The UN Security Council is the iconic roundtable heart of diplomacy that decides when to act on some of the globe’s most pressing issues. But is the historic body still fit for purpose? We paid a visit to its HQ to find out.
On a humid New York afternoon in late summer, the United Nations Security Council is meeting in private. There is much to debate. The conflict in Gaza is at its height; eastern Ukraine is in chaos; Isis is on the march in Iraq; and the bloodshed in Syria continues. It is hard to recall a summer when so many crises occurred at the same time.
After two hours of discussions a door opens, the diplomats emerge and the British deputy ambassador, who chaired the session, steps forward to the podium. Behind him are the 15 flags of the Security Council’s current members – what’s known as the permanent five, plus 10 elected nations – and the light-blue-and-white logo of the UN. He reads a short statement about a minor peacekeeping operation in Burundi and politely ignores a shouted question on Gaza from the sole journalist present, before shuffling away.
What is the point of the UN? Born out of the ashes of the Second World War and the failure of its predecessor, the League of Nations, it was launched in 1945 with grand intentions to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war… reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights… promote social progress… to practise tolerance and live together in peace…”
There are real victories to celebrate, from the creation of the International Criminal Court (icc) to the introduction of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, both of which, while far from perfect, have helped to create a framework for a more peaceful world.
Yet the UN’s list of failures, particularly since the end of the Cold War, is better known than its successes: peacekeeping disasters in Somalia, Bosnia and Darfur; accusations of inaction in Rwanda, Palestine and Syria; and an inability to prevent major powers taking military action in locations from Iraq to Ukraine.
At the heart of this multibillion dollar organisation with more than 43,000 members of staff around the world – and 96,824 peacekeepers in 17 missions from Haiti to South Sudan – is the UN Security Council. Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon can talk but the Security Council – a body of 15 nations – is the group that ultimately makes decisions. Not even the whole council: the five permanent members, each with their own veto, run the show. And if the Council isn’t working, the UN isn’t working.
“On the Middle East it’s not played a significant role,” says the UK’s ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant, with some understatement. His colleague Michael Tatham, is blunter. “Syria has been a huge failure for the Security Council – there’s no getting away from that.” Other diplomats despair over the inability to do anything meaningful about Palestine.
Over the course of a week in August, monocle has the chance to see the Security Council close up as the UK takes over the rotating presidency of the organisation. As one of the permanent members, the UK, like France, tends to take a more active role than the other veto-wielding powers – the US, Russia and China. “They feel the need to prove they have a reason to be there,” says Colum Lynch, a UN reporter at Foreign Policy magazine.
The UK is not going to lose its seat any time soon but debate over the composition of the world’s most important organisation has become increasingly heated in recent years. Were the Security Council to be created today it would look very different. Of its five permanent members, the US is the one remaining global power, China can claim to be a regional power that will soon have the world’s largest economy. But Russia? The Soviet Union has gone – despite the nation’s best efforts to bring it back – and its economy is a mess. Russia’s fellow Brics nations India and Brazil would have a far better claim to a seat.Neither the UK or France can say they are the most important nation in western Europe, let alone elsewhere – by any criteria Germany deserves a seat. Japan believes it should be a permanent member while there are also calls for a stronger African presence. For the UK there is no better opportunity to show its worth than when it holds the council presidency that is taken up by one of the 15 members once a month.
It sets the agenda, chairs the debates and does its best to raise its profile, both inside and outside the building. There is a Twitter q&a with the ambassador that goes as well as you’d imagine, while a red telephone box is shipped over and sits in the lobby.
The UK’s agenda is focused on Africa, particularly the situations – such as political violence in Burundi – that rarely get the attention they deserve. But those events elsewhere, from Israel to Ukraine and Iraq, throw the agenda off course and highlight once again how dysfunctional the Security Council can be. “I’m not an advocate of getting rid of the veto,” says Lyall Grant, unsurprisingly. “But I’d like to see it less readily used.” The US and Russia wield it regularly: the Americans in defence of Israel, the Russians most recently in defence of Syria. Russia has vetoed four resolutions and its opposition has watered down the three that have passed. “Syria has brought the debate over the veto into sharp focus,” says Tatham.
