On Crimea ‘invasion’: Why the UN veto has to go

The best response to Russia’s Crimea ‘invasion’? Get rid of the Security Council veto.

While the US has conditionally supported an increase in the permanent membership of the Security Council, it has been largely opposed to the removal of its veto power, writes LeVine [Reuters]

The hypocrisy is as palpable as it is indefensible. So much so that it’s hard to imagine how US Secretary of State John Kerry could have said the words with a straight face.

“You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped up pre-text,” he explained on Sunday to David Gregory, host of the NBC Sunday talk show Meet the Press. No smile or even smirk can be spotted on his face, which remained as stoic as when he famously explained during his last Senate campaign how authorising the invasion of Iraq “met the national security interests of our country”.

Inside Story: Russian defence or dominance?

The larger picture

President Barack Obama owes his presidency in good measure to his predecessor’s “unwise” (in Kerry’s words) use of his Congressionally mandated authority to deploy “all necessary means” to secure US interests in Iraq.

One wonders if Russia’s next president will look back on its Parliament’s authorisation of President Vladimir Putin to send Russian troops into the Ukraine with a similar sense of historical schadenfreude.

Much of that depends on how serious President Putin is about expanding Russia’s control of Crimea and perhaps even parts of Eastern Ukraine, and whether such actions are part of a larger strategy to annex Russian-speaking parts of the country or  – at least – break them away from central government control and ultimately sovereignty.Militarily, there is little the United States, its NATO allies, or the Ukraine can do to stop Russia from taking control of as much territory as it likes, at least for the time being.

The stakes are even higher if Putin’s motives are “taking aim at the United States and Europe”, as the New York Times is arguing, as much as they are geared towards securing Russia’s local interests. 

This leaves various forms of sanctions – suspending Russia’s participation in the G-8, prohibiting various forms of visas for tourism and business, placing sanctions on various imports from and exports to Russia – as the most likely means of attempting to punish Russia.

And depending on the patriotism of middle and upper class Russians, for whom Europe is a primary location both for tourism and banking, such punishment might pressure the government to resolve the crisis in a way that restores something close to the status quo ante in Crimea.

But there’s only so much pain such actions can inflict, in good measure because the US and Europe need Russia – its oil and gas, and its cash reserves, as well as its cooperation on issues from Syria to nuclear proliferation – more than it needs a Ukraine with its present borders.

New cold war?

While politicians and the media are already describing the events of the last week as the start of a new Cold War, that binary paradigm neither holds politically in the present multipolar globalised world system, nor does it offer a set of procedures that would effectively compel Russia or any other country to refrain from invading other countries or committing other violations of international law.

Militarily, there is little the United States, its NATO allies, or the Ukraine can do to stop Russia from taking control of as much territory as it likes, at least for the time being.

The one mechanism that could compel Russia or other countries to stop engaging in acts of aggression such as sending forces to seize parts of a sovereign state is the United Nations Security Council, which has the mandate to declare such actions illegal and demand violators remove their troops. The problem, of course, is that as long as Russia retains a veto, derived from Article 27 of the UN Charter, the Security Council is powerless to act to compel it to remove troops.

Of course, Russia is not the only country to use its weight as a permanent Security Council member to prevent votes that might challenge its policies. It and the former Soviet Union wielded their veto power dozens of times during the UN’s history, although only the last nine were used by Russia.

In contrast the United States wielded the veto upwards of 70 times, with well over a dozen vetoes coming in the post-Cold War period (almost all US vetoes have concerned the Israeli occupation). And innumerable votes have never seen the light of day precisely because Council members knew they’d result in a veto.

Benefits of a ‘P5’ veto

Both the US and Russia, as well as China and the United Kingdom, enjoy the benefits of having a “P5” veto: It allows the great powers and their clients (like Israel and Syria) to violate international law, including the most serious of crimes, that of “aggression” against another state, with relative impunity. But while it ensures the greatest freedom of action to the most powerful countries, it doesn’t necessarily serve their broader geostrategic interests.

Whether regarding the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 or the Russian incursion today, the lack of veto power would have not merely given the international community a powerful tool to rein in excessive force, but, given the countries themselves, a mechanism for avoiding ultimately disastrous mistakes, as the US invasion of Iraq so well demonstrates, and Russia’s Crimean folly could well confirm.

At the same time, bringing in countries such as Germany, Japan, Brazil, South Africa, and/or Indonesia as permanent members (India should be part of this group, but its ongoing occupation of Kashmir would disqualify its becoming a permanent member) would expand the ranks of the permanent membership.

It would also strengthen the hands of international forces and mechanisms that meaningfully rather than merely rhetorically support freedom and democracy across the globe.

While the US has conditionally supported an increase in the permanent membership of the Security Council, it has been largely opposed to the removal of its veto power (or even its weakening by requiring two or three no votes to be take effect); if not for the sake of its own imperial prerogatives than to ensure the continued protection of Israel, on whose behalf the vast majority of UN Security Council vetoes have been wielded.

Making the situation more difficult, according to Articles 108 & 109 of the Charter, amending the UN Charter to expand the Security Council and/or change or do away with the veto would require not just a two-thirds vote in the General Assembly, but constitutional ratification by all those states, and the agreement of all five current permanent members.

US condemns Russian ‘aggression’ in Crimea

With the civil war and attending humanitarian diaster in Syria, the Central African Republic spiraling into a conflict across the region, the showdown over Crimea threatening to resurrect the Cold War, there is a growing sense that the only way to get rising powers to play a more proactive role in managing regional conflicts is through their greater empowerment within the international system.  

There is also a congruence of interests to support a mechanism that would help save the big powers, and world community as well, from the costs of pursuing their basest geostrategic interests.

At the very least, whoever called for or supported such a change to the Security Council would show themselves to be at the forefront of the movement towards greater democratisation of global governance. Those opposing it would show themselves to be standing outside the global consensus for greater transparency and representation within the major institutions governing the international system.

In the kind of battles for world public opinion that are being waged now around the Ukraine and Crimea, the side that shows a willingness to relinquish some power to help ensure the great good for all sides will be the one that wins support for their policies towards resolving the conflict. 

Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern History at University of California, Irvine, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lund University. His new book is One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States, co-edited with Ambassador Mathias Mossberg.