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As the drums of war beat across Europe, and as the West begins imposing severe sanctions on Russia and its oligarchs in response to President Vladimir Putin’s military aggressions against Ukraine, many are wondering what role the United Nations Security Council could have played to prevent this war from escalating. After all, isn’t that the point of the Security Council – to prevent wars?

Seventy-seven years ago, on 26 June 1945, 50 states endorsed the United Nations Charter with a promise to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”. Reeling from the devastating impact of the Second World War, the states that ratified the Charter were determined not to repeat the scenario that had led to massive loss of life and physical destruction. For this reason, they created the UN Security Council, which consists of five permanent veto-holding powers, namely the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China – the victors of the Second World War who had borne the brunt of the war and were expected to maintain peace in a post-war world. (Ironically, all five members are part of the global military-industrial complex that supplies weapons to the rest of the world.) The 10 non-permanent members of the 15-member Council are elected for two-year terms on a rotational basis. Their voices, votes and opinions don’t really count, even if they make persuasive anti-war speeches invoking nations’ sovereignty at the Security Council, as did Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Martin Kimani, on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (which some have claimed was hypocritical as Kenya itself ignored Somalia’s sovereignty when it invaded that country in 2011 despite being warned against doing so by none other than the United States).

If Europe descends into a Third World War situation as a result of Putin’s actions – which will no doubt create a massive refugee crisis in Europe and bring about economic hardship not just in Russia but globally – will the United Nations itself become largely irrelevant, reduced to dealing with a humanitarian crisis that would have never erupted if it had the power to prevent the war in the first place? Will it just appeal for humanitarian aid, as it has done in Yemen and other refugee- and IDP-producing places recently, instead of condemning and sanctioning Saudi Arabia, which started the war?

As recent history has shown, the UN Security Council has been unable to prevent wars in places such as Ukraine because the five permanent members, also known as the P-5, are not held to account when they themselves become aggressors. This is why Russia – a veto-holding permanent member of the Council – did not suffer any UN sanctions when it carried out military actions in Chechnya in 1999, in Georgia in 2008, and in Crimea, which it annexed in 2014. Imposing severe sanctions on a permanent member of the UN Security Council has rarely happened. This is why no sanctions were imposed on the United States and Britain when they decided to invade Iraq in 2003 without Security Council approval and despite anti-war protests around the world.  Western nations are quick to call Putin a “war criminal” but did not call Bush or Blair war criminals even when it became obvious that their assertions that Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction” and harboured Al Qaeda were false, and even after they ignored anti-war protests around the world.

Before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the US Secretary of State Colin Powell had made a detailed and elaborate presentation at the UN Security Council purportedly showing that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and links with the terrorist organization Al Qaeda that had carried out the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. His lengthy televised performance at the Security Council – which even he later regretted – did not convince many members of the UN Security Council that an invasion of Iraq was necessary. But US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were adamant about waging a war against Iraq. They ignored reservations expressed by some Security Council members, notably France, and went to war with Iraq anyway, even though UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had declared the war “illegal” (which goes to show how little clout UN Secretary-Generals have in military affairs). Despite this, Western nations did not impose sanctions on the US and Britain, as they are now doing with Russia, perhaps because this time European lives and the sovereignty of European nations are at stake.

Failed sanctions amid scandals 

The case of Iraq is particularly illustrative of the impunity that the P-5 enjoy when it comes to taking military actions around the world. It also shows how sanctions can have devastating consequences.

After the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invaded and occupied Kuwait in 1990, the US led a coalition of forces that pushed the Iraqi military out of Kuwait. Subsequently, the UN Security Council unanimously imposed sanctions on Iraq. The sanctions regime was to be implemented through the UN’s Oil-for-Food progamme that did not allow Iraq to sell its vast reserves of oil commercially; rather oil sales were managed by the UN and all the oil proceeds were held in a UN bank account. Two-thirds of the proceeds were to be used to pay for humanitarian goods for the Iraqi people while the rest was used to compensate Kuwait for the destruction it had suffered during Iraq’s invasion and occupation.

However, as investigations later showed, the Oil-for-Food programme was manipulated by Saddam to enrich himself. He managed to sell oil to hundreds of individuals and firms that were willing to ignore or bypass the sanctions (a tactic I believe Putin will also employ). The investigations revealed that more than 2,000 companies and individuals from more than 40 countries had paid bribes or received kickbacks from Saddam to participate in the programme and that billions of dollars that were intended for the Iraqi people had been lost. These revelations only came to light after the then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was forced to order a probe into the programme following a series of exposés in the Iraqi and international media that showed that even top UN officials in Iraq were involved in the scam.

The case of Iraq is particularly illustrative of the impunity that the P-5 enjoy when it comes to taking military actions around the world.

The Oil-for-Food programme was not only corrupted, it was also a disaster for the Iraqi people. The UN investigation led by Paul Volcker showed that the Iraqi people received poor quality food and medical supplies under the scheme and that much of the food was “unfit for human consumption”. Unfortunately, the Volcker report was released when the programme had ended and when the United States and Britain already had their boots on the ground in Iraq.

The war was a disaster, and its impact is being felt even today. Independent sources showed that at least 600,000 Iraqi civilians lost their lives. Saddam’s ouster also created a power vacuum that led to mayhem. Some of Saddam’s Baath party loyalists joined forces with Sunni jihadists to form the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which went on to unleash terror in Iraq and neighbouring countries in pursuit of an “Islamic Caliphate”.

Of course, Russia’s attack on Ukraine cannot be compared with the US and Britain’s war in Iraq because the circumstances leading up to the wars are different. Moreover, Russia has a permanent seat at the high table at the UN Security Council while Iraq doesn’t. And Russia has far more natural resources and military might than Iraq ever did. Iraq had oil that the world needed, but Putin has a lot more that Europe and the rest of the world needs, including oil, wheat and natural gas. Sanctions may cripple its international financial transactions, but Putin has probably thought of a way to get around them.

The Russian president and his allies, including China, will most likely gang up to evade or undermine sanctions as did Saddam, and perhaps even profit from them. Russia, as a veto-holding permanent member of the UN Security Council, will also not allow the Security Council to impose sanctions on it, although the US, Britain, France and other European will impose sanctions unilaterally and may even intervene militarily under the umbrella of NATO, as they did during war in the Balkans.

Time to reconstitute the Security Council 

As Russia and Ukraine lurch towards a war whose repercussions will be felt globally, perhaps it is time to think about reconstituting the membership of the UN Security Council to include states that have no interest in the weapons industry. Membership should be allocated to those countries that have not waged a war in other countries since the Security Council was formed in 1945, which do not have nuclear weapons, and which are genuinely committed to world peace. (At this point, the only country that I think qualifies is Bhutan.)

One might argue that some wars are necessary to remove evil men from power. The defeat of Germany’s Adolf Hitler was necessary, as perhaps was the removal of the Taliban from Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. But some wars lead to even more crises, as is happening now in Afghanistan, and in Libya when NATO bombed that country in a bid to oust Muammar Gaddafi. Libya today stands as a testament to what can happen when a strongman is removed without a plan in place on who will run the country after he is gone. The fighting there continues and anarchy has made Libya a leading hub for human traffickers.

However, it is unlikely that the reconstitution of the UN Security Council will happen any time soon because, as Richard Haass, the President of the US Council on Foreign Relations has pointed out, “those who stand to lose can and do block any such change”.