The United States Has Hamstrung the U.N.’s Most Important Mission

Russia and China aren't the only countries preventing the U.N. from taking action on genocide and war crimes. But on the institution's 70th anniversary, it's time for reform.


Seventy years ago the United Nations came into being in a historic atmosphere of goodwill and hope. President Harry Truman talked of “a victory against war itself.” Indeed, there is much to be proud of in what the U.N. has achieved over the past seven decades — in peacekeeping, humanitarian work, and combating poverty. But Truman also warned of what would happen if governments failed to use the U.N. Charter, which reaffirmed the values of human rights and equality and committed to maintain international peace and security, as intended. In that case, he said, “we shall betray all those who have died so that we might meet here in freedom and safety to create it.”

Today, that sense of betrayal is real.

The opportunities that the creators of the United Nations gave to the world — for the U.N. Security Council to act robustly to help protect civilians and prevent crimes against humanity — have been repeatedly and shamefully squandered.

At Amnesty International, we have documented unimaginable suffering in Syria. More than 250,000 people have died there. Twelve million — almost half the country’s population — have been forced to flee their homes or their country. Huge numbers continue to risk and lose their lives in fleeing the conflagration. Decisive action to protect civilians has never been more pressing.

Yet the powerful Security Council, which has been entrusted with the most precious kind of responsibility, has again and again failed to act.

Four double vetoes by Russia and China have blocked Security Council action on Syria that could have helped save lives. In 2014, the two powers “callouslyvetoed a resolution to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court, preventing the investigation of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by all sides to the conflict.

But it would be wrong to say that Russia and China are the only abusers of the system.

The Security Council veto has also been used by the United States and Britain in the 1980s to protect apartheid South Africa and in 2006 by the United States to delay a cease-fire in Lebanon during a conflict that resulted in more than 1,000 deaths. More recently, the threat of the United States’ veto made futile any hopes of passing a resolution during the 50-day-long conflict in Gaza in which more than 2,000 Palestinians died.

The cynical convergence of interests is damaging for all.

In protest of our broken system, three years ago a handful of small and far-sighted states — Costa Rica, Jordan, Liechtenstein, Singapore, and Switzerland, collectively known in U.N.-speak as the “S5” — proposed a number of reforms, including action on voluntary veto restraint in the case of mass atrocities.

The powerful Security Council, ruler of the world’s destinies, quickly closed ranks: there should be no dilution of the veto. On that, at least, the United States, Russia, and China could find consensus.

But in the midst of the horrors civil society continues to document, and the disappointment we continue to feel towards world leaders who refuse to protect civilians dying in the thousands, we may now be seeing the prospects for real, structural change.

The S5 initiative, which a few short years ago seemed to appeal only to human rights organizations, is now being picked up by others.

Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the Elders, an independent group of global leaders working together for peace and human rights, have come out strongly in favor. The French and Mexican governments have spearheaded an initiative for veto restraint by the permanent five Security Council members in the past year.

Dozens of governments — again, mostly smaller states — have come together in the ACT group (accountability, coherence, and transparency) reinforcing those calls. More than 100 countries, including France and Britain, have signed up to the ACT code of conduct, which calls on all Security Council members — elected and permanent — to not vote against any credible draft resolution intended to prevent or halt mass atrocities.

In short, there is movement. The political ice fields may finally be cracking. Still though, Russia and the United States have opted not to engage.

It is abhorrently wrong that Russia has used its veto in a way that has prevented pressure to end the war crimes committed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and blocked accountability and justice for victims on all sides. But the hypocrisy of the United States, in wielding the threat of veto to shield its own forces — and those of its close allies — from accountability gives cover for Russia and its bad behavior. 

Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry assured me that the issue of veto restraint had his “serious consideration.” More recently, U.S. ambassador Samantha Power — who has herself written powerfully about government failures to confront mass atrocities — talked of the Security Council’s current failures as “dysfunctional.”

But what does “serious consideration” really mean? Does the United States have the vision or the morality to commit itself to an actual change in policy?

It sometimes feels as if no lessons are being learned from history, including the Rwandan genocide of 1994. There again small elected Security Council members like the Czech Republic and New Zealand spoke out, while the permanent five embraced a conspiracy of silence.

Now, on the organization’s birthday, it is a good moment finally to make a change. We have already betrayed the good intentions of the U.N., just as Truman feared that we might. Through reform of the Security Council system, however, we could have a tool to ensure that “never again” means what it says.

John Moore/Getty Images

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