The United Nations, the world body charged with the maintenance of peace, is in dire straits. Conflict and disagreement have always been a part of the discussion process in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), with the five veto-wielding members – USA, China, Russia, UK and France, often at odds among themselves – calling the shots on how a fragile peace is to be negotiated or maintained. Yet never before has its legitimacy been challenged as much as it is being done now. Seventy-four years since its creation, has the UNSC fulfilled its mandate?
To take but one contemporary example: the crisis in Yemen has had the UN act as a bit player while the country is ravaged and starvation and a mass outbreak of cholera loom large. The intervention of a Saudi Arabia-led Arab coalition in Yemen’s affairs – after a so-called “request” from the Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi to Saudi Arabia to counter the alleged “Iran-backed” Houthi rebels in their attempt to destabilise the government – has only aggravated matters.
This request did legitimise the intervention under international law. But President Hadi is under house arrest in Saudi Arabia – and that Yemen did not approach the Security Council first is a sad reflection of the fact that “flexible coalitions”, as Sinha calls them, are replacing the UNSC and the role that was envisaged for it under the UN Charter.
At a time when there is a call for greater transparency and accountability in the functioning of institutions the world over, the UNSC remains an outlier. A vestige of post-Second World War structures, it has had no real meaningful reform, with the Permanent Five using it as a body to further their own interests.
Former ambassador Dilip Sinha’s book, The Legitimacy of Power: The Permanence of Five in the Security Council (Vij Books, December 2018), therefore comes at just the right time. Over the course of 16 chapters, packed with information on the drafting history of the UNSC; the role of peacekeeping; and the thorny question of reform, one gets a dismal picture of the functioning of the UNSC.
In an extensively researched chapter tracing the entire negotiating history of the United Nations, titled ‘The Idea of the United Nations,’ the author cites interesting anecdotes about how Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt met in Cairo, Tehran, Dumbarton Oaks, Yalta and San Francisco between 1943 and 1945 to hammer out a consensus on what the UN would ultimately look like. He shows how Roosevelt’s idea of a Christianised China as a market for U.S. goods led him to support China’s membership – in the face of strong opposition from Churchill and Stalin. The emergence of an understanding among the U.S., USSR and the UK on “non-interference in their respective spheres of influence”, set the stage for a fragile and negotiated world order.
Ambassador Sinha points out that the current process of UNSC reform is in limbo as there is no consensus emerging on the issue of representation in the General Assembly. India, Brazil, Japan and Germany, also called the G4, have frequent inter-government interactions on the issue, and circulated a proposal in 2005, seeking to add six permanent seats and four non-permanent seats to expand the UNSC from its current 15 to 25 members. This faced opposition from countries that are their regional rivals, such as Pakistan, Italy and Mexico, etc. who have formed an alternative of 13 countries called ‘The Coffee Club’ or the Uniting for Consensus grouping. Alongside this is the position taken by countries of the African bloc, insisting on two new permanent veto-wielding powers from Africa. This deadlock serves the interests of the Permanent Five very well as it preserves the status quo, Sinha writes.
The forum that the developing word often used to argue for a reformed and democratic UN was the Non-Aligned Movement. Given that it has lost its momentum in the last few decades, can alternative forums such as the L.69 (named after a draft document tabled in 2007-08), a group of 42 developing countries, have a more desirable impact? While Indian prime minister Narendra Modi tried bringing the spotlight on UNSC reform in 2015, when he wrote personally signed letters to 193 heads of UN member states to mark the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, it will be interesting to see if his re-election with a widened mandate will push India to be more assertive in hammering out a consensus.
The highlight of the book is the chapter on UN Peacekeeping. For an activity that has become so fundamental to the legitimacy of the United Nations as a whole, it was surprising to find that there was no mention of the peacekeeping role in the UN Charter. The author shows how the idea of a UN Peacekeeping Force emerged due to a deadlock in the UNSC during the Suez and Hungary Crises in 1956 and the Congo Operation in the 1960s. Dag Hammarskjöld, the then UN Secretary-General, spearheaded efforts in the United Nations General Assembly to launch a United Nations Emergency Force to maintain the already negotiated conditions for peace.
Peacekeeping is an activity that has won the UN all-round acclaim, yet the U.S. has refused to have its troops take part in an operation under the UN mandate. Moreover, the Permanent Five members have also opposed the demand for a UN military force or a Rapid Deployment Force, aimed at making peacekeeping activities more timely and effective.
The book, which is written in an accessible style, is intended for diplomats and students of international relations. For it to reach a wider audience, a future edition could include an explanation of some basic principles of international law, such as the use of force, peaceful settlement of disputes, threats to breaches of peace, exceptions to the use of force, etc.
The book is the product of a grant given by the Indian Council of World Affairs, a ministry of external affairs-funded think tank, which enabled the author to access books from libraries in Geneva and New York. Such scholarship, written from the perspective of a diplomat from the global south, is a much needed contribution to the literature on the role and future of the UNSC.
The Legitimacy of Power: The Permanence of Five in the Security Council by Dilip Sinha (Vij Books, December 2018)
Pranaav Gupta is a lawyer based in Mumbai. He was a student ambassador of Gateway House at the National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata.
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 Dubey, Muchkund, India’s foreign policy: Coping with the changing world, (New Delhi: Orient Blackswan 2017), p. 14. In this context, Dubey states, “The US, by withholding the payment of its assessed shares of both peacekeeping and the regular budgets of the UN, frequently drove the organisation to the brink of bankruptcy and in the process considerably weakened its role in peacekeeping and other areas.”