The issue of sovereign equality is associated with the principles of multilateralism. Multilateralism is pursued to restore international peace. In the maintenance of international peace, common security is the core principle which underscores the importance of collective endeavours of countries. In pursuit of a peaceful world, countries agree to make sacrifices and accept certain limitations on their sovereignty as well. Such compromises made by the countries are considered worthwhile judged from peace dividends obtained through effective multilateral efforts.
In the immediate aftermath of devastating World War II, the world leaders felt the need of an international organisation that was designed to mobilise multilateral efforts for the restoration of global peace. Then the obsession with the avoidance of war was so strong that one of the premier UN Charter objectives contained the words “to save the succeeding generations from the scourge of war”. Obviously, the fundamental focus of the UN since its establishment in 1945 has been to secure world peace though it also seeks to attain social and economic development for the enhancement of welfare of the humanity as a whole.
All 194 member states of the UN are supposed to be treated as equal because the foundation of the international organisation is based on respect for sovereign equality. While in theory it sounds perfect but this is not always in vogue. The reality is that a few powerful states are deemed more equal than others owing to the veto-wielding powers entrusted to them selectively.
Veto Widely known as P-5 countries (China, France, Russia, UK, and US), they exercise enormous powers through their vetoes. This is the repercussion of geopolitics that prevailed in the 1940s. With the end of World War II, some countries emerged as the winners assuming enviable authority. Their influence was overwhelming in deciding the composition of the newly established UN, and the Security Council, in particular. This is one of the six key organs of the UN in which the real power of the international organisation to secure world peace is concentrated.
At UN’s creation, some big powers as victors of World War II manoeuvred to preserve their special positions by inserting provisions of veto powers to be exercised by them only as permanent members of the Security Council. They justified such provision arguing that in securing global peace, the big powers of the world needed to act in unison and their vetoes would facilitate consensus in decision making process.
But in reality, this provision of veto has been utilised by big powers as sole prerogative to achieve their parochial national interests. No decisions of the Security Council can be approved which the P-5 countries perceive to be at odds with their own domestic priorities. Therefore, there are rare occasions when all these veto exercising countries have reached consensus and removed the stalemate in the Security Council during international crises.
Against this backdrop, the General Assembly has been working for decades through a committee to reform the Security Council but to no avail primarily because the big five are wary of curtailing their own powers should there be additional veto holders as permanent members. Working Group negotiations have dragged frustratingly for understandable reasons. Any amendment of Articles of UN Charter won’t be possible to change the composition of the Security Council without current five permanent members’ endorsement.
This is the crux of the problem that needs to be resolved to make any headway in the direction of progress for a new Security Council that truly represents present-day geopolitical realities. The UN’s ability to carry out decisions has been severely curtailed by the permanent members of the organisation, whose own national interests often clash with the needful actions to stabilise the world. Conflicts around the world are always threatening the global peace. In resolving them, the role of veto-exercising members always becomes crucial.
Two most glaring examples of conflicts that have persisted so long are wars in Syria and Yemen where the UN’s involvement in seeking their resolution has been limited by great-power rivalry. Two big powers - the US and Russia - have found themselves at opposite direction when the issue of peaceful resolution of the above conflicts arises. Necessary decisions in the UN Security Council pertaining to these conflicts are often obstructed by the use of their vetoes.
The confrontation between the big powers has impacted the functioning of the specialised agencies in the recent times. A number of specialised agencies like the WHO, UNHCR and WTO, among others, have sprouted to address specific issues. The WHO has been leading enormous response in our common fight against COVID-19 though at times the institution is hobbled when it initiates investigation into the origin of the pandemic. Funding shortage is crippling it and many other specialised agencies.
Non-cooperative attitude Similarly, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has faced serious constraints particularly in exercising its authority in trade disputes settlement. This stalemate is due to non-cooperative attitude of one of the big powers as it has blocked consensus in selecting the board members of the appellate body for settling trade disputes. International Criminal Court is one of the most recent UN institutions in the field of ending impunity, which has of late been accused of failing in its duties due to obstructionist approach of a superpower. The court has faced enormous challenges in initiating lawful investigations of the citizens of big power.
However, US President Joe Biden has vowed to reverse some of the anti-multilateral actions taken by the previous administration, which is a welcome sign. There is no doubt that UN’s success in handling international crises depends largely on the collective efforts of its members and more so the permanent members of the Security Council. Balancing sovereign equality of the members with the great-power competition is the challenge the UN cannot avoid facing.
(Thapa was Foreign Relations Advisor to the Prime Minister from 2008-09. email@example.com)