Rarely does one geopolitical event seize the limelight for long. Yet undoubtedly, two years since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, our headlines in the West are still dominated by the Russia-Ukraine war. Hope that had mounted since Ukraine’s June 2023 counteroffensive—which saw successes in the Black Sea and drone warfare despite the stalled land offensive—has buckled under Russian victories like the takeover of Avdiivka and bombardments in Kyiv and Kharkiv. Only two in ten Europeans believe Ukraine will win, while twice as many believe Russia will. 

From the start, the war extended beyond just Russia and Ukraine. The U.S. has sent around $75 billion to Ukraine in humanitarian, financial, and military aid. NATO members have provided upwards of $100 billion in aid, military training, and war-related equipment, and perhaps more important than financial aid, worked toward a path toward membership and a credible security guarantee. Every EU member state hosts a number of the six million refugees in Europe, with half a million refugees sheltering beyond. The EU and G7 countries levied sanctions against Russia, while Belarus remains a staunch ally of its eastern neighbor. A wide array of states, including China, Brazil, Uganda, and even the Vatican, have proposed peace initiatives. In short, we have seen both individual states and multilateral institutions take steps to end the war—so why have we not seen more from the universal organization for peace? Where has the United Nations been?

The UN Charter speaks of upholding the principles of democracy, international peace, and “sovereign equality of its Members.” Accordingly, during the Russia-Ukraine war, the UN has tracked refugee movement, delivered aid, and passed resolutions “condemning” the invasion and annexations and “demanding” a Russian withdrawal. It has barked at Russia, but shouldn’t it have a stronger bite? History sheds some light on this paradox.

The UN was chartered eighty years ago, on the heels of WWII—a war that the U.S. and Soviet Union fought as allies. While the rivalry between the superpowers would come to define the postwar era, upon chartering in the immediate aftermath of the war the two cooperated along with the U.K. as architects of the UN to create an institution to keep the peace among the winners of WWII. This purpose birthed the UN’s most powerful body, the Security Council, tasked with “the maintenance of international peace and security.” The Council needed enforcement power, which is where its predecessor, the League of Nations, had failed. The five winners of WWII—the U.S., U.K., France, China, and the Soviet Union—each assumed permanent membership (the P5) with veto power able to paralyze any Council resolution. In judging the veto, it is crucial to remember that the UN’s existence was not guaranteed; the veto secured Soviet membership and convinced American senators to ratify the Charter, thus avoiding the failure of the League of Nations to achieve congressional support, wider legitimacy, and actionability. Back then, it made sense to grant a veto to the winners of WWII. Today, that is no longer true.

The day after it invaded Ukraine, Russia caused international uproar by vetoing a resolution calling for its withdrawal. Later, it vetoed a Security Council resolution condemning its annexation of Ukrainian territories. Its manipulation of the veto fits a longstanding pattern among the P5. In 2009 and 2014, Russia vetoed resolutions opposing its invasion of Georgia and Crimea, respectively. In 1983, the U.S. vetoed a response to its own invasion of Grenada. To date, the U.S. has accumulated 42 vetoes on resolutions pertaining to Israel-Palestine and related Arab conflicts. The U.S. and Russiaare the most prolific vetoers by far. 

Throughout the history of the Security Council, moreover, unofficial alliances within the P5 have often vetoed together. In 1989, the U.S., U.K., and France vetoed a resolution condemning the American invasion of Panama. Between 2011 and 2023, Russia and China repeatedly squashed resolutions addressing the Syrian Civil War, including on chemical warfare and humanitarian aid—during this period, Russia helped the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad carry out airstrikes, including hospital targets. In recent news, on March 22, amid the renewed inflammation of the Israel-Palestine crisis following Hamas’ October 7th attack, Russia and China axed a resolution led by the U.S. for a six-week ceasefire. In the months before, the U.S. whack-a-moled resolutions that mentioned ceasefire. 

The use of the veto has always been political, demonstrated aptly during the Cold War. The forty-five years between 1946 and 1991 (the Cold War’s official end) saw 164 vetoes, compared to the 57 in the 32 years between 1992 and 2024. The Soviet Union wielded its veto power during the Corfu Channel naval conflict, the Greek frontier proxy battleground, and in debates around nuclear arms regulations. The U.S., meanwhile, refused UN membership to communist North and South Vietnam and rotating Security Council membership to Angola because of the presence of Cuban forces in the country.

