As the international debate raged over intervention in Syria, one truth became increasingly clear—beneath all of the rhetoric, the international legal system is still run by Great Power politics.
The United Nations makes a grand effort at sovereign equality, or the notion that every state is an equal member, regardless of size, military strength, or economic clout. The United Nations General Assembly regularly issues advisory resolutions. In fact, they’ve passed over 11,000 resolutions since the UN founding in 1946.
However, despite the glitz and glamour and drama of the international diplomatic stage, the binding resolutions—those governing the legitimate use of force in the international arena—are in the hands of a much more elite clique. For questions of security, the issues are referred to the United Nations Security Council. As with the rest of the United Nations, the Security Council gives a symbolic nod to sovereign equality. Ten out of the fifteen council members serve two-year rotations in the prestigious forum. However, the temporary members are no more than a symbolic gesture—the true power resides with the five permanent members of the Security Council: China, France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Russia.
Each of the permanent members wields effective veto power over any potential vote or resolution. As a result, the permanent members always stopper the legal basis for an international intervention. Many countries in the international community believe that the only justifiable use of force is through Security Council consensus. This mindset was epitomized by Vladimir Putin’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times. Putin said,
“We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.” (emphasis added)
According to Putin, the only way for a country or international coalition to use force (short of suffering direct aggression) is to work through the Security Council. In other words, these five powerful Security Council members have total control over the legitimate use of force in the international system.
As we enter the 21st century, the permanent members have resisted all calls to reshape the current Security Council power structure, and there are no signs of any significant change in the foreseeable future.Thus, despite the rhetoric of the equality principle, in practice, the United Nations is still governed by a realist power structure. Legitimate force remains subject to the will of the most powerful states, and the most powerful states alone. In today’s system, “might” selects when force is legitimately “right.”
 These countries were the Great Power victors following World War II. The defeated Great Powers, Japan and Germany, are noticeably absent.
Image courtesy of François Proulx on Flickr.