We must end this UN 'paralysis' on Syria

One thing was clear from the diplomatic disaster of the G20 summit in St Petersburg: western leaders are fed up with what Barack Obama called the "paralysis" afflicting the United Nations as it gazes on impotently at an unfolding human tragedy in Syria. So is it too much to hope this latest crisis will finally spark reforms that are so essential and universally acknowledged if this antiquated body is to come close to fulfilling its stated role of keeping peace around the planet?

For more than two years, the security council has been stuck in stalemate. On one side is Russia, resolute in support of a regime spending so much money on its weaponry, aided and abetted by China. On the other are three democracies, desperate to see redress against a despot inflicting misery on his people. So as global tensions rise, the UN stands on the sidelines doing virtually nothing, even after the use of chemical weapons.

David Cameron pointed out in St Petersburg the pusillanimity of countries saying they oppose intervention in Syria without the backing of the UN, secure in the knowledge Russia and China will block any action with their veto. Personally, I oppose western military engagement there – but it is hard to argue with the prime minister when he questions the idea of "contracting out foreign policy and morality" to countries with such soiled records on democracy, human rights and self-determination.

Should a corrupt oligarchy have carte blanche in perpetuity to determine the rules of international engagement? And indeed, do we deserve a permanent seat round the table as our power wanes and we demonstrate a new reluctance to engage in punishing those who break global rules on war? Especially when there is no such authority given to the world's biggest democracy, India, or to a Muslim nation, or any of the 54 countries in Africa whose continent accounts for more than three-quarters of the council's debates.

The five nations with permanent places and power to wield the veto reflect the postwar world of 1945, when the security council was created by the 50 countries then in the club, not the world of today when the UN has almost four times as many member states. This means Russia, Britain and France have for decades dictated to the rest of the world how to behave – along with China under Mao, or even the US under Bush for that matter – while there are 70 nations that have never been elected for even the two-year temporary term.

This structure is anachronistic, insulting, unrepresentative and diminishes moral authority; one recent president of the general assembly admitted the Syrian crisis exposed how such an outdated set-up is no longer fit for purpose. Those calling for reform include the US president and his ambassador to the UN, along with Sergei Lavrov, the veteran Russian foreign minister; it was even in the Conservative manifesto at the last election.

It is one thing to accept the need for change, quite another to achieve it in such a crucial and status-laden forum. Such is its influence, one study found, temporary membership leads to a 59% boost in aid from the United States alone, the sums soaring in years when tensions rise and votes are most valuable. Previous reform attempts have hit the rocks of geopolitical reality and been dragged down by national rivalries; China, for example, objects to Japanese membership while African nations squabble over their rightful candidate.

The most hopeful solution is to bring in a second tier of permanent members, then slowly strip away the right to veto of the fractious five through majority voting. And it would be good – although almost certainly impossible – to have a bar on countries that display contempt for universal human rights. It is grotesque, for instance, to see Rwanda stirring up trouble again in its ravaged neighbour while having the current right to adjudicate over intervention in Syria. It has already used its temporary post to block sanctions on its bloodstained proxies in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Russia has used its privileged position to protect Bashar al-Assad by ensuring diplomatic deadlock, an echo of the cold war when use of the veto was more common. So the crisis, the carnage, the chaos have grown worse – along with the dangers of conflagration. As relations between the west and Russia return to the deep freeze, the one good thing that could emerge from the nightmare engulfing Syria would be strengthening of UN authority through reform of the security council.

Ian Birrell is a former deputy editor of the Independent and worked as a speechwriter for David Cameron during the 2010 election campaign.

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