Smoking Guns and the U.N. Security Council

Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor in the memory of whom the prestigious Nobel prizes are awarded, once remarked that, “The day when two army corps can annihilate each other in one second, all civilized nations, it is to be hoped, will recoil from war and discharge their troops.” (The irony is that Nobel himself was a significant proponent of weapons research and military technology; he is best known for his development of dynamite as an effective explosive.) Today, though, the chief actor charged with enshrining and proliferating these simple lessons about peace and harmony – the Security Council of the United Nations – exhibits a stark historical amnesia counterproductive to the cultivation of a safer twenty-first century world. The past has demonstrated, with merciless clarity, that weapons – of all kinds, from handguns to mustard gas canisters – are, for obvious reasons, necessarily unhealthy. Not only is it difficult, dangerous, and extraordinarily expensive to manufacture armaments, it isn’t conducive to the orchestration of effective foreign policy. The mere possession of powerful arms incentivizes their use. And, if a half-century of mostly futile intervention has proven anything, it’s that even liberal western democracies, theoretically well-positioned to avoid violence, are not opposed to dropping chemical agents and bunker busters on vast swaths of far-away countryside.

Officially, the Security Council of the United Nations is tasked with “maintaining international peace and security,” which, in this millennium, translates to keeping ideological conflicts and geopolitical hot-zones from boiling over into all-out wars (i.e. Israel and Palestine, or India and Pakistan). But the council’s behavior in recent year betrays the existence of a not-so-magnanimous objective. In the past few years, it seems that the five members of the Security Council have flagrantly ignored their larger commitments to humanity and the United Nations Charter by playing the world like a game of chess. More specifically, the members of the Security Council – particularly the United States, Russia, and China – have all adeptly deployed their veto powers to advance their own larger strategic agendas, all at the expense of exacerbating terrible humanitarian crises.

In 2014, Russia violated accepted international norms and annexed Crimea, a land mass north of the Black Sea that, up until that point, belonged to Ukraine. The United Nations, to its credit, tried to act; the Sixty-Eighth General Assembly refused to accept the Russian annexation of Crimea as a legitimate territorial alteration. However, this move was merely a declaration, not an action-plan. And, as a member of the Security Council, Russia was able to stymie any efforts to actually protect the sovereignty of Ukraine. Crimea, unfortunately, is not an isolated instance of international feet-dragging. Many other parts of the world have also endured the protracted violence and sociopolitical turbulence engendered by the Security Council’s incessant inaction. Syria, of course, is a prime example. On the whole, the council is in favor of a speedy resolution to the conflagration thrusting death and destruction on the cities, peoples, and cultures of the Levant. The execution of this sentiment, though, is a tougher challenge.

Broadly speaking, the general inefficacy of the United States is rooted in the configuration of powers and responsibilities assigned to member states. Take the General Assembly, which consists of all 193 member states and is the organization’s central legislative body. The General Assembly is arguably the most politically stable and universally respected congress of nations in human history, but it is merely “empowered to make recommendations to States on international issues.” In a tumultuous world saturated with irresponsible leaders, making suggestions, instituting benchmarks of human progress, and sponsoring studies – all worthwhile pursuits, to be sure – do not alleviate the despair of long-suffering civilians or bring justice to bloodthirsty strongmen. In the event of significant catastrophe, the United Nations delegates the task of restoring peace to the Security Council, a coalition of five permanent countries – the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, and China – and ten rotating countries elected every two-years. In 1945, at the inception of the United States, the permanent council members provided themselves with a powerful tool – the veto – that permits an individual nation to unilaterally reject a potential Security Council resolution. More recently, the phenomenon of the “hidden veto” has materialized, permitting members to influence the agenda and behavior of the greater Security Council without public observation. Even before the chaos precipitated by 9/11 engulfed the globe in incessant conflict, it was apparent that the veto, in its current form, is problematic. The head delegate from Jamaica, a part of the Security Council in 2001, remarked that, “The mere threat of the veto can be used for narrow political interests, to the detriment of the Council in carrying out its responsibilities to the international community.”

For far too long, the five permanent members of the Security Council have thoroughly abused their station as the arbiters of global harmony to sell their weapons, bolster their bottom lines, and push their own narrow agendas.

