With a return of international hostility that echoes that of the Cold War, the United Nations has once again highlighted its lack of capacity to deal with conflict. During the early hours of the April 14, the USA, UK and France launched coordinated airstrikes in Syria to hit targets that are thought to be connected with chemical weapon production. This military action took place without the approval of the UN – an international body created in 1945 to control and prevent conflict through the means of collective security. In essence this means all for one and one for all; if a country wages war on another, all 193 nations of the UN create the space for mediation or help to form part of an international army if the aggressor continues to act beyond warnings and sanctions. In theory, it sounds like an effective system. This pact should lessen the chance of war because a nation that provokes conflict faces a multinational enemy.
Yet, in reality, collective security fails. This is largely due to the UN’s flawed decision-making process that doesn’t have the strength to handle the complexity of modern security threats. The Security Council made up of the ‘Big 5’ (US, UK, France, China and Russia) is by far the biggest problem that the UN has ever created for itself.
The current situation with Russia, Syria and the West illustrates this perfectly. Why did the US, UK and France act alone? Because of Russia’s veto power. The Security Council privileges the ‘Big 5’ above all other countries, allowing them to have the final decision on whether action goes ahead. You can see why this doesn’t work – the USA and Russia have never been the best of friends and their rivalry doesn’t seem to have concluded with the end of the Cold War. The long-standing alliance between Russia and Syria is preventing the use of effective collective action in response to Assad’s suspected chemical attacks because the former will not allow for any action against the latter to be passed. This basically paralyses the UN from doing anything that can reduce the ongoing human-suffering in Syria, therefore its purpose as a peace-maker and provider of humanitarian aid is completely over-ridden by the self-interest of Russia.
On the flip side, the US-led missile strikes in Syria affirm that the UN cannot control its members. The USA is the world’s only superpower; it calls the shots on the world stage and does what it pleases. Take Iraq in 2003, an invasion that was considered illegal and openly condemned by the UN, but US went ahead regardless. The strikes in Syria are just another addition to an ever-growing list of unapproved action.
The UN requires reform if it wishes to fulfil its purpose. The Security Council undermines collective security as it gives exclusive power to a tiny proportion of its membership. In the most recent case, innocent Syrian people should not have to answer to outward alliances and the UN needs to step up if it hopes to retain any legitimacy as an institution of international peace-making.