Imagine a legal system where the accused sits on the jury? That’s the UN Security Council. Or imagine a police force where just one cop can veto any intervention? That’s NATO. The post-war “rules-based” international order, and its institutions, are dysfunctional which is why Putin has been allowed to get away with, literally, murder and mayhem, as have others over the years. Institutional failure is why the world watches the slow-motion destruction of Ukraine, a nation of 44 million, and remains on the sidelines. Putin games both institutions: Russia’s veto power on the UN Security Council prevents action against its abrogation of the UN Charter, and NATO is paralyzed because just one country, cozy with Putin, can impede action or deny membership which is what compromised Germany, and probably Hungary, has done.
Zelenskyy was right to appear before the UN Security Council and demand that the U.N. Security Council be reformed or dissolved. “Are you ready to close the UN?” he challenged. “Do you think the time of international law is gone? If your answer is no, then you need to act immediately. This is no different than ISIS.”
So far, the valiant and bloodied Ukrainians have held off the second-largest military in the world since being invaded on February 24, but time is running out. Experts maintain that it can hold out for only three weeks longer unless it receives a flood of weaponry to fight on the ground and in the skies -- help that it has been asking for from the UN and NATO and the world for weeks without success.
The UN is hopeless because its Security Council’s five permanent members each enjoy a veto – U.S., UK, France, China, and Russia. Another 10 Council seats are held on a rotational basis for a total of 15. But the veto power of the five nullifies the process and provides the five with de facto exemptions from international law, a privilege that defeats the very principle of the UN Charter. At the very least, these five should be forced to recuse themselves when they are the accused, but they are not, which renders the process illegitimate.
Because the Big Five are exempt from UN constraints, all have run roughshod over norms, treaties, global opinion, and human rights for decades. The biggest culprits are Russia and the United States, each of which has invaded countries, launched lengthy wars, and killed many (remember America’s “shock and awe” saturation bombing of Baghdad?) with impunity. And Britain and France abrogated international law and the UN Charter post-war by committing atrocities in their former colonies, notably Algeria, Kenya, and India. More recently, there have been unaddressed massacres in Serbia, Yemen, Syria, and Libya. Interestingly, China has remained within its borders, but, given the system, doesn’t have to.
Putin has audaciously helped himself to the privileges extended to the Gang of Five. Worse, reform is impossible: The process of removing Russia from the Security Council, for instance, must be recommended by the Council itself — but Russia or any one of the 15 countries (5 permanent members and the 10 who rotate) has the power to veto a recommendation for dismissal. It’s a catch-22 which is why the United Nations has made the world more dangerous, not safer, since its founding in 1945.
NATO is another defective organization. Founded in 1949 by 12 countries, it now has 30 members who pledge to defend one another but cannot do anything without unanimous approval. This means that even if 29 of its 30 members agree to provide weapons or troops to Ukraine, nothing will happen. In no other governance model – from democracies to corporations – is unanimity required or workable. That is because it allows a single entity to control an organization or hold it hostage.
Worse, NATO rules allow any country to veto anything, no matter how tinpot or skint in terms of its military commitment. This unanimity obstacle is exactly what stood in the way of allowing Russia’s two targeted European prey -- Ukraine and Georgia – from getting NATO membership, leaving both vulnerable. Blocking their admission was Germany, a country with a pacifist constitution whose army is a glorified police force unable to contribute soldiers to NATO activities beyond its borders. Germany should not ever have been given NATO membership because of its unwillingness to pull its weight militarily. Now Germany intends to double its military expenditures but until it changes its constitution won’t be able to contribute to providing armed forces outside its boundaries should the need arise.
As constituted, NATO is an organization that can be controlled by tiny Estonia, by pro-Putin Hungary, or a stingy giant like Germany. It all adds up to institutional self-sabotage which is what the world now witnesses.
Putin has made a mockery of these international institutions because they are faulty. He’s wreaked incredible destruction on the world economy for decades because NATO cannot get its act together, nor can the UN Security Council. Even after Zelenskyy’s impassioned speech in UN chambers, the members set about debating whether they can remove Russia from the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations. That's equivalent to discussing whether a serial murderer or pedophile should remain a teacher, police chief, or doctor.
And the final kicker is that the world realizes that Putin and his armed forces are war criminals, but lacks a way to adjudicate and punish them. War crimes cases can only be brought before the International Criminal Court at the Hague, but the court lacks enforcement powers. This means any ruling would need to be enforced by the United Nations Security Council, where Russia holds veto power.
Checkmate for Putin, and a tragedy for Ukraine and Russia’s next victims.
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