Securing the World From War: Examining the UN Security Council
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, 75 Years of the United Nations Special Issue, 2020
By Carolyn Gruske
There have been no outright wars between the world’s major powers and no nuclear conflicts since the end of the Second World War in 1945.
It’s that fact that causes some, including former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, Paul Heinbecker, to say that the United Nations Security Council is an important body that has served its purpose and has done so successfully.
“That’s a very long time for there not to have been a war,” says Heinbecker who has also been a foreign policy advisor to Canadian prime ministers, including Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien. “That’s partly because the most powerful countries are on the Security Council and they’re in non-stop diplomacy in New York, day in and day out, 24/7. A lot of what they’re doing amounts to preventing conflict.”
That’s not to say that the Security Council is completely successful, or that there haven’t been wars or military engagements or that people and nations don’t see the need to reform it.
History and Structure
The Security Council has two types of members: permanent members and non-permanent ones. There are five countries (referred to as the P5) with permanent membership: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The rest of the world’s countries vie to be elected to two-year terms on the Council. They run against nations in their geographical regions. The five regions are: the African group, the Asia-Pacific group, the Eastern European group, the Latin American and Caribbean group, and the Western European and Others group. Canada is one of the Others.
Besides being permanent members, the P5 are distinguished in another way from the rest of the Council members. They each have a veto, and it is this veto that has been a source of friction since the beginning, explained former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, Allan Rock.
“The trouble with the Security Council is the veto. The P5, as part of the bargain in 1945 [that created the UN] were given a veto over what goes over the Council’s agenda and what resolutions are passed. During the Cold War, when the Soviet Union and the West were constantly at loggerheads, the Council was very, very frequently paralyzed for long periods of time, because the Soviet veto would prevent the [other countries] from putting items on the agenda. As China has emerged as a significant power, it has also used the veto to put an end to discussions it found to be politically unpleasant.”
Rock, now a law professor at the University of Ottawa, believes that the Security Council had its “golden age” from roughly 1990 until the mid-2000s, “when there were very few vetoes… a lot of common ground, and… agreement on thematic issues like women, peace and security, and human security, including protection of civilians. It was a very fruitful period, and Canada was a large part of that for sure.”
Since then, he cites the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s growing “autocratic” tendencies and China’s increasingly “aggressive presence on the world stage” as influences that have lessened the effectiveness of the Council, permitting tragedies to occur in Myanmar and Yemen and Syria without significant action being taken by the Council.
Powers and Influence On and Off the Council
The Security Council is unlike other UN bodies or agencies in one vital way, says Rock. “When the Security Council speaks, it has the force of international law and countries are obligated to obey its resolutions, no two ways about it. That’s where the real power is.”
He explained that under chapter seven of the Charter of the United Nations, the Security Council can authorize military intervention. (This is what leads to sending in peacekeepers.) The Council can also refer cases to the International Criminal Court, an independent judicial body with jurisdiction over persons charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Additionally, the Council has the ability to impose sanctions. Currently, there are 14 regimes under UN sanctions: North Korea, Iran, Mali, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Yemen, Guinea-Bissau, Libya, Eritrea, Lebanon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, and ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida, and the Taliban.
“It’s also supposed to have a certain moral authority, so when the Security Council speaks, people are supposed to listen,” says Rock.
Historically, Canada had a seat approximately every ten years or so since the Council was created. Heinbecker’s tenure as ambassador, which lasted from 2000 to 2004 included a six-month period when Canada had a seat on the Security Council. He jokes that he is the “last Canadian” on the Council as the country hasn’t won a seat since.
While the Security Council may be powerful and prestigious, other countries can achieve significant accomplishments without a seat. Heinbecker explains it took two or three years, for example, for countries to push changes through the General Assembly regarding the refugee determination system, but the task was eventually accomplished.
“In New York, we had something called a human security agenda for Canada, and that had to do with creating the International Criminal Court (ICC), creating the landmines treaty which prevented the production, sale, and use of landmines. The Responsibility to Protect (RTP) was another related idea that was a Canadian issue. If you have an agenda and you want to achieve something, you can.”
As an example, he describes some of the ICC negotiations. The US was against the creation of the ICC to avoid any possibilities of its military members being tried before an international court. At the time when this was being negotiated, a peacekeeping resolution about a mission in Bosnia was before the Council. “The Americans wouldn’t let it go forward unless they got an exemption from the ICC, which was an altogether different thing,” says Heinbecker.
