French proposal for UN reform could fracture international system

Roslyn Fuller
Dr. Roslyn Fuller is a lecturer in International Law based in Ireland. She is the author of Ireland’s leading textbook on International Law ‘Biehler on International Law: An Irish Perspective’ (Round Hall, 2013). In addition to her academic work, she has also writes for the Irish Times, The Irish Independent and The Journal on topics of law, politics and education. Roslyn has been researching democracy for over a decade and is the author of “Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed Its Meaning and Lost Its Way” (October 2015, Zed Books). She tweets at @roslynfuller and can be reached at
French proposal for UN reform could fracture international system
France has unveiled plans to push for an unprecedented degree of reform at the United Nations Security Council, when the organization holds its annual meeting in September.

Under the proposal, the Security Council’s permanent members (the ‘P-5’: Russia, France, China, UK and USA) would adopt a ‘code of conduct’ which would oblige them to refrain from exercising their vetoes in cases where a mass atrocity is involved, unless their vital national interests are at stake.

France has made it clear that in making this proposal it has both eyes firmly fixed on the situation in Syria, and the country which should not exercise its veto on this matter is Russia. Gérard Araud, France’s Ambassador to the UN, even went so far as to say that Russia and China would have to take the new code of conduct into account, even if they do not sign up to it.

Although France’s proposal would have absolutely no legal effect, as the law on Security Council vetoes is impossible to change without the consent of all P-5, and it is highly unlikely that Russia and China will agree to the change in the near future, it is nonetheless concerning for many reasons.

First of all, it seems to cement Francois Hollande’s determination to mold his government into France’s equivalent of Tony Blair’s New Labour. After being elected on a leftist platform, his increasingly imperialist foreign policy combined with business-friendly domestic measures must have French voters wondering why they bothered to rid themselves of Nicolas Sarkozy.

More than that, however, the proposal essentially undermines the entire international balance of power as we know it by striving to create a space within Western constituencies, where governments can seek to persuade their own populace not to respect the vetoes of other nations. In short: it provides a tool for the public legitimization of foreign military action undertaken without the Security Council’s consent. This is significant because the Security Council is the international body charged with avoiding, or at least containing, international conflict wherever possible.

At first glance, it might seem paradoxical to hand that responsibility to the very nations who have accumulated the most impressive array of weaponry (as the P-5 have), but the facts are that it would be impossible to maintain any prolonged international stability without their buy-in. Only superior military and economic capability can enforce peace and security on the rest of the world, and because WWIII does not bear thinking about, the P-5 need to be provided with a forum where they can say ‘no’ to each other and have that respected.

This is not such a bad plan when you consider that it was supposed to go hand-in-hand with a policy of ambitious disarmament, which, had it been faithfully pursued, would have made the P-5 veto obsolete by now. As things stand, the underlying reasons for the veto still exist. Thus, while the P-5 veto has few fans, getting rid of it in this atmosphere would amount to cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. This is all the more so, as the French proposal dovetails neatly with the highly controversial policy of military unilateralism that has been pursued by some Western nations over the past ten years.

Diplomats watch electronic monitors showing a vote count, as the U.N. General Assembly voted and approved a draft resolution on the territorial integrity of the Ukraine at the U.N. headquarters in New York March 27, 2014. (Reuters/Eduardo Munoz)

Western powers have a long history of covertly assisting the kind of unrest that makes mass atrocity a likely occurrence: the Iranian coup of the 1950’s, Nicaragua’s Contras of the 1980’s, and the covert assistance provided to Libya’s National Transitional Council only a few short years ago come to mind as some of the more well-publicized examples. These nations also have a long history of fabricating human rights violations, or at least failing to adequately check up on claims, when it suits them (the infamous ‘Nayirah testimony’ given in the run-up to the First Iraq War represents a glaring example).

Under the French proposal, all Western states would have to do is foment a civil war and wait, within this highly precarious scenario, for someone to commit a mass atrocity, or at least do something that comes close. Then, claiming that Russia and/or China’s veto is irrelevant, despite 70 years of crystal-clear law and practice that would indicate otherwise, they can take action through NATO or some other form of military alliance. Presumably, the caveat that the veto can still be exercised when ‘vital national interests’ are at stake, makes them feel that they are leaving the back door open for themselves to create a fuss, should, for example, China decide to take action on North Korea or similar. Russia’s vital national interests in its long-time ally Syria don’t seem to rate.

This reduces international law to a public relations exercise and represents a high-handed attempt to fracture the Security Council – the centerpiece organization of international law upon which global security and stability depend – by cutting Russia and China out of the equation on these decisions.

The international system of peace and security as exercised under the Security Council is far from perfect, but deciding to de facto ditch it by granting oneself the right to ignore other nations’ vetoes is the most regressive action imaginable. This is all the more so, as other options for pursuing their goals remain open.

Western States would have had a much better chance of obtaining Russia and China’s blessing on Syria had they not made so clear that they were more interested in getting rid of current President Bashar Assad than in helping ordinary Syrians. The ambivalence to their own reports of active jihadists in the country, the real possibility of reprisals against Syrian Christians and Alawites should these jihadists be successful in overthrowing the Ba’ath party, the lack of any cohesive plan for Syria’s future (except that it involve a significant lack of all things Assad), and the frosty reception of Syrian refugees everywhere but Sweden, all testify to where the real priorities lie.

Russia and China have agreed to quite a few Western foreign policy initiatives over the years, including, most recently, action in Mali, Libya and Cote d’Ivoire. Proposing these cosmetic alterations to the Security Council’s operations amounts to artificially deepening a rift that began with NATO’s campaign in Serbia, instead of seeking to mend it. It is a strategy that is as short-sighted as it is destabilizing, since even a multipolar world will need international mechanisms that encourage diplomacy and cooperation.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.