One way to get around the threat of the veto is to raise the cost of inaction, argues Reza Afshar, a one-time member of the UK team at the UN, who now works for advisory group Independent Diplomat. “In Syria, heavy arming of the opposition that resulted in significant regime losses might make Russia more inclined to let the Council deal more effectively with the situation. We saw an example of Russia changing its calculations when it supported Council action on Syria’s chemical weapons when it was clear that the West was poised to strike militarily. No reform of the Security Council will change this fundamental requirement to play the power dynamics.”
Midway through the first week of the UK’s presidency a debate is held on the Democratic Republic of Congo, a less controversial topic that all of the permanent members are happy to talk about. At times the chamber is like a theatre where both on and offstage can be seen at the same time. Around the horseshoe table the 15 ambassadors take part in the public performance: reading their own prepared speeches and listening (or giving the appearance of listening) to everyone else’s. Behind them are a further two rows of chairs filled with advisers; there are more rows of adviser-filled seats stage right. It is here, and in the corners of the chamber, where the offstage action takes place. Notes are passed; urgent conversations are whispered.
Lyall Grant passes a note to his US counterpart, Samantha Power. Later he gets up to speak to his deputy, Peter Wilson, in the corner. Wilson then walks over to the French ambassador, taps on his shoulder and whispers in his ear.
Another note is passed to the Americans. While all this is going on, the Rwandan ambassador is reading out a lengthy statement on his government’s concerns over recent fighting in Congo. Sometimes though, it is just boring. “It can be mind-numbing,” says Tatham. When ambassadors leave their chair at the table, another member of their team has to fill it. For the UK that’s often Tatham. “I end up listening to countless other speeches. It’s a paradox. I’ve had some of my dullest and most exciting days of my career here.” Some of those diplomats who look to be busily scanning the BlackBerry admit they are just as likely to be checking Facebook.
Even when the debates aren’t boring they can still be frustrating. “Some of the debates are over tiny little things that mean nothing,” says Philip Reed, the UK’s humanitarian officer. Tatham adds, “You score some minor procedural victory over Russia and you feel great – then you think, does it actually matter?”
Watching the UN work it is easy to feel dispirited but at times agreements can still be reached. “On some of the big issues they may have deadlock but they still all have an interest in the ship still sailing,” says Lynch. “They try to find a way not to blow up the whole machine. You have these moments where you think the council can’t do anything – and then all the stars align. The council can do amazing things.”
What the Security Council does or doesn’t do on Gaza, Iraq or Syria will garner headlines but it is sometimes those less high-profile cases where the council can have the biggest influence. That press briefing on Burundi received absolutely no coverage anywhere other than Burundi itself but that in itself makes it worthwhile. The Security Council warned of “politically motivated violence”, called for free and fair elections and made it clear to Burundi’s leaders that they were watching.
As part of the UK’s presidency it brings over a troupe of actors from Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London, which is partway through a world tour of Hamlet. The UK team had originally hoped to put it on in the Security Council chamber itself but Russia vetoed it – instead it’s next door in another chamber. It’s a pleasant piece of soft power and if based only on the fact that the Russian ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, sits next to Lyall Grant and seems to enjoy himself, it was probably worth it.
Before the performance, the actors and director give a press conference. It’s an incongruous setting: a director in ripped jeans and an actor in shorts and Hawaiian shirt sat behind a desk in the sterile UN media centre. At the end they are asked whether they think Hamlet has a message for the UN. “We’re just here to tell a story,” says the Hawaiian shirt-clad actor Rawiri Paratene, doing his best to avoid saying anything controversial.
But then he pauses before adding: “I don’t envy the people here. I don’t envy their task. It’s very easy to be critical of a large organisation such as this and many people are but I certainly don’t envy the task. I genuinely support the effort and the principles of what this place represents and I wish it the best.”
Aside from the 38-floor United Nations Headquarters at the UN Plaza in New York, the UN has three other bases in Geneva, Vienna and Nairobi, while Rome, Montréal, London and Paris also house different parts of the organisation. There are some 15 agencies, 11 programmes and funds, four research institutes and six other entities. On top of all this there are currently 17 peacekeeping operations, most of which are in Africa. Turn to page 283 for this month’s Expo feature on the UN’s education and preservation body, Unesco.