The United Nations' Achilles' heel was exposed once again on Feb. 4, when Russia and China joined forces to veto an Arab League-sponsored U.N. Security Council resolution against the Syrian regime.
This was the second double nay by Moscow and Beijing to veto an U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria. Exactly four months ago, Russia and China vetoed an EU-backed U.N. Security Council resolution that called for sanctions against the Syrian regime if it did not halt its military crackdown against civilians.
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice called the Russian-Chinese double veto "disgusting and shameful," while U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the veto as "disastrous." "The failure to agree on collective action," the U.N. Secretary-General stated, "encouraged the Syrian government to step up its war on its own people."
Outside the Security Council chamber, Qatar's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Khalid Al- Attiyah pronounced that Feb. 4 was a "sad day" in the United Nations' history and the decision by Russia and China to veto the resolution seeking to end violence in Syria has given President al-Assad "a license to kill."
The second Moscow-Beijing veto, coupled with the surge of violence in Syria, has triggered a wave of international outrage at U.N. Security Council's failure to reach a common stand on stopping bloodshed in Syria. On Feb. 16, an overwhelming majority of U.N. member states, 137 out of 193 of the U.N. General Assembly, approved a resolution, similar to the one vetoed by Russia and China in the Security Council, that endorsed the Arab League plan calling for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.
However, the Feb. 16 U.N. General Assembly resolution, unlike the Feb. 4 Security Council resolution, has no legal basis for enforcement.
Some analysts see the Moscow-Beijing veto as a Cold War politics of the Security Council revisited. "When the Arab League asked for U.N. Security Council endorsement of its call for a new government in Syria," says George Lopez of the University of Notre Dame, "the Russians went toe-to-toe with the United States, publicly and behind closed doors. The Russians forced significant concessions in the wording and meaning of the resolution. They won the elimination of sanctions. And then they rejected the compromise they forged. Looks like, feels like, sounds like Cold War redux."
Others believe the Russian-Chinese double-veto confirmed once again that the U.N. Security Council is nothing but an instrument of brute force. "Russia and China became permanent members when they were totalitarian dictatorships," writes Jonah Goldberg of National Review, "they have seats because they are powerful, not because they are decent or wise or democratic. And the same is true for us. Our seat was bought with might, not right."
Still others argue that the Feb. 4 veto has signaled the end of an U.N. era. As a CNN analysis puts it, "On the face of it, hardball global politics in the Security Council provides a plausible explanation for the Russian-led veto of the Syria resolution. But the reasons underpinning the Moscow-Beijing veto are more far-reaching than that. Their actions seek to roll back advances the Security Council has made in employing various methods, especially economic sanctions, that have been especially successful in achieving the charter's dual mandate to sustain peace and security and to protect human rights. It is kneecapping the council after two decades of reasonable success."
A great power's Security Council veto power was formulated late in World War II and only five permanent members-the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China-were allowed to veto a Security Council resolution or action. As a result, from the very beginning, few great powers made sure that each of them had the ability to thwart any U.N. undertaking that they might disapprove. Such rules, in turn, predestined the United Nations as structurally weak when it came to enforce international peace and security.
Today, how to strengthen the United Nations' ability to uphold international peace and security has become an urgent task for all. As Lawrence Wittner, Emeritus Professor of History at SUNY/Albany, highlighted, "Plagued bloody wars and human rights violations, the world desperately needs an alternative form of governance. The great powers have the power to provide it, but not the legitimacy to do so, while the United Nations has the legitimacy but not the power. The time has finally arrived to supplement the legitimacy of the United Nations with enough power to maintain international peace and security."
Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College's China Program.