The UN has caught on to calls for reform. On April 26, 2022, the General Assembly passed a resolution aiming to “hold the five permanent Council members accountable for their use of veto.” Yet, all this mandates is more barking: the General Assembly must debate the situation in which the veto was cast within ten days. Other reform suggestions target the Security Council directly, including adding additional permanent members, limiting the veto, and even removing current members. All these reforms, however, run into an insurmountable obstacle: by the Charter, any change to the structure of the UN needs Security Council consensus.

The core of the problem does not lie with the unattainable consensus, but runs even deeper. Reforms for greater transparency and representation are doomed from the start, because they do not target the Security Council’s true purpose. The Council does not look outward, but inward—it does not owe itself to world peace, but to comity, to preserving the interests of and peace between the P5. Through this lens, the Council’s role is not to be activists, as many believe it to be, but conservative. It resembles the Concert of Europe, a consensus between Prussia, Austria, Britain, and Russia: the four winners of the Napoleonic Wars. The unofficial alliance was meant to preserve the balance of power and prevent one great power from encroaching on another’s interests, a manifestation of collective security. In his assessment of the Council, journalist and academic David Bosco highlights that the P5 have deeper diplomatic relations among themselves than with other countries, and “[consult] informally on a nearly daily basis.” The P5 use the Concert form as a shield, be it to delay decision-making or save face. In 1999, for example, NATO circumvented the Council in launching military action against Russia’s campaign in Yugoslavia; Russia turned to the Council to veto a resolution for post-conflict stabilization in Kosovo and gain minor diplomatic victories. According to Bosco, Russia therefore “[restored] a formal equality” against the other great powers and against NATO, a maneuver certainly reminiscent of present-day international relations. The Concert holds strong—the Security Council does concern itself with maintaining peace among all nations, but only among themselves. 

How, then, can the UN limit war and protect peace? The Security Council is not the channel through which reform will come. Law professor Mohamed S. Helal’s description of the Council as having “power unrestrained by law” may point in one direction. The Security Council is the power component of the UN; to counter Council hegemony, the UN’s legal component should be strengthened.

This avenue leads to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the judicial organ that settles international legal disputes between states (it only prosecutes states). It is composed of 15 seats, apportioned by regions of the world, in which sit judges of different legal traditions. It must have the consent of both parties in order to take up a case, either by submission of the dispute to the court or by a treaty that has granted jurisdiction over signatories. The ICJ’s power has been used sparingly, but that itself can serve to give greater weight to decisions. The most recent case it took on was brought by South Africa against Israel on the charge of Israel committing genocide in the Gaza Strip. 

South Africa v. Israel can strengthen the ICJ’s role in achieving international peace in two ways. First, the ICJ taking up the case helps entrench the fledgling precedent, set by two earlier cases (both adjudicated in the 2010s), that all signatories of a treaty can show “generalized interest” in enforcing it, even if they are not directly involved in a conflict. In South Africa v. Israel, South Africa’s lawsuit aims to enforce the Genocide Convention. Effectively, this grants UN member states the ability to check other rogue member states. When more member states have the agency to call attention to and initiate proceedings against international crimes, peace and justice become more attainable.

Second, ICJ rulings can guide individual states to act. The Court’s initial decision in South Africa v. Israel, issued Jan. 26, did not confirm acts of genocide by Israel but did restate one of the allegations that some actions “appear to be capable of falling within the provisions of the [Genocide] Convention.” Furthermore, it ordered Israel to prevent any acts of genocide and to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza. By Charter, enforcement of any ICJ decisions falls on the Security Council, but the symbolic power of the decision can still hold. A ruling backed by diverse legal perspectives from around the world, too, offers credibility. Member states can refer to ICJ rulings as justification for sanctions or other measures to heap pressure on a rogue member state. This has some precedent—Canada modeled its indigenous law on the General Assembly’s Declaration on the Right of Indigenous Peoples Act. 

Although no existing UN body can make obsolete a rogue Security Council, the ICJ provides an avenue to circumvent it to an extent. The UN shoulders an inherent paradox: upholding international peace while also upholding the sovereignty of its members. For this precise reason, individual member states must embrace their agency and responsibility to act. Member states cannot look to the Concert of the Security Council for representation or protection. They must, instead, exercise their sovereignty to uphold the principles of democracy and international peace, as directed by the Charter. A strengthened ICJ may be an ally in that mission.

Image credit: Coalition for the ICC / Credit: UN, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons