UN Security Council reflects the global power structure from 1945, not today’s
The US, UK, France, Russia, and China make most decisions among themselves because each can veto any council position for any reason. This unchecked power has undermined the Security Council’s credibility
Of all the inconsistencies and frustrations in the UN system, I think the inability to modernise Security Council membership has been the most damaging. The UN member states elect ten representatives to the council, but they are not equal to the five permanent members. The United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China (the P5) make most decisions among themselves because each can veto any council position for any reason. This unchecked power has so undermined the Security Council’s credibility that rogue nations routinely shrug off its criticism as illegitimate.
There are two problems here, and neither is going away on its own. First, it is egregious when a government vetoes a resolution because of domestic or strategic considerations rather than because of its effect on international peace and security. Some countries have been given free rein to violate international law, and dictators with an ally in the P5 have been allowed to violate human rights. Was there any acceptable reason for China and Russia to veto council measures in the early days of the Syrian conflict? Both were backing Syrian President al-Assad in a brutal proxy war against the West.easy
The second problem is that the P5 reflects the global power structure from 1945, not today’s. Scores of nations point out that the Arab, Latin, and African nations still do not have a permanent seat, a void that diminishes their contribution to the organisation. This is unlikely to change — ever. The entire P5 has to agree, first, whether to expand their club and, second, which countries should be added. The five nations ruling the horseshoe table will always veto a proposal that dilutes their power. The remaining nations, meanwhile, will ultimately have to choose which nations will represent their regions.
Brokering a compromise between the P5 and the rest of the UN membership would be a lasting legacy, I thought, but I knew that wasn’t going to change during my tenure. Despite my frequent criticism, the UN Charter does not give the secretary-general power in this matter.
I was a child of war, but I became a man of peace.
My journey began in Korea. I was born in 1944 in humble Eumseong County, known for producing the fiery red chili peppers (gochu) that are inseparable from Korean cuisine. At that time, the Allies were liberating Western Europe in some of World War II’s bloodiest battles. But that was far away, and my young parents were focused on making a living and starting a family. When I was still too young to talk, we moved to the city of Cheongju, where my father worked for an agricultural firm.
Just two weeks after my sixth birthday, soldiers from the Communist North invaded the South, sparking the Korean War. Some days we could hear the fighting in the distance. There was little doubt that North Korean soldiers were approaching, and with them, destruction. I don’t know how I knew this because my parents were careful not to show fear around me, but they could only protect my brother and me so far. We were living in a crucible of fear.
After six months of anxious torment, the war abruptly changed, and invading forces came barreling toward us. More than half a million Chinese soldiers joined with the Northern army in early January 1951, pushing down the Allied forces with brutal strength.
It didn’t take long for my parents to sift through our belongings and join the exodus from Cheongju. My mother, nine months pregnant, moved slowly and heavily as our neighbours raced past us in their exodus. My father, worried and ashen with fear, took food for the journey, clothes, and some things my mother would need after the birth. And I, only six years old, carried what I could and struggled to keep up as we trotted over the ground. Tears welled up, but I tried to be brave. Our sacks felt heavy even though we left almost everything behind
The most tragic lesson
The United Nations has always been active in tumultuous environments. Those who work with refugees, emergency relief, or peace operations, for example, are on the frontline in every type of humanitarian emergency. This life can be dangerous, dirty, stressful, exhausting, exhilarating, and rewarding—sometimes all at once. Today the blue and white UN flag is more of a target than a shield.
We should have learned this in Baghdad when Islamic terrorists detonated a truck bomb on the access road right next to our headquarters on the outskirts of the capital on 19 August, 2003. Twenty-two people were killed in the Canal Hotel bombing, including UN Special Representative for Iraq Sérgio Vieira de Mello, a battle-tested Brazilian diplomat and a hero of the humanitarian community.
