The new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, is reportedly giving up on the UN Security Council, because it likely will not approve armed action against Syria in the wake of the August 21 chemical weapons incident.
Power, who advocates a U.S. military attack on Syria, blamed Russia, because it is expected to use its veto power to block any U.S. resolution for armed intervention.
The five permanent Security Council members are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. In addition, the Security Council includes a rotating group of 10 other countries at any time. These non-permanent members, whose term on the Security Council is two years, have a vote on decisions, but do not have veto power. The Security Council is crucial because it alone can authorize many UN actions, especially, as in this case, armed actions.
All 193 member nations of the United Nations belong to the General Assembly. In both the General Assembly and the Security Council, each country has one vote, no matter what its population.
Power expressed frustration with the potential Russian and Chinese use of their veto power. But an examination of the entire record of vetoes cast in the Security Council shows a different picture. These are listed on the UN website, where one can also read the statements that the UN ambassadors have made in justifying their votes on Security Council resolutions.
At the beginning of the United Nations in 1946, the USSR did indeed cast many vetoes. The very first veto cast by any permanent Security Council member was by the USSR in 1946, on the manner in which foreign troops (mostly French) would be withdrawn from Syria and Lebanon.
The Soviet Union continued to veto many Security Council resolutions, but in 1970 this changed. From that point on, the Soviet Union exercised the veto much less frequently, and the United States became the Security Council's veto champion. From 1970 to the present, the United States (alone or with France and/or the United Kingdom) has vetoed 78 Security Council resolutions, the USSR 10, Russia (after the breakup of the Soviet Union) alone or with China 9, China alone, 2.
A large number of the U.S. vetoes have been cast against resolutions on the Palestine-Israel conflict. The most recent of these was in February 2011, with the United States vetoing a resolution about the Israeli settlements in the Palestinian West Bank.
Earlier, the United States vetoed Security Council resolutions aimed at the apartheid regime in South Africa, and at Ian Smith's repressive Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and dealing with complaints by Nicaragua about U.S. aggression.
The most recent three Security Council resolutions to be vetoed all had to do with Syria, and were cast in October 2011, February 2012 and July 2012, with both Russia and China exercising their veto power. The objection was mainly to a one-sided condemnation of the Assad regime without referring to abuses by the rebel side in the struggle.
Many resolutions pass without a veto. Others are withdrawn when it is clear that they are going to be vetoed. Of course, some of these resolutions deserve to be vetoed.
The UN Security Council was set up precisely to prevent any one country from barging ahead into a situation of armed conflict without international input. When the Security Council won't rubber-stamp a U.S. demand for armed action, it is working as it was designed to do.
The UN was set up after World War II to make it harder, not easier, for countries to go to war. And UN members have not forgotten how the U.S., France and the UK took advantage of a non-vetoed Security Council resolution (Resolution 1973) on Libya, which was supposed to make "humanitarian intervention" to protect civilians in Benghazi possible, and twisted it into a pretext for an unlimited armed attack and regime change. Libya has not recovered from those events, which have also set off violent shock waves among Libya's neighbors.
There are many things wrong with the United Nations, and many people and states are demanding changes. One problem is the presence of Britain and France, no longer ruling huge empires but just medium sized states, as permanent Security Council members, while many states with much larger populations, such as India, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Japan, Mexico and others, are not permanent members. Among the permanent members, there is no representation of Latin America or Africa whatsoever, and Asia's vast millions are underrepresented.
Demands to change the United Nations should be aimed at improving it, not weakening it by undertaking armed action outside its structure.
Photo: The UN Security Council chamber, at UN headquarters in New York. Wikimedia Commons