This is where arms dealing enters the fray. Security Council members – particularly the most powerful ones – can easily deploy their veto powers to further their own national aims. For example, Russia and China both back the Assad regime, in spite of the Syrian government’s genocidal treatment of rebel forces and civilians. Their support, not surprisingly, stems overwhelmingly from military and fiscal interest. Syria, for example, provides the Russian Navy with its only access coastal base in the Mediterranean, and, in exchange, Russia sells billions of dollars of warplanes, missiles, and radar systems to the regime’s armed forces. China, not to be outdone, has sold Syria missile components, rocketry technology, and even powdered aluminum – critical for the country’s missile development program – despite repeated objections from the United States throughout the late twentieth century. (Combined, Russian and Chinese arms constituted 50% of Syria’s defense-related imports from 2006 to 2010). Though urban warfare has killed close to a quarter of a million of Syrians and displaced millions more, the flood of weapons into the hands of the Assad regime doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. Anatoly Isaikin, chief of the Russian state defense-product exporter, Rosoboronexport, asserted that his agency will “continu[e] to fulfill [its] contract obligations” to Syria in the near future.

The arms trade, as one might expect, has encumbered the efforts of the Security Council to respond constructively to the Syrian crisis. Russia and China, both financially and strategically invested in the sustenance of Assad’s authoritarianism, have methodically blocked the council’s effort to make even verbal stands against the Syrian government. In 2013, Russia voted against a Security Council resolution to condemn Assad’s regime for its use of chlorine gas. Who originally manufactured those chemical weapons? As it turns out, China. (Since then, China has been discovered selling chemical weapons to the government of South Sudan, known for its egregious human rights abuses.)

Yet, despite the cunning machinations of Russian and Chinese dealers, the United States is still the world’s largest and slickest provider of military equipment: American weapons sales soared to $66.3 billion in 2011, amounting to three-quarters of the global arms market. The burgeoning demand for weapons has heavily influenced U.S. foreign policy, resulting in vetoes and impasses over critical issues of contention, such as the conflict between Israel – an American partner in defense innovation – and Palestine. But American weapons do more than just intractably impede global diplomacy. As it turns out, they also reinforce oppressive governments that regularly and unabashedly commit violations of human rights. Earlier this year, the White House revealed that deliveries of American fighter jets, missiles, and tanks would continue flowing to the regime of Abdelfattah al-Sisi, the current president of Egypt who has effectively “spent the last year engaging in repression on a scale unprecedented in Egypt’s modern history,” according to Amnesty International. Al-Sisi’s offenses include curtailing the freedoms of expression and assembly, permitting serious law enforcement abuses, the detention of journalists, and the persecution of the LGBT community. To put it simply, American weapons are supporting the entrenchment and propagation of notoriously un-American values.

It’s not as if the problematic intersection of arms deals and Security Council vetoes is unapparent or well-concealed. Ban Ki-Moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations, has recognized and grown deeply frustrated from the self-serving behavior of Security Council member states. In a 2015 interview, he vented, “I’ve been urging the members of the security council to look beyond national interest. We have to look for the global interest.” Unfortunately, housing destitute refugees or feeding starving children can’t fill a country’s coffers or make potential geopolitical allies salivate the way bullets and guns can.

For far too long, the five permanent members of the Security Council have thoroughly abused their station as the arbiters of global harmony to sell their weapons, bolster their bottom lines, and push their own narrow agendas. On top of the bloodshed and instability propagated by such unscrupulous behavior, the Security Council, with its underhanded arms dealing, has effectively promoted a culture of national self-interest in a world desperate for cooperation and collaboration. The United Nations, as made explicitly clear in its name, was not established to further the aims of a few. Right now, we live in a world saturated with death, decapitations, and despair. The Islamic State – and its African subsidiary, Boko Haram – are hell-bent on territorial metastasis and the expansion of its illiberal and brutally backwards governance. Latin America, situated at the center of enormous drug and human trafficking networks, is the only region of the world where criminal violence is actually surging. And the threat of climate-change-induced disaster – which might be linked to the exacerbation of global terrorism – still looms large, apparently far beyond the powers of world leaders to fix. After the world wars of the twentieth century, the human race is once again forced to see rivers of blood, hear cries of bitter agony, and face a future of bitter hopelessness.

In the early nineteenth century, Baron de Vastey, a political theorist who partook in the revolution that liberated Haiti from French colonial rule, asked a series of questions that have, somehow, always remained salient throughout the course of history: “When shall such abomination have an end? When shall men cease at length to hate, to persecute each other? When shall peace, union, universal harmony, extend their reign over the whole earth? Would not this be the end, the highest point of perfection?” The answer to these questions is not, and has never been, throughout the course of human history, easy to find. But the Security Council of the United Nations is uniquely positioned to lead the charge. To do so, of course, the Security Council must relinquish its pecuniary interests and renew its commitment to the one bond that that transcends politics, religion, and arms contracts and unites us all: our common humanity.