Having been a member of the Council, Heinbecker said he knew how it worked, so he sent letters, first to all the member countries.
“The Americans didn’t like this at all,” he recalls. “Nevertheless, we persevered and forced a debate. Sixty-three countries spoke and 62 countries agreed with us.”
While the issue still came down to a vote in the Security Council, a compromise was the result. The Americans would not receive an automatic exemption from falling under the jurisdiction of the court, but would have to request an exemption every year. An exemption Heinbecker says they were subsequently too “embarrassed” to ask for, after it was revealed that US troops and intelligence personnel tortured Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib jail.
Admittedly, the power of the Security Council is such that it can derail what has been accomplished outside of the Council.
As mentioned above, the RTP was a Canadian UN initiative in response to the UN being unable to intercede in atrocities like the Rwandan genocide because countries claimed the events as being domestic internal affairs, and not subject to international governance. Looking for a solution, Canada instigated the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty that “came up with a formula that said ‘that’s fine, you’re sovereign countries, that’s a good thing,’ but sovereignty means more than having the rights of a member state. It also means responsibility and the most fundamental responsibility is to protect its population from mass murder, either carried out by the state or by others because the state is unwilling or unable to stop it,” explains Rock, who was at the UN between 2004 and 2006.
“If you’re not able to manage it yourself, the international community accepts the responsibility of managing it for you and we’ll do whatever is required through the Security Council, including, if necessary as a last resort, military intervention to stop the violence and protect the population because you cannot.” The RTP concept was debated for a few years before being unanimously adopted in 2005.
“As fine and as admirable as those principles are, when we come up against a Council that has the P5 veto, like in the case of the Myanmar genocide, you’ll find that even though we had our RTP principles on the shelf, we can’t get at them because there are vetoes that stand in the way,” explains Rock.
Campaigning for a Seat and Advancing Agendas
In June 2020, it was announced that Canada lost its campaign for a seat on the Security Council. Norway and Ireland won the seats available for the Western European and Others group. Louise Blais, who has served as a diplomat on Canada’s behalf for over 25 years, was assigned to New York’s UN mission in large part to assist with the election campaign. Ambassador Blais’ other official title is deputy permanent representative of Canada to the United Nations. (Former Ontario premier Bob Rae is the current permanent representative. Typically a political appointee holds the permanent title and career diplomats get the deputy designation.)
As part of the campaign, Blais explained that Canada advanced a number of new positions and approaches to international peace and security—ones that involve the Security Council.
“It took two or three years of really hard work, of gestation and education, but we elevated the importance of economic security in the context of peacekeeping and peacebuilding,” she explains.
“The UN system and UN members tend to silo the different aspects of society. The economy is not something the Security Council tends to look at, [saying] it’s not security. But the fact of the matter is that in conflicts around the world, if you don’t take into consideration economic empowerment of the local population conflict erupts. And if you do [take economics into consideration], peacekeeping and peacebuilding can take hold. Because if people can’t eat, … don’t have hope, and… don’t work… they fall back into conflict. We see this in places that are very fragile, like Liberia, for example. [However, in places like Sierra Leone] where economic development was at least considered… things are more stable and the path to peace and prosperity just takes a stronger hold.”
Blais says Canada advanced this approach by chairing the Peacebuilding Commission. It was founded by the Group of Friends of Financing the Sustainable Development Goals, which is a platform to promote solution-oriented ideas for unlocking finance for development and is led by Canada and Jamaica. The Commission brought in private sector financial and economic development experts to brief the UN. It also organized the first ever meeting of national finance ministers at the UN. A meeting which was followed by what Blais called a “leader-level meeting” led by Prime Minister Trudeau and Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness “to talk about economic development and the importance of debt management for these countries that are triply affected by factors including [conflict], climate change, and now COVID-19.”
“Agenda 2030 has shifted the focus away from the Security Council,” she says. “Agenda 2030 is a pact that all member states around the world made to improve and eliminate all of the negatives around the world, whether it’s environmental degradation, whether it’s economic disempowerment, or [poor] governance. Agenda 2030 is basically a way to bring poverty to zero. That’s absolutely not easy to do, and COVID-19 has the potential to be a catalyst for accelerated positive change or one to make us lose about 10 to 20 years of progress…. We have to pull together as world citizens and not just think about ourselves and actually think of the world in totality and try to make the changes we should have been making 10 or 20 years ago.”
