Which 5 countries get to rule the world?

This week Amnesty International released its report on the year 2014. As anyone who’s followed the news (or this blog at least) knows, it wasn’t a great year, with terrible human rights abuses in West Africa, the Middle East and Ukraine. They also accuse world powers of failing to act to help refugees and victims of conflict. But as well as accusations, they make an interesting suggestion – that the UN Security Council members agree not to use their veto except in the case of national interest. Amnesty believes this would allow the UN to step up to tackle global crises. But how realistic is this proposal? And come to think of it, why do the Security Council powers have vetoes, and why those specific five countries? To answer this, let’s look back to 1945.

Room at the table for Germany or India?

As WWII drew to a close, the world powers decided to set up a new international body. Scarred by the experience of war, they decided that the new UN would have the real ability to deal with aggressive nations. Instead of having all nations participate in debate, the victors of the war set themselves up as the Security Council, the only UN body that could make legally binding decisions for all nations. These victors were the US, UK, USSR, China, and France. However, they were afraid that they would find themselves bound by Security Council resolutions. To avoid this, and stop powers ganging up on each other, they gave themselves the right to veto any resolution. If one of the ‘P5’ didn’t want a resolution passed, it wouldn’t.

Fast forward to 70 years later, and this set-up looks increasingly ineffective. Russia vetoes any resolutions on Ukraine, the US vetoes any condemnation of Israel, Russia and China veto any action on Syria. The fact that important countries like India, Japan or Brazil aren’t on the Council also makes it look  outdated. This has led many to call for a new arrangement of the Security Council, but this brings a whole new lot of issues.

Should the P5 be the five biggest economies (US, China, Japan, Germany, France/India)? Or the five strongest militaries (US, China, Russia, India, UK)? Or all nuclear powers (including North Korea and Israel)? Some have said that each region should have a seat, but who will represent the Middle East? Should Nigeria, a country which can’t even defeat Boko Haram, represent Africa? If India gets a seat shouldn’t Japan? To make matters worse, every possible candidate has enemies. Germany faces those who think the EU should have one seat, Japan is opposed by China, and Mexico and Argentina aren’t impressed by the idea of Brazil. It’s an absolute mess.

So if different members won’t work, is the idea of an agreement not to veto a good middle path?  It’s a good idea, but an expert points out, there are a lot of problems.The biggest of these is the question of national interest. Russia and China consider it in their national interest that no intervention in Syria takes place, and Russia certainly would still veto any resolution on its troops in Eastern Ukraine. The only power in favour of the agreement at this stage is France, and with the current tension with Russia, I can’t see that changing.

Unfortunately, this is simply the reality of our world. The one reason these five particular countries are on the Security Council is simply because they won a war 70 years ago. Quite smartly, they made impossible for reform to take place without their approval – and no power will vote itself out of a seat at the table. However, the best way to promote world peace is still involving the strongest states in the UN, and you can only do this by giving them a veto. With time and pressure though, change may come. In the meantime, we’ll just have to work with what we have. It’s not a rousing finale to this post, but that’s the way it is.

I got a lot of the information for this post from the excellent book The Parliament of Man by Paul Kennedy.

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