Can Russia Be Removed from the U.N. Security Council?
Created to maintain global peace and stability, the council is powerless as one of its permanent members wages a brutal unprovoked war in Ukraine.
In June 1950, the U.N. Security Council condemned North Korea’s invasion of South Korea and authorized a U.N. intervention to repel the North’s aggression. As a client-state of the Soviet Union, the communist North expected Moscow to veto those council resolutions, as did other countries. The Soviets, however, were absent from the council. They were in the middle of an eight-month boycott to protest the United Nations’ unwillingness to transfer China’s U.N. seat from the Republic of China, whose government had lost a civil war and retreated to the island of Taiwan, to the new People’s Republic of China, established by the Communist Party, which had won the war.
Amid calls to remove Russia, the heir to the Soviet U.N. seat, from the Security Council because of its current invasion of Ukraine, another boycott may be the only way to accomplish that — but it’s entirely unrealistic. Moscow hasn’t walked out of the council since 1950. In fact, as the Soviet empire crumbled, and it quickly lost most of its previous international influence in the 1990s, its status as one of five permanent council members with veto power gave it an outsized voice in world affairs. It’s unlikely to give it up.
Are there other mechanisms to take away Russia’s permanent seat? After all, the Security Council was created with “the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security,” and Russia launched an unprovoked and brutal war against a fellow U.N. member in an attempt to subjugate it. How can such an aggressor help guarantee peace and stability?
The U.N. Charter, adopted by the General Assembly in 1945, provides no explicit method for altering the permanent council membership. Under Article 108, all amendments to the charter must be approved by two-thirds of the General Assembly, including all permanent members of the Security Council — the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China. So Russia’s vote would be needed to remove it from the council, which is not realistic.
The charter actually doesn’t mention Russia as a permanent member, but rather the Soviet Union. When it collapsed at the end of 1991, then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin wrote a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, informing him that Russia, as the successor-state to the Soviet Union, was taking over its U.N. seat. No objections were raised at the time, no resolutions were passed by the General Assembly or the Security Council, and no revisions were made to the charter. The Russian Federation didn’t present new credentials, although flags and name plates were changed.
Is that enough of an argument that Russia’s membership was never approved, and therefore it’s not entitled to it? It depends on whether one views the switchover as a simple name change or as one country taking over from another that no longer exists. Another permanent council member, France, has changed its formal name twice since the United Nations’ founding — from the Provisional Government of the French Republic (1945-1946) to the Fourth Republic (1946-1958) to the current French Republic — without any alterations of the U.N. Charter. But it has been essentially the same country, while the Soviet Union broke into 15 sovereign states. In China’s case, when its seat was finally given to the People’s Republic of China in 1971, the General Assembly approved the transfer with 76-35 votes and 17 abstentions. That didn’t amount to the two-thirds majority required to amend the charter, but the decision stood nonetheless. The matter wasn’t discussed in the Security Council.
The argument that Russia’s takeover of the Soviet U.N. seat wasn’t legally sanctioned and therefore is invalid could be dismissed by pointing out that no one objected for more than 30 years. But is that a sufficient rebuttal?
There is another article in the U.N. Charter that deserves attention. It covers voting in the Security Council. It allows for decisions “on procedural matters” to be made by an affirmative vote by nine members, without making a distinction between the five permanent and 10 rotating council members. In other words, it doesn’t require the “concurring votes of the permanent members,” which is required in “on all other matters.” Is it reasonable to argue that removing a permanent member is a “procedural matter”? Well, the Korean War decisions also lacked the “concurring votes of the permanent members.”
Neither the United States nor any of its allies have undertaken to deprive Russia of its permanent Security Council seat, even as they recognize the council’s inability to stop Moscow’s war in Ukraine. Part of their calculation likely has to do with the long-term implications of such a move. Would it be in the U.S. interest to create a precedent that could allow a majority in the council to remove a permanent member when as few as nine countries disagree with its actions?
Robert Downes is a retired senior Foreign Service officer whose foreign tours included Nicaragua, Venezuela, Mexico, Thailand, Germany and Australia.
The views and characterizations in this article belong to the author and don’t necessarily represent those of the U.S. government.