during the current war. 

While championing democracy on the international stage, the United States paradoxically upholds a mechanism that stifles equitable decision-making and perpetuates cycles of violence and oppression.

While championing democracy on the international stage, the U.S. upholds a mechanism that stifles equitable decision-making and perpetuates violence.

It’s not just the U.S. Since the 1945 founding of the U.N., the Security Council’s five permanent members have exercised their veto powers nearly 320 times. Most have been by Russia, the United States and China, in that order. 

In 2022, the U.N. failed to adopt a resolution calling for an end to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. One Russian veto trumped the will of 141 nations.

The U.N. was likewise helpless when the U.S. attacked Iraq, and when France and the U.K. bombed Libya. Meanwhile, China continues to persecute the Uyghurs and has its eyes trained on Taiwan. 

Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s secretary general, said in 2015 that the Security Council had “miserably failed” to protect civilians. Shetty called for the veto right to be suspended in cases where genocide or atrocities were being committed, arguing that these five countries had used the veto to “promote their political self-interest or geopolitical interest above the interest of protecting civilians.”

Can the U.N. enforce its resolutions?

The day after the United States finally allowed an immediate ceasefire resolution to pass by abstaining from the vote, Israel carried out a deadly strike in Rafah where 1.5 million civilians are sheltering. 

Even the passage of such a historic resolution, it seems, does not carry much weight.

The United States falsely claimed after its abstention that the resolution was non-binding. But multiple U.N. officials have made clear that U.N. Security Council resolutions are “mandatory,” “binding,” and constitute international law. 

“Israel is continuing to act in defiance of the U.N.,” says Shlaim. “Israel has completely ignored it, and if anything, has intensified the bombardment and the carnage and the destruction.” 

In fact, it has a long history of ignoring U.N. resolutions. The Security Council passed a resolution in December 2016 declaring Israel’s settlements in the Palestinian territories illegal and a violation of international law. The U.S. abstained, and the resolution passed with 14 votes. Israel simply ignored it. Even as the world watches, its illegal settlements are only expanding.

Both the veto system and the U.N.’s lack of resolution enforcement obstruct efforts to resolve conflicts while emboldening aggressors by shielding them from accountability. As a result, the U.N. has become a stage where geopolitical interests overshadow humanitarian imperatives, perpetuating global violence and instability.

While the U.N. legally has the power to enforce its resolutions, it has seemed unwilling to hold its member states to account. But enforcement could have a powerful impact on a number of conflicts, argues Jeffrey Sachs, a leading American economist and president of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

“The Security Council is vested with considerable powers by the U.N. Charter when it has the resolve of its members,” Sachs explained in his testimony to the Security Council last year. “It can introduce peacekeepers and even armies, if necessary. It can impose economic sanctions on countries that do not comply with U.N Security Council resolutions.”

A number of measures could immediately stop the war on Gaza, he added. These include recognizing Palestine as a full member of the United Nations, establishing a peacekeeping force mainly from neighboring Arab states, and enforcing its resolutions.

“It is high time … for the U.N. Security Council to enforce its decisions, by implementing a just and lasting solution that is in the interests of both Israel and Palestine, rather than allowing hardliners on both sides to ignore the mandate of this Council and thereby to threaten the global peace,” he said.

How to reform the U.N. Security Council

While the U.N. Security Council has 15 members, 10 of them are elected for two-year terms. They each have one vote but no veto power. Discussions about reform have long been ongoing. 

In 2018, the General Assembly discussed increasing the number of permanent members, especially with representation for African nations. It’s a call that African leaders have made for nearly two decades to “correct the historical injustice” they face as the only continent without any representation in the Security Council.

Africa should have two permanent African seats including veto power, insisted Francis Mustapha Kai-Kai, the representative for the African Group at the U.N., adding that while Africa opposes the veto, as long as it exists, it should be equally available for all regions. Last year, China, France and Germany echoed that sentiment.

The geographical inequity is so stark that more than 50 members of the United Nations have never been on the Security Council. A country whose interests are affected by proceedings at the Security Council can participate in its discussions but cannot vote. So that country’s destiny is not in its own hands, but ultimately in the hands of five nuclear powers.

The veto system’s abolition is necessary — it continues to perpetuate injustice, enabling a powerful few to dictate global affairs at the expense of the rest of the world. 

Malaysia is the latest to speak out about limiting the veto power. Sofian Akmal Abd Karim,  Malaysia’s deputy U.N. representative, opposed the “abuse” and “unjustified” use of it, saying it shouldn’t be used in situations of mass atrocity crimes like genocide. He suggested any veto must have the support of two permanent members and three non-permanent members before being put to a vote by the General Assembly. 

However, “in the long run, the veto has no place in a modern and democratic multilateral architecture,” he told the U.N. in January.

In 2022, members of the United Nations attempted to limit the use of the veto power through a resolution which was adopted by consensus. It mandated that the General Assembly would be required to hold a debate within 10 days of the use of the veto. Although it doesn’t prevent its use, such a policy will at least give the rest of the U.N. an opportunity to air their objections.

Shlaim believes the current war has intensified the need to abolish the veto. 

“The fact that America used the veto to allow Israel to continue with the genocide and with the carnage will increase pressure for abolishing the veto. Whether this will actually happen, how long [before] it would happen — it is too soon to say.” 

But its abolition is necessary — because the veto system continues to perpetuate injustice, enabling a powerful few to dictate global affairs at the expense of the rest of the world. 

The unchecked power vested in a few nations within the Security Council has led to obstructed resolutions, hampered humanitarian efforts, and ultimately, heightened death and destruction. It undermines the United Nations’ core mission, leaving vulnerable populations at the mercy of geopolitical interests rather than justice and peace.

Atif Rashid is the editor-in-chief at Analyst News.