Is it time for the end of the UN Security Council?

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Is it time for the end of the UN Security Council?

Lecturer and writer Phil Leech and researcher Richard Gowan argue.


Phil Leech lectures in International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Liverpool. He started and is the editor of and helps as an editor for

Phil – YES, end the Security Council:

The UN Security Council (UNSC) is now old fashioned in the way it looks at international politics.

The idea behind UNSC was for it to be an active part of the UN - to act against states that do not respect other countries, to act for world peace. But in fact the Security Council is very Western. It is too interested in the rights and interests of states but not of individuals or human societies. It is not ready to act on many of the important problems of the world today.

Only the UNSC big five countries have the power to give a no vote. They are three close Western friends – the US, Britain and France (all NATO members) – and their traditional ‘great power’ opponents: Russia and China. These special five make it difficult for us to see the UNSC as fair. And the three Western powers have for a long time acted without the UN when it helps them, for example, in Iraq and Kosovo. They also ignore their responsibilities when it helps them, for example, in Rwanda and Darfur. But they are ready to use their special position to protect themselves or their friends. This is wrong.

There is a difference between the basic idea of the UN, the actions of the UNSC, and the idea of fairness in two ways. First, the UN sees states as the only correct form of human organization. But there are many different kinds of state. Second, the UNSC helps only a few, very special, states. This is why I think that it is time for the end of the UNSC.


Richard Gowan is research director at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He studies peacekeeping and conflict prevention as well as the European Union and United Nations.

Richard – NO, don’t end the Security Council:

You are right. The Security Council, like life, is not fair. But this was not the idea of the UNSC. Its main job is to help when big powers argue and so reduce the risks of major war. In the past few years the US has made deals with China and Russia on Iran, North Korea and, most recently, Syria through the UN. The process is often ugly and the human costs are terrible – as the deaths in Syria show. But I think that UN help is still better than arguments between Beijing, Moscow, and Washington. I would like to see more big powers, like Brazil and India, become full-time members of the Council. Then people will believe it is a power to help in arguments between countries.

But of course I do like the Council’s humanitarian role. The UN has over 100,000 peacekeepers around the world in places like Haiti and Darfur. This shows that the Security Council is more serious now than it was during the Cold War. UN peacekeeping is not perfect and clearly the interests of the big powers affect it. Haiti got attention because it is near the US. But sometimes big powers agree to do good things for not very good reasons.

But let’s think about your idea of ending the Security Council. What would you have in its place? Nongovernment Organisations (NGOs)? Oxfam and Amnesty International would have more positive talks than China and the US, But what could they do? Perhaps it’s a good idea to find any 15 people from around the world to discuss war and peace and not the Security Council.

I don’t really think that. I agree with NGOs and activists looking at what the UN is doing. The Security Council is not the best way to organise the world. But is there really another way?

Phil – YES, end the Security Council:

So you agree that the system is not fair and doesn’t work very well. You say that the UNSC is important for great powers to talk. But between 1949 and 1971 China had no seat on the UNSC. And there was no great war between the great powers. But there were US-led wars nearby in Korea and Vietnam.

But the USSR and the US nearly started a nuclear war over Cuba and they were both members of the UNSC. It was not politics in New York that stopped war in 1962, but the idea that the two countries would destroy each other! Something like this is surely stopping problems in Delhi, Islamabad, and Pyongyang now.

And the biggest problem today is not a war between great powers but climate change. Four of the UNSC’s five are in the top 10 countries for C02 emissions. China and the US are number one and two!

What is better than this unfair system? My answer is simple: a fairer one! Better than the UNSC is a system that looks at what the great powers are doing before it is too late. Richard – NO, don’t end the Security Council:

No, I don’t think that the Security Council is the one and only way to stop a world war. If it were, we’d all be dead. But I think it is a helpful way to reduce tensions between major states and in the world. And I don’t agree with your point about China. Beijing sent hundreds of thousands of troops to fight the US-led forces in Korea. And the Security Council had agreed this in the 1950s. So yes, because China was not on the Security Council did add to Cold War tensions. But I agree about Cuba.

That is enough history. I agree that the Security Council is no use on climate change. But no one is doing much better. The 2009 Copenhagen summit finished with President Obama making a backroom deal with Brazil, China, India, and South Africa. This was no fairer than the way the five Security Council members solve problems. Phil – YES, end the Security Council:

Chinese troops were in Korea but that is not against my point. There was no big war between the two countries. Instead, the example is like the other Cold War conflicts in Afghanistan, Angola and possibly the Middle East. It was a ‘balance of power’ that stopped a full great power war, not talks by all the sides, and certainly not the UNSC. ‘Fairness’ and ‘democracy’ are not only words; they mean much more for people who suffer in countries where there is no fairness or democracy.


Flying the flags - does the UNSC speak for all countries? munksynz under a CC Licence

The UNSC is not just an organisation which seems independent but an organisation based on ‘neoliberal institutionalism’. It helps certain states and certain groups more than others. I think that when we have problems like climate change, this situation is harmful.

The countries who created climate change are the countries who can take action on climate change. This means they have no reason to make the important changes we need. If you really believe in all sides talking together, we need to change the power in the world so weak countries can have an influence and we can look at what the great powers are doing and make them think. So end the UNSC and have an organisation that really changes things. We need a system that shares power equally not a system that still gives the power to the few big countries.

Richard - NO, don’t end the Security Council:

The good news is that many organizations represent weaker states or unite civil-society actors from around the world. For example, the Alliance of Small Island States, which talks about the dangers of rising sea levels to its members; and the global protest movement Occupy. The bad news is that these groups find it difficult to change the power situation in the world.

China thinks economic growth is more important than small islands. The Occupy movement made US capitalists angry but did not win against them. To make these changes, you need a global revolution.

Before that happens, I believe it is possible and necessary to work with the balance of power we have now to do some good in the world. I agree that the Security Council rests on the balance of power but I believe that it helps in situations of great risk.

Yes, there were Cold War proxy wars in the Middle East, but the US and USSR went back to the UN again and again to make deals to stop those wars. But of course we would agree that the UN has not helped the Palestinians. Since the Cold War, the Security Council has sent peacekeepers to help fair elections in places like Cambodia and Mali. Again, some of those elections were unfair and the peacekeepers did not help in Srebrenica and Rwanda.

I know there are problems with the Security Council and the UN. I agree with what you say about climate change. But I think that we can save some lives and help with the UNSC.

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