Today, Ukrainian President Zelensky called on the U.N. to remove Russia’s permanent seat on the Security Council. That would end Russia’s power to veto Security Council action — including authorization of international military force. The British ambassador tweeted that the United Nations can’t do that. But she’s wrong.
Removing Russia’s permanent seat seems unlikely at the moment. But the member-nations have a mechanism if they want it. And crisis often breeds fast change, like today’s aggressive sanctions against Russia — unimaginable two months ago.
Security Council Power and Membership
The member-nations founded the United Nations in 1945. They set up two councils: the General Assembly and the Security Council. Only the Security Council can issue binding resolutions: orders the nations have committed to obey. That includes binding sanctions. (The current sanctions against Russia come from individual nations and the EU, not the U.N.) And only the Security Council can authorize a U.N. military force.
All member-nations sit in the General Assembly. But the Security Council only has fifteen members. Most rotate, but five are permanent: the U.S., the U.K., France, China, and the Soviet Union. Any of those five can veto a Security Council resolution, unlike the other members.
The Soviet Union’s Permanent Seat
The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. Its fifteen Soviet republics — like U.S. states or Canadian provinces — became independent nations. And of course, they joined the U.N. Those new member-nations included Russia and Ukraine.
Russia was the largest and most powerful Soviet republic. So it claimed the Soviet Union’s permanent seat on the Security Council. And no one really objected at the U.N. Since then, Russia has held the Soviet seat.
The United Nations never amended its charter — its constitution — to address the Soviet Union’s fall. So the charter still lists a permanent seat for the Soviet Union, not Russia. For years, international lawyers have argued that the Soviets’ permanent seat lapsed in 1991. Russia should have joined as a typical member-state, just like the other former Soviet Republics.
Under that view, Russia already has no permanent seat on the Security Council — and no veto.
U.N. Action Against Russia
The U.N. General Assembly could vote to declare that Russia has no permanent seat. That might be politically necessary to remove Russia, but it’s probably not necessary under international law. Instead, the other U.N. member-states could just ignore Russian vetoes.
Without a Russian veto, the Security Council could order Russia to end all military action in Ukraine and remove its troops. (Russia wouldn’t obey.) And the council could sanction Russia, issuing trade restrictions binding on all nations. Finally, the Security Council could authorize a U.N. military coalition to defend Ukraine, though that’s the least likely option.
Of course, China could veto any of these Security Council resolutions. But the Chinese don’t want to look like war crime supporters. And at the moment, they have little incentive to pick a fight with the United States (or start a trade war). So while the Chinese would veto some Security Council resolutions, they might let others pass.
Removing Russia’s permanent seat would have more impact in the long run. It would give the Security Council greater freedom to address future attacks on world peace.
In 1941, great powers got permanent Security Council seats and vetoes, for practical reasons. They have military and economic power to block U.N. action — and the veto ensures that they won’t have to. That keeps the U.N. relevant, with limited risk of being ignored by countries powerful enough to get away with it.
Today, only two of the five permanent members clearly qualify as great powers — as superpowers: the U.S. and China. That means calls to revise the Security Council could lead to arguments that Britain and France should be removed (probably by charter amendment). After all, if those two retain permanent seats, why not Japan, which has a larger economy than either? Why not India, which will soon have the world’s largest population (the reason for China’s permanent seat back in 1945) — and which already has several times more people than any country except China?
Maybe the charter should give permanent seats to the U.S., China … and the European Union, which has started looking like a superpower. (See my recent article on the EU.) But the U.K. and France probably won’t agree.
President Zelensky’s suggestion planted a seed that might not grow for a while. But at some point, the U.N. will have to reckon with its out-of-date charter. Russian war crimes could accelerate that reckoning.
© 2022 by David W. Tollen
- U.S. Secretary of State attends the United Nations Security Council Meeting on the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, at the United Nations Headquarters, in New York City, New York on September 23, 2016, U.S. State Department photo
- The emblem of the UN in its beginnings in 1945 and the flags of the founding countries of the UN in that year. Alphabetical order of the flags in Spanish, by Babelia, Dec. 16, 2018, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license
- Boris Yeltsin speaking at a meeting of his supporters, March 1993, from the website of the President of the Russian Federation, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license
- Destruction of Russian tanks by Ukrainian troops in Mariupol, March 7, 2022, Міністерство внутрішніх справ України (Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine), licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
- Free people of a free country! … (President Zelensky), March 16, 2022, by President of Ukraine from Україна.