Turkiye brought its UN reform campaign to London last week with the fifth panel discussion in a series of public events across 12 countries. "The world is bigger than five" is the key message of the campaign launched by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan nearly a decade ago. It has become a well-known motto in the UN reform campaign. Coined by Erdogan himself, it captures the widely shared resentment at a global system that grants the five permanent members (P5) of the UN Security Council — the US, Russia, China, Britain and France — unfair and often destructive veto powers that undermine the very ideals for which the UN was established in the first place.
The war in Ukraine has exposed just how difficult it is to preserve peace and stability if military aggression is deemed by one of the P5 to serve its national interests. In its current form, the UN system has been exposed time and again to be dysfunctional if not completely incapable of restraining the illegal use of military force. It is the major reason for paralysis within the UN which in recent years has seen its legitimacy and power chipped away by repeated undermining of the international system by one of the P5.
Arguably, the US has been guilty of this more than most. Knowing that it would not get the full backing of the Security Council — which is a pre-condition for conferring legitimacy on military invasions — Washington completely ignored the UN to launch an illegal attack on Iraq in 2003 in what would become one of the worst foreign policy disasters in recent history. In later decades the US has also used its veto more than any other UN member to protect Israel. Since 1946, the former Soviet Union, and later Russia, has used its veto the most, with 120 to Moscow's name. However, since the 1970s, when Israel's occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem became a major flashpoint in world politics, the US has made the most egregious use of its veto in the Security Council. With more than twice the number used by Russia, the US has been far and away the country with the highest number of vetoes since 1970.
Israel has been the biggest beneficiary of America's misuse of its veto power, which critics say has been a major factor for undermining both the legitimacy and the efficacy of the international organisation. With an unprecedented 53 vetoes in its favour, no other country in the international community has received as much protection from UN resolutions as the occupation state. Such resolutions generally condemn its countless violations of international law and human rights.
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Organised by the director of communication of the Republic of Turkiye, academics speaking on the campaign panel cited Israel's violations of international law; Russia's invasion of Ukraine; the genocide of some ten thousand Muslims in Bosnia by ultra nationalist Serbs between 1992 and 1995; the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar; and genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda to highlight the terrifying paralysis and inertia suffered by the international system. Founded after the Second World War, one of the main functions of the UN was to ensure that the world did not descend into the same level of inhumanity and cruelty. However, argued the panellists, time and again the global system has failed, especially when a P5 member employs the veto to undermine peace and security.
The Washington-based research director of Turkiye's SETA Foundation, associate professor Kilic Bugra Kanat, was the moderator of what was a highly engaging discussion. Joining him on the panel were two members of Turkiye's Security and Foreign Policy Board, Professor Cagri Erhan and Professor Nursin Guney. UK-based author and commentator Paul Reynolds and co-founder and director of Forward Thinking, Oliver McTernan, were the two others speakers on the five-member panel.
Erhan and Guney are a feature of the global tour sponsored by Ankara. The former began by outlining the case for reforming the UN. The main arguments centre on representation, fairness and justice. The world body was created for a very different world to the one we live in now. UN member countries have increased in number from 51 at the time of the organisation's founding to 193 today. In the same period, the global population has grown from 2.5 billion to 8 billion. "It is clear that we need a change because the UN system was established for a world four times smaller than the one we live in today," argued Erhan.
A combination of population growth and the emergence of new states, mainly in Africa, Asia and Latin America, has created a major gap in representation, he argued. He also explained that all institutions are made by human beings to address the specific problems of the time in which they were founded, pointing to the UN's predecessor the League of Nations as an example. There are no reasons, he said, why the UN should be preserved in its current form if it fails to uphold the values and principals it was set up to defend.
When I pointed out that it is very unlikely that any of the P5 will agree to their removal from the Security Council despite their diminishing global standing, Erhan explained that the proposal is to expand the privilege enjoyed by the likes of Britain and France to countries like India without calling for them to be removed. Reform that seeks to make the UN more representative by expanding the P5 to P10, he told me, will be much easier to achieve.
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"Has the UN succeeded in realising such high ideals?" asked McTernan as he explained why he backs reform of the organisation. "The answer to that depends upon which part of the world you happen to live in. Europe more or less has enjoyed a prolonged period of peace and prosperity, but many other parts of the world have not been so fortunate." Since 1945 there have been over 100 wars and, according to the Council on Foreign Relations' Global Conflict Tracker, there are currently 27 conflicts ongoing worldwide. Globally, 822 million people are suffering today from undernourishment. A further nine million people die every year of hunger and hunger-related diseases. The consensus is that the UN has abandoned the goal of war prevention to picking up the pieces of war, and even then the world body has failed to address humanitarian crises to a sufficiently effective level.
Reynolds commented on the challenge of reforming the UN system. Reform is "impossible," he insisted, if it means that it would undermine the power of P5 countries. While it is generally accepted that no particular country should be invested with the power granted to the P5 countries who are often guilty of exercising that power to thwart the will of the rest of the international community, Reynolds was sceptical about the chances of creating a more fair, just and representative UN. Why any of the major powers would give up their privileged position is not clear, he argued, while warning about the lessons of history which show that major changes in the international system have only taken place following a catastrophic major and global war.
Though any calls to reform the UN must consider the challenge of such an undertaking, the size of the task should not be a reason to abandon the goal. The well-known saying that "power concedes nothing without a demand" applies to the international stage as equally as it does to the domestic politics of any particular country.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.