Special Representative Vieira de Mello made a crucial decision to refuse the Coalitional Provisional Authority’s offer to protect the compound, believing it would shatter our neutrality and prevent many Iraqis from visiting the office. It was a tragic mistake by the veteran of a dozen duty postings in a stellar thirty-four-year career. His death was a significant loss for the United Nations and for the Iraqi people. The entire organization was plunged into grief by what was to that point the deadliest assault in the UN’s history. I admired Vieira de Mello and was shocked and sickened by the attack.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan soon reorganised the UN security department, but the measures did not overcome its structural weaknesses. The United Nations was attacked again on 11 December, 2007, one year into my term. A suicide bomber aligned with Al Qaida in the Maghreb slammed a truck bomb into the UN office in Algiers, killing seventeen civilian staff, including fourteen Algerians. It was a despicable attack. The explosion was so strong that it almost leveled the UN refugee office across the street and killed twenty-seven Algerians who lived nearby. At least one hundred injuries were reported.
I was in Bali for the annual international conference on climate change and learned about the bombing only minutes ahead of the media. I was so shaken by the news that I could barely remember to condemn the attack and praise our colleagues for their brave work. My voice was low, and I heard my words shake as I told the journalists we had no details yet. “Were any UN staff killed?” a reporter asked gently.
“I have received that information,” I said.
I was in shock, but even as my head cleared, words could not express my outrage at the cowardly attack on the men and women who chose to serve the people of Algeria. It was a gruesome wake-up call to the UN to take security even more seriously. I was furious when I learned that the head of security in Algiers, Babacar Ndiaye of Senegal, had repeatedly warned our Department of Safety and Security about the high probability of an attack. Inexplicably, officials did not respond to his suggestions to fortify the building or to exfiltrate our foreign nationals. I was certain that better security could have lessened the impact of the explosion or even prevented the bombing. We had let this happen.
I quickly flew to the Algerian capital and drove directly to the site. My stomach lurched at the destruction and my eyes were wet. I walked over a field of broken concrete and stepped over twisted iron. The scene was awful; blackened, caved-in walls revealed furniture and personal possessions. The bodies had been removed, but bits of clothing, broken objects, and papers were strewn throughout the debris. The damage was unbearable. The memorial service took place on an overcast day near our splintered offices. I delivered brief remarks but could barely hold back my tears. I was so overwhelmed at a gathering with the survivors that I could barely talk. Instead I hugged victims and their families.
My meeting with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was strained. I had already made it clear that I would raise the threat level the UN assigned to the Algerian office. But the president resisted, noting that businesses and tourists stay away from countries that are not considered safe. He was very demanding and expected me to give him this point because he was an early and active supporter of my election bid. But after seeing the scale of the attack, I knew I had to protect my staff first. I flew home for the first time— but not the last—holding a tattered UN flag in my hands.
Other attacks on UN staff during my tenure have triggered grief and anger that never goes away. On 28 August, 2009, three gunmen in police uniforms stormed the staff residence in Kabul. We had kept a very low profile, living in several guesthouses in a quiet Kabul neighbourhood. UN security guards, nearly all Afghan, suffered losses as they tried to fight off the incursion. We quickly learned that an elite Afghan security unit responded to our call for help but returned to base when they realized our building was not the home of President Karzai’s brother.
Five international UN staff and three Afghans were killed in that assault, which felt like a direct attack on the United Nations. It was also a rejection of collective aid and international assistance for this severely underdeveloped country. I felt horrified, grief-stricken, angry, and defiant. The Taliban claimed responsibility; it was yet another slaughter in their campaign to rule or ruin this shattered country.
I flew to Kabul and demanded that President Karzai reinforce UN security or I would withdraw our staff. He assured me that there would be no further problems. I remained concerned but recognised how deeply the country needed UN support and agreed to stay. Sometimes we ordered nonessential staff to take holidays during elections and on other symbolic days. We also moved many international staff to better-fortified quarters.
On August 26, 2011, the Islamic militant group Boko Haram drove an explosives-filled sedan past two checkpoints and crashed into the lobby of our headquarters in Nigeria, killing eighteen civilian staff members. The group had been waging a struggle against Jonathan’s government, and we were merely collateral damage, attacked to prove that even foreigners were not safe.
Attacks on peacekeepers have escalated over the past decade, rendering their operations less feasible for financial and troop contributing countries and diminishing the respect and support of local populations. When political missions are undermined, they become less respected, less effective. Today aid workers are increasingly being targeted by both militants and governments as a symbol of international meddling.
Ban Ki-moon served as the eighth Secretary-General (2007–16) of the United Nations. The article is an edited excerpt from his latest book, ‘Resolved: Uniting Nations in a Divided World’ (HarperCollins).
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