When Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin briefed reporters recently, he offered some biting criticisms of the growing political manipulation of the most powerful body at the United Nations: the 15-member Security Council.
Implicitly targeting some of the Western nations – specifically the United States, UK and France – he said "words no longer mean what they used to be".
When Security Council resolution 1973 approved a "no-fly zone" inside Libya last May, it was meant to neutralise the Libyan air force and prevent it from bombing civilian demonstrators.
Accusing the military forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) of exceeding their authority, Churkin said that in the good old days, "no-fly zone meant nobody is flying."
"In the brave new world, no fly zone means free-wheeling bombing of targets which you choose to bomb in whatever modality and mode you want, including the bombing of TV stations," he said.
"It is of grave concern to us to see the enormous ability of some of our colleagues to interpret resolutions" to suit their own interests, he added.
"It was not a perfect day for diplomacy, and it was not a perfect day to work in the Security Council," said Churkin, who currently holds the rotating monthly presidency of the Security Council.
After another divisive meeting of the Council last week, Churkin complained, "I saw every trick in the book thrown at me, short of trying to strangulate the president of the Security Council."
But the accusations against the three veto-wielding permanent members of the Council – the United States, UK and France, and their allies – can be equally applied to the other two permanent members, Russia and China.
As they try to protect their own political, economic and military interests worldwide, the Big Five have remained deadlocked on several political hotspots, including Yemen, Bahrain and Israel (protected by the three Western powers) and Syria and Iran (protected by Russia and China).
Chris Toensing, editor of the Washington-based Middle East Report, told IPS that Churkin's criticisms cannot be taken at face value because Russia's narrow interests have so clearly driven its own behaviour at the Security Council this year.
"I don't buy Russian outrage over Libya. (Former U.S. Defence Secretary) Robert Gates was crystal clear, long before the vote on Security Council resolution 1973, that a no-fly zone would be preceded by massive bombing," Toensing said.
The Russian and Chinese decision to abstain on resolution 1973 was a case of sacrificing a regime to which they had minimal ties.
"Where they do have meaningful ties, as in Syria, they dig in. The United States has, of course, used the Security Council in an equally utilitarian fashion," said Toensing, who is also the executive director of the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP).
James A. Paul, executive director of the New York-based Global Policy Forum, told IPS the Security Council is a political body that operates despotically.
It has 15 members, including five permanent members, but in fact it is run almost exclusively by the P-3: the United States, the UK and France, he said.
Those three countries draft the great majority of the resolutions and shape the business of the Council in every way, said Paul, who closely monitors the workings of the Security Council on a daily basis.
Most importantly, he pointed out, the P-3 count on the more-or-less automatic support of at least six of the 10 elected members, meaning that they have a voting bloc that can carry nearly any resolution.
Through pressure and mutual deals, they can often bring all Council members, including China and Russia, into their orbit.
"This P-3 domination is increasingly anomalous, in light of the waning global power of these states, but their hegemony in the Council remains very strong," he noted.
Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, told IPS the Security Council has always been manipulated by the prerogatives of the P5 – the United States, UK, France, China and Russia.
The biggest change in recent years, he pointed out, is that P5 members used to allow resolutions critical of allies to be adopted, but simply made sure they were under Chapter VI (peaceful settlement of disputes) rather than Chapter VII (measures to prevent breach of peace and acts of aggression).
"For decades, the U.S. and its allies supported or abstained on resolutions aimed at Indonesia, Morocco or Israel regarding their territorial conquests, for example, but made sure they were never enforced through sanctions or other mechanisms," Zunes said.
More recently, however, members of the P5 have been more prone to veto such resolutions, prevent them from coming to a vote, or insist on watering them down until they are meaningless, said Zunes, who has written extensively on the politics of the Security Council.
A case in point: In the 1970s, the United States abstained or voted in favour of four resolutions citing the illegality of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories and calling on the Israelis to dismantle them.
This February, however, the United States vetoed a resolution which reiterated their illegality and simply called on Israel to freeze the construction of additional settlements.
"Unfortunately, this trend is likely to escalate as a result of NATO's decision to go well beyond the mandate granted in the Security Council resolution to enforce a no-fly zone to protect Libyan civilians and instead effectively become the air force of the Libyan rebels," Zunes said.
This has undoubtedly contributed to the Chinese and Russian willingness to block even such reasonable Security Council initiatives as the recent draft resolutions on Syria, he added.
Paul told IPS that during 2011, there has been an interesting group of elected members on the Council, namely, India, Brazil and South Africa, in particular, bringing a spirit of independence.
"And they have not always been willing to go along with the P-3," he said, pointing out that they have preferred alternative policies, especially the use of mediation and negotiation, as opposed to the use of force.
"They are sufficiently strong member states to withstand pressure from the P-3, and they have strong, democratically-based political systems, that do not simply replicate Western thinking or follow in the wake of Western interests," Paul said.
Western critics of the Council these days often argue that it is blocked by spoilers who are preventing urgent humanitarian action in places like Syria.
This is missing the point, since the evidence is very strong that the Western powers do not act on the basis of human rights or humanitarian motives, he said.
The blockages reflect the insistence of the P-3 to have their way in a changing world, coming up against new and emerging power alignments.
"This reminds us that the Security Council is an organ in great need of membership reform, if it is to play a creative role for peace and better reflect the world that is emerging and not the world of 1945," Paul added.