Still, no matter whether Canada runs again the next time a seat is available, Blais believes the most recent campaign benefitted the country.
“The greatest legacy of this campaign is that we have re-energized our bilateral relations. We have now developed closer ties between our government and the governments of other countries. Until recently, we were very focused on NAFTA and the United States. That’s all very understandable, but we’ve discovered through this campaign that the world is a big place. There are big changes happening geopolitically speaking, and having those kinds of trust-building relationships with the 180 other members… is a very good thing for Canada…. You often hear our Minister [of Foreign Affairs François-Philippe] Champagne say that he now has pretty much the cell phone numbers of most of his counterparts around the world. That came as a result of having to make calls to ask for the vote. There’s a lot of goodwill out there for Canada… There’s a lot of love for Canada and a lot of respect for what we do inside the UN system.”
Throughout its history, there have been moments at the United Nations that have captured worldwide attention, and although these kinds of events make history, sometimes it’s the quieter happenings that are more memorable for the people involved.
Former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, Paul Heinbecker has more than a few of those types of recollections.
Heinbecker was there in 2003, for example, when US Secretary of State Colin Powell told the Security Council and the world there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—justifying the US taking military action against the nation in what would be the Second Gulf War. The weapons were later proven not to exist.
“I was on the floor of the Security Council, as it happens, when Colin Powell made his famous speech about weapons of mass destruction. I was standing with the Egyptian ambassador and Colin Powell was standing almost beside us. We turned the conversation to him and the Egyptian ambassador said to him: ‘You can probably win the war in six months. It will take you 60 years to pacify the place. And it will take 600 years before the Arabs forgive you for what you’ve done.’”
Related to that situation, Heinbecker also recalled a moment when US Senators John Kerry and Edward (Ted) Kennedy visited the UN to get some perspective about what was happening in Iraq. Heinbecker was one of the people the pair met.
“Each of us gave our perspective on what was going on. We told them there was no casus belli—there were no grounds—for a war. The Security Council was going to approve a resolution for going to war and nobody in New York, other than the Americans, the British and the Spanish believed that war was necessary. Again, one of my Arab colleagues said to these two American senators that what the United States was doing was swallowing a razor blade in Iraq. It would be painful and bloody to remove it.”
Women Diplomats at the United Nations
The current deputy permanent resident for Canada at the United Nations, Louise Blais, is in a rare position at the United Nations: she’s a woman serving as a top-level ambassador.
“The work of a woman diplomat is getting better, and it improves every year, but it continues to pose some challenges,” says Blais. “We are still the minority at the UN. We’re growing but not at all at the pace you would imagine. We are constantly having to make our marks as women ambassadors. It’s that extra step you have to make to develop a productive relationship with a man ambassador. You really have to get inside their bubble and get them to see you as a colleague and make them feel comfortable. I still have to do that.”
Blais explained that she is able to deal with these kinds of challenges because she refuses to pass judgment on people’s histories or cultures, even if those experiences don’t lead them to being comfortable with women.
“You have to say, ‘this person has had a different life with different values than my own,’ so you just have to admit that and say ‘this is how that person sees things.’”
To get inside her male colleagues’ (and everybody’s for that matter) bubble, Blais takes the approach of making herself interesting and useful. For her, making herself interesting means making a quick impression during the first couple of minutes of meeting somebody. Often, this takes the form of joking or using self-deprecating humour—all while projecting an air of confidence.
“Once you’re useful and interesting, being a woman or being young or being whatever—being not like the person you are speaking with—kind of disappears because now there is a connection that transcends any of their own misgivings or discomfort at being with somebody who is not just like them.”
Besides making jokes, Blais said that one technique that works well, and would work especially well for younger people who have to present themselves in a slightly more serious manner, is asking “pertinent and insightful” questions because “when you are asking the questions, you’ve taken control of the conversation, and that’s a different power structure in the conversation, and it’s very helpful.”
She added that it’s important not to appear intimidated, especially as a younger person. “Fake it till you make it goes a long way. That’s not to say not to be authentic. You have to be authentic. It’s a balance, if you don’t come across as authentic, people pick it up.”
Carolyn Gruske is an award-winning reporter and former magazine editor. She often writes about the intersection of business, technology and the law, but she also has a deep interest in educational topics.