Calls for Reform of the UN to Protect Civilians from International Atrocities

Lately there has been a resurgent in the calls from the international community for reform of the United Nations (UN) system in order to better protect populations from mass atrocities. This year commemorates the 70th anniversary of the United Nation’s founding in 1945, which was created to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” but it has sparked debate about the functioning of the different bodies of the UN.

©UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

©UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Yesterday, Amnesty International released its 2014/2015 annual report urging the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the UK, China, France, Russia and the US) to renounce their power of veto in situations of genocide and other mass atrocities.

Salil Shetty, the organisation’s Secretary General, said in a statement that the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) had “miserably failed” to protect civilians and that the UNSC permanent members had used their veto to “promote their political self-interest or geopolitical interest above the interest of protecting civilians.”

A week earlier, Madeleine Albright, chair of the Advisory Council of The Hague Institute for Global Justice and former US Secretary of State, voiced her concern about the world’s attempt to uphold an international order which came into place 70 years ago while an “awful lot of things have changed in the meantime.”

“More and more non-state actors are gaining in power” and we are gathering more and more information about what is going on inside a specific state, which raises questions as to “whether the international community has a responsibility to deal with what is happening if it constitutes a threat.” Advocating for the much-discussed concept of Responsibility to Protect she added that “if a state is not fulfilling what it is supposed to, the International Community has to act.”

According to Albright, the UN’s structures are outdated and need reform. “The pressing question is whether the structure of the Security Council still reflects the realities of the 21st century?” It is important to look for adjustments or alternatives to adapt the International Community to the challenges we face today, Albright said.

The Elders, an independent group of global leaders chaired by Kofi Annan who work together for peace and human rights, issued a Statement in early February calling on the permanent members of the UN Security Council and the rest of the membership of the organisation to “accept the urgency of strengthening the United Nations and therefore accept also the compromises – sometimes painful ones – that will be needed to make it possible.”

“In the view of many, the use or abuse of the veto is responsible for some of the Council’s most conspicuous failures, when it does not intervene in time, or with sufficient force, to protect the victims of genocide and other comparable crimes.” The Elders called on the five existing permanent members to pledge themselves to greater and more persistent efforts to find common ground, especially in crises where populations are being subjected to, or threatened with, genocide or other atrocity crimes.

These States will “undertake not to use, or threaten to use, their veto in such crises without explaining, clearly and in public, what alternative course of action they propose, as a credible and efficient way to protect the populations in question. This explanation must refer to international peace and security, and not to the national interest of the state casting the veto, since any state casting a veto simply to protect its national interests is abusing the privilege of permanent membership.”

In its 2014/2015 annual report, Amnesty International has welcomed the proposal, now backed by around 40 governments, for the UN Security Council to adopt a code of conduct agreeing to voluntarily refrain from using the veto in a way which would block Security Council action in situations of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.