International law allows the use of force in only two circumstances: in self-defense; and when it is approved by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Needless to say, Russia’s armed intervention in the Ukraine fails to satisfy either condition.
It is neither consistent with the strict international legal standard for self-defensel, nor approved by the UNSC. Yet there is virtually nothing the UNSC can do about it.
The reason is simple: the legal architecture of the UNSC is and always has been woefully inadequate to satisfy its lofty mandate, which is to maintain international peace and security.
Russia and the US exercise their UN veto, a lot
Among the nine votes that any measure or action must acquire for approval are those of all five permanent members: the US, UK, China, Russia, and France (the prominent allied powers in World War II). Each of these five countries retains the right of absolute veto against any measure before the UNSC, be it a mere rhetorical condemnation (the UNSC condemns Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine), or something more substantial, like military action or economic sanction.
By far the most prolific users of the veto power are Russia and the US, who have, in the history of the UNSC, killed 119 and 83 measures respectively. Britain, the next closest, has used the veto 32 times.
The rest of the UNSC is comprised of a list of ten countries that is constantly changing on a rotating basis. None of these countries have the power to veto any measure.
The unsurprising result of this structure is that the five permanent members completely dominate the UNSC, and are essentially able to use it as a tool of their respective foreign policies.
Britain and France haven’t helped either
Consider, for example, the 1956 fury of Britain and France about the Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser nationalizing the Suez Canal. The Canal had long been a profitable aspect of both countries’ imperialist foreign policies; and this was a reality that Nasser, goes the logic of imperialism, had no right to challenge.
So, Britain and France hatched a tripartite alliance, and a hair-brained scheme with Israel, to reclaim the Canal. Israel would invade the Sinai and push all the way to Suez; Britain and France, feigning neutrality, would send in forces ostensibly to police the conflict (for its help, Israel would be allowed to keep the Sinai) but in reality, to retake control of it. In that spirit, Britain and France quickly vetoed a UNSC resolution that sought to resolve the Suez crisis in a manner inconsistent with their nefarious plans.
Examples like this abound.
The US, for its part, didn’t use the veto until 1970. Since that time, however, it has reliably blocked action by the UNSC whenever it would significantly contradict US foreign policy. Most importantly, the US regularly vetoes resolutions critical of Israel’s ongoing occupation, including its settlement project, which is both an indisputable violation of international law and contributes to the belligerent state of the Middle East.
Russia, of course, does the same. For example, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, it vetoed the resolution opposed to that aggression.
Due to its structural defects, the UNSC has never been capable of preventing the most destructive and deadly wars, many of which are purveyed by the very countries entrusted with the veto.
Then there’s Iraq
Most recently, the US flouted the Security Council once it became clear that the latter would not support an invasion of Iraq. The resulting invasion, which was, in my view, a plain violation of international law, resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and thousands of coalition service men and women. And all of the justifications for the war proffered by the Bush administration were eventually discredited (and most were transparently weak from the outset).
Now, Russia is in a position to stifle justice again following its Ukraine intervention, which the UNSC is powerless to stop. If there are consequences for the Russian aggression, they will have to come from elsewhere.
All of this context, present and historical, practically screams for UN reform. It is both anachronistic and unjust that the criteria for influence in the UNSC continues to be a combination of history, military power and wealth, none of which inherently bespeaks an affinity for leadership or a commitment to international justice.
If it is possible to achieve a more peaceful and just international order, egalitarianism in international legal structures must be enhanced, first by disclaiming the notion that military strength and wealth per se equal authority. This is the seedy logic of power, which leads to immense hypocrisy like this from British writer James Snell, who can “think of nothing worse than” a failure of the west to mount a counter-intervention against Russia (presumably starting a war) in the Ukraine. Snell writes:
“But why is Ukraine so vital?” you may ask. “Well, I reply, in a fittingly grave and solemn tone,” because it is the latest manifestation of Russian aggression (my emphasis), and we cannot allow the saber rattling (and unsheathing) of a tyrant like Vladimir Putin to go unpunished.”
Russian “aggression” must be “punished” by the same country whose far more deadly aggression in Iraq has only just abated, and went entirely “unpunished.” Ironically, Putin would appreciate this double standard. He applied essentially the same in his famously controversial Op-Ed in the New York Times, in which he chastised the US for mulling an invasion of Syria:
“We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.”
The Putin who wrote those words has apparently gone out to lunch, accompanied by the same Senator (now Secretary) John Kerry, who once voted to approve the illegal and aggressive Iraq War, and who is now distraught over Russia’s “incredible act of aggression” in the Ukraine. My point being, it is difficult to use these instruments to accomplish good when we skirt them when inconvenient.
In each case, juxtapose past sentiment with present conduct and the message is clear: the UNSC is a tool to serve the caprice of its five permanent members. So long as responsibility for the maintenance of peace and security is left to the whims of only the most powerful and self-interested countries in the international order, the world cannot expect quality peacekeeping efforts.