BBC News
Launch consoleBBC NEWS CHANNEL
Page last updated at 10:34 GMT, Saturday, 30 August 2008 11:34 UK

Georgia exposes UN's weakness

Deadlocked over Georgia, ineffective on Darfur and impotent about Zimbabwe, the BBC's United Nations correspondent Laura Trevelyan asks, what is the point of the UN Security Council?

Georgian artillery fire at South Ossetian separatists
The UN Security Council was not able to act over Georgia

In the dog days of late August as Manhattan swelters, I have spent much of my time lurking by what is called the "UN Security Council stakeout".

It is the corridor where diplomats come to talk to journalists on their way in and out of security council meetings.

On the TV the stakeout radiates significance, but in reality it is rather faded.

Behind the diplomats hangs an enormous tapestry of Guernica, a reproduction of Picasso's famous anti-war painting, and a reminder of what the security council is supposed to try to prevent.

Georgia crisis

The stakeout has been unusually busy this August. Russia's eloquent Ambassador Vitaly Churkin has been a regular, denouncing what he calls "propaganda from Georgia".

Tibilisi's young telegenic envoy Irakli Alasania is as media savvy as Georgia's president, but his efforts with words have been no match for Russian firepower on the ground.

The sparks have been flying between Ambassador Churkin and his US counterpart Zalmay Khalilzad, reflecting the profound disagreement between Moscow and Washington. European ambassadors have tried to act as a bridge between the two.

United Kingdom
United States

Diplomats have spent many long hours consulting, trying to agree a resolution which would endorse the ceasefire plan brokered by France.

The security guards have gone into overtime, the stakeout carpet has become even more worn and smoke has filled the air (you can light up in bits of the UN as it is international territory).

I have even tried to count the threads in the Guernica tapestry, but the council has been unable to agree even the mildest statement on the Georgian situation.

Much diplomatic effort was expended in an effort to agree language on the territorial integrity of Georgia. Russia said the world could forget about it but the US and European countries insisted it should be respected.

The diplomacy finally juddered to a halt earlier this week when Russia recognised the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, rendering further arguments about territorial integrity futile.

With Russia being both a party to the conflict in Georgia and a veto-wielding power, the result this summer was paralysis at the council

But there is another reason why the council was deadlocked. Russia, like the US, Britain, France and China, is an all-powerful permanent member of the UN Security Council with the ability to block decisions.

That is the way the council was set up in the wake of WWII, with power going to the victors.

After the failings of the League of Nations, the idea was to give the UN Security Council teeth by enabling the five major powers to veto resolutions.

But with Russia being both a party to the conflict in Georgia and a veto wielding power, the result this summer was paralysis at the council.

Veto impasse

It is hardly the first time this has happened.

During what some are now calling the first Cold War, the Security Council was deadlocked because Russia and the US could both use their veto power.

But given the regularity with which the council reaches an impasse now, the obvious question is whether it is really working in the way it should.

Guernica tapestry at the UN Security Council
The council is charged with maintaining peace and security

The council is charged with maintaining international peace and security, a grand ambition, but if it cannot pronounce on Georgia, what use is it?

In July, China and Russia vetoed an attempt by the West to impose sanctions against members of Zimbabwe's government.

The peacekeeping force the Council despatched to Darfur is struggling, weakened because divisions between China and the West meant the Sudanese government was given a role in the force's composition, one it has exploited to the full.

Legitimacy doubts

You could say that the world is not united, so why expect the Council to be?

As China and Russia become more assertive, of course they will use the veto power as a tool of their foreign policy, just as Britain and France use their permanent member status to punch above their weight.

UN Security Council July 2008
Developing nations want the UN Security Council to be reformed

And it is not as if China and Russia are the only ones to use the veto.

The US uses the veto to protect its staunch ally Israel from what Washington sees as unbalanced criticism from the Arab world.

Security Council diplomats argue that the Georgia stand-off shows how important the forum is. If it was irrelevant, then no-one would bother trying to get agreement, say diplomats.

The failure is actually a reflection of the Council's power.

Meanwhile developing countries outside the Security Council question the legitimacy of a body set up to reflect the global power structure 60 years ago.

Divided world

India, Brazil, Japan, South Africa and Nigeria all have a strong case to be permanent members, and for 14 years, what are called in the jargon "open-ended discussions", have been going on over reforming the Security Council so it reflects the world as it is now.

Unsurprisingly those discussions have never concluded because many countries prefer the status quo to change, which would elevate their regional enemies.

Existing powers on the Security Council argue that enlargement is not without its perils. If too many countries have the veto, nothing would ever get done, they argue... self-servingly but also accurately.

Meanwhile I am still here at the stakeout, asking what the point of the UN Security Council is.

My conclusion is that it holds up a mirror to the world's divisions.

But if it does not start to reflect the schisms of the new world too, it will become as threadbare as the stakeout carpet.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 30 August, 2008 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

banner watch listen bbc sport Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific