19/03/2012 18:44 GMT | Updated 19/05/2012 06:12 BST

The UN: A Tale of Two Eleanors

If Eleanor Roosevelt, the dynamic force behind the foundation of the United Nations, could see what is happening in Syria right now, no doubt she would weep. She would likely agree with Hillary Clinton, who last week called for Security Council unity to tackle the "horrific campaign of violence" that has "shocked the conscience of the world."

Mrs Roosevelt believed in the Big Society decades before David Cameron graduated from Bovril to Bollinger. But her vision was much grander: of a world community that acted on its best internationalist instincts, putting aside the greedy, narrow nationalism that had led to the 20th century's wasteful wars.

Instead, we now have a UN Security Council where the permanent members (the USA, UK, Russia, China and France), vote to protect their client states, irrespective of the devastating impact on countries or entire regions.

Today it is Russia and China pretending to stand up for the right of the Syrian regime to murder its own people, otherwise known as state sovereignty or the doctrine of non-interference.

But not so long ago, during the Cold War, it was the UK, France and the USA using their veto to protect oppressive kleptomaniacs across the globe who happened to be 'on our side' in the struggle to defeat the Soviet bloc.

Since the end of the Cold War, a more mercenary motivation has determined how UN Security Council votes go: permanent members protect nations that buy their weapons or who sell them oil and other resources. How else to explain why UN resolutions on the long-running ethnic cleansing in Sudan remain unenforced? Hundreds of thousands continue to die in Sudan because Russia and China sell the Sudanese weapons, and China buys their oil. The remaining three permanent members have other priorities, lacking the political will to turn words of concern into effective economic sanctions.

The UN Security Council's impotence in the face of the mass slaughter of unarmed civilians is not new to those who recall the Rwandan genocide and the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Linda Melvern's superb books on the sordid behaviour of the UN representatives of UK, USA and France in the run up to and during Rwanda are enough to dispel any lingering faith in the UN system one might have.

In the case of Bosnia, it was our own Douglas Hurd who adopted a high moral tone when it was suggested that the international community might allow the Bosnians to defend themselves against the well-armed Serbs. Like a pampered cat that hates getting its paws wet, he deplored "creating a level killing field," the same reason we are now told we should not allow arms to reach the Syrian rebels.

As Einstein reminds us: "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different outcome."

So, how do we end the paralysis of the UN Security Council? Here are some suggestions:

1) Remove the veto of the permanent members.

2) Widen the Security Council to include permanent members from important regional players like India, Brazil, Germany, Japan, South Africa, Turkey, Indonesia and Nigeria.

3) Form a coalition of those nations willing to enforce the UN's own 'Responsibility to Protect' doctrine, allowing states to intervene with soft and hard power when civilians are being slaughtered by their own governments.

4) Allowing the coalition of the willing to use targeted smart sanctions that make life personally financially uncomfortable for murderous dictators.

If steps are not taken to reform the UN Security Council it is hard to see what role it has, apart from hosting elaborate conferences for well-padded diplomats.

Which leaves us with the second Eleanor: Eleanor Rigby. The final verse of the eponymous Beatles song concludes, "No one was saved." As we watch the massacre of brave Syrians, feeling helpless and ashamed, we should apply that test to the UN Security Council's proceedings: was anyone saved?