For the first half of the decade since the Cold War's end, the atmosphere in the U.N. Security Council was decidedly improved. With less East-West divisiveness, the council met more frequently and did more business. Only seven vetoes were cast in the post-Cold War period, versus 240 in the first 45 years of U.N. life. Twenty peacekeeping operations were mandated, more than the total for all the preceding years.

But then the initial optimism about the Security Council's ability to get its job done in a vetoless world turned sour. Particularly dismaying were the last 12 months, during which the council was bypassed, defied, and abused.

It was bypassed when NATO began military action against Slobodan Milosev«c's Yugoslavia without first seeking the Security Council approval that NATO countries knew would be vetoed by Russia and China. The fundamental significance of NATO's slight was not diminished by the post-conflict agreement of NATO and Russia to seek Security Council endorsement and U.N. participation in the policing and administration of Kosovo.

The Security Council was defied by Saddam Hussein, who correctly assessed that he could get away with disobeying the council's disarmament resolutions thanks to a combination of influential friends on the council, a general loss of will within the body, and a sympathetic secretary-general. During the past eight years, many but not all of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction have been eliminated. Disarmament tasks remain to be completed, however, and monitoring and verification systems need to be secured to ensure that Saddam does not reconstitute his illegal weapons. Yet the Security Council has been unable to reach a decision that would restore, even in a modified way, the implementation of its own law. Indeed, some members -- including, incredibly, Canada, a nonpermanent member of the council -- have sought to lower the standard of Iraqi compliance.

Council procedures have also been abused. China prevented minor peacekeeping operations from proceeding in Guatemala and Macedonia and threatened to do the same in Haiti, merely because those countries had dealt with Taiwan. Although vetoes driven more by national interest than any sense of collective responsibility were common during the Cold War, they have been less so since, with nothing comparable to these Chinese vetoes, delivered and threatened. Such use of the veto is dramatically distant from that envisoned at the 1945 U.N. founding conference or by reasonable people today.

The five major powers were given permanent seats on the council to ensure their commitment to the new body. They were given the veto for a very limited and specific reason: to allow them to prevent a council decision authorizing the use of force against them. Beyond that, they were expected to exercise collective responsibility for "the maintenance of international peace and security."

Yet the Security Council's ability to function as the guardian of international peace and security has been thrown into question by the incidents depicted above. In all these cases, permanent members have weighted their narrow national interests over collective responsibility.


Clearly, the Security Council is not working adequately. To fix it, two key areas must be addressed urgently. First is the veto, which has been abused by permanent members in defense of interests, client states, and ideological concerns that very often had nothing to do with maintaining international peace and security. Even if it is accepted for argument's sake that the profligate use of the veto during the bitter contest of the Cold War might have forestalled its worst consequence -- nuclear holocaust -- it is no longer appropriate, much less necessary, to view the veto power in such a context. Today's world is more interdependent and, if threatened, it is by weapons proliferation, not superpower rivalry.

The veto issue is a vexed one. Clearly, the major powers will not give up their veto power voluntarily, and the charter allows them to block any proposal that it be removed. The question thus becomes whether they can voluntarily agree to a more constructive interpretation of the veto's nature and the uses to which it may legitimately be put. Only if they succeed in doing so can the Security Council be rescued from its present breakdown.

It would be best if the proposed rules were informal. They should reinforce the distinction between substantive and procedural issues -- and permit vetoes of the former only. Some may point out that this distinction already exists in the U.N. Charter; however, permanent members still have, on innumerable occasions, successfully threatened the veto on procedural issues. Any agreed rules would need to prevent this and take into account threatened vetoes in addition to those that are actually delivered. New rules would also necessarily include other understandings on substantive issues.

Such rules would diminish use of the veto, a move that would cause some heartburn in capitals and parliaments. But if the United States, the undisputed lone superpower, indicated a willingness to discipline the use of its veto, it could then ask other permanent members to do the same. Certainly, in the absence of an American concession, nothing will change. But if others will not agree, then nor should the United States.

Such an American initiative would have another advantage: it would temper the growing anxiety within the international community about the unipolar world and the policies of its one superpower. A move by the United States to effectively share authority would speak volumes. Naturally, restraining the use of the veto would complicate the lives of permanent members. Less free to throw their weight around, they would have to argue their cases more cogently. They would have to consider issues in more detail than would perhaps immediately meet their interests, taste, or judgment. But the benefits would be many, including a long overdue revitalization of the Security Council's rigid and tired political environment.


Arms control is the second area requiring urgent attention, and forging changes there may prove even harder than achieving a new understanding on the use of the veto. The effect on global security and the Security Council's authority, however, is potentially more far-reaching.

Thirty years ago, the international community began a process of drawing up treaties on the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, starting with nuclear, and then working through biological, chemical, and missile technologies. One of the key questions that inevitably arose under such treaties is who would enforce them, especially in the event of a detected breach. Typically, the answer given -- sometimes in writing within a particular treaty, but certainly in political terms -- was the Security Council. The Security Council is the custodian of nonproliferation. It has the task of providing confidence to the international community that the tapestry of treaties designed to ensure that weapons of mass destruction do not spread is enforced and kept whole. There is simply no other body that can do this job, and this is widely understood.

But how does the Security Council's decision-making methodology, including the veto, square with its expected obligation to enforce the nonproliferation treaties? For example, will a decision by the council on noncompliance with such a treaty be held hostage by national interests and thus vetoes by permanent members?

A case in point: North Korea clandestinely continues nuclear weapons development in contravention of its obligations under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (npt). Because of Chinese, and to some extent Russian, interests, the Security Council has responded inadequately, failing a crucial test. Instead, the attempted solution to the problem was agreed on largely outside the council, and is not proving viable.

Iraq represents an even more profound failure. Saddam Hussein has broken all of Iraq's nonproliferation undertakings. He has lied to the United Nations' weapons inspectors. Data indicate that he continues to conceal illegal weapons of mass destruction. Unquestionably, he retains the capacity to make them. These facts are known in the Security Council, including by those permanent members who have given Saddam strong support. Russia, Iraq's strongest backer in the council, is fully aware of Iraq's weapon status, not least because the Soviet Union was Saddam's major supplier of arms and the means to manufacture them.

The authority of the council is deeply challenged when objective cases of treaty violation like these end up being judged on a narrow, subjective political basis by veto-wielding permanent members. Were this to become the council's standard way of dealing with weapons proliferation, it would amount to a profound and, I suspect, mortal failure.

No reflection on arms control and the responsibilities of permanent members would be complete without noting the need for them to keep their own promises concerning nuclear disarmament. Among other things, the survival of the NPT is at stake.

Permanent membership in the Security Council and its associated veto power is a privilege, not a right. The continuing legitimate enjoyment of that privilege, as history has shown with respect to similar privileges, rests on its responsible exercise. This requires a thorough revisiting of the nature and uses of the veto, and the Security Council must prove itself able to fulfill the responsibility it has been given to enforce the weapons of mass destruction nonproliferation treaties. Both of these reforms require action, above all, by the permanent members. They would help the Security Council get over its annus horribilis, and serve the interests of the international community in the 21st century.

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  • Richard Butler is Diplomat in Residence at the Council on Foreign Relations. For the past two years, he was Executive Chairman of the United Nations Special Commission, the body charged with disarming Iraq. Prior to that, he served for five years as Australia's Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York.
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