Challenging the Security Council’s veto power

Authors’ Note: Security Council Report is an independent think tank dedicated to supporting a more effective, transparent and accountable United Nations Security Council. A version of this article will appear in the May monthly forecast of the Security Council report.

The right of veto conferred by the Charter of the United Nations is, after the permanence itself, the most important distinction between the permanent and non-permanent members of the Security Council. The UN would not have been founded without the five permanent members having the right of veto; indeed, the organization was designed so that all major decisions would require the support, or at least the acquiescence, of the major powers.[1] But from the start, the veto has been a constant source of tension between the permanent members and the general membership of the UN. Since the end of the Cold War, reform of the veto has been an element of many initiatives to structurally reform the Council. These initiatives have come from Member States who believe that the Council no longer reflects the way the world order has changed since 1945. Often Member States also address the perceived “abuse” of the right of veto in discussions on Council’s working methods, including during the annual debate on the body’s working methods.

On April 26, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution A/RES/76/262 by consensus, which calls on the General Assembly to meet whenever a veto is opposed to the Security Council. The President of the General Assembly will convene a formal meeting to hold a debate on the subject subject to the veto within ten working days and, exceptionally, the member or members having vetoed will be given priority in the list of speakers. .

The vote was the culmination of an initiative led by Liechtenstein and a core of countries.[2] Eighty-three members co-sponsored the resolution from each UN regional group, including three permanent members: France, the United Kingdom and the United States. Although there have been veto initiatives in the past, this is the first time that a UN body has taken steps to modify the use of the veto.

Such initiatives, however, have a history. In the mid-2000s, the stalemate over Syria led member states to look for ways to make it more difficult to use the veto. In August 2015, France, with the support of Mexico, launched the “Political Declaration on the suspension of the right of veto in the event of mass atrocities”. The aim was to get the permanent members – the P5 – to voluntarily pledge not to use the right of veto in cases of genocide, crimes against humanity and large-scale war crimes. Among the permanent members with the right of veto, only France and the United Kingdom have so far supported this initiative. As of April 2020, 103 member states and two UN observers have signed the declaration.

This voluntary initiative to suspend the right of veto has been hampered by the lack of a definition of atrocity crimes. It may also explain why it has not come to the fore in connection with the current situation in Ukraine, as some members are reluctant to label crimes in that country as “atrocity crimes” until they have been duly checked.

In the same vein, in July 2015, the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (ACT) group, made up of 27 small and medium States working to improve the effectiveness of the Council by strengthening its working methods, developed a code of guidance for Member States regarding Security Council action against genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The code aims to encourage timely and decisive action by the Council to prevent or end the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. As with the latest Franco-Mexican initiative, the code of conduct urges permanent members to agree to refrain from using their veto in situations involving mass atrocity crimes, and also invites current and aspiring elected officials to s refrain from voting against in such cases. , because it sees the fight against atrocities as a collective responsibility of all Member States. As of February 10, 2022, the Code of Conduct has been signed by 122 Member States, including eight current elected members of the Council and two permanent members (France and the United Kingdom), and two observers.

The current Liechtenstein-led veto initiative was apparently conceived more than two years ago, but was shelved as COVID-19 forced the UN to work remotely. The return to a more normal functioning of the United Nations, combined with the Council’s stalemate on Ukraine, arousing renewed interest in its reform, created the conditions for a relaunch of the initiative.

Proponents of the initiative may also have been emboldened by the Security Council’s referral of the situation in Ukraine to the General Assembly on February 27. For the first time in 40 years, the Council adopted a “United for Peace” resolution, in which it refers to the General Assembly a situation over which its permanent members are deadlocked. This followed Russia’s February 25 veto of a resolution condemning Russian aggression against Ukraine. Since then, the General Assembly has adopted three resolutions directly related to the war in Ukraine. The first, which garnered 141 votes, focused on the Council’s failed resolution condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. The second was on the humanitarian consequences of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, winning 140 votes. A third resolution, backed by 93 member states, suspended Russia’s membership of the UN Human Rights Council.

Since the establishment of the UN, the five permanent members (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and United States) have exercised the right of veto over non-procedural decisions of the Council under Article 27 (3) of the Charter of the United Nations. They did so to varying degrees. The USSR/Russia exercised 119 vetoes, 35 of which related to applications for UN membership in the organization’s early years. The United States took the first of its 82 vetoes on March 17, 1970 (S/9696 and Corr. 1 and 2), by which time the USSR had vetoed 107 draft resolutions. France and the United Kingdom have not vetoed since December 23, 1989 (S/21048), when, together with the United States, they prevented the Security Council from condemning the American invasion. from Panama. The UK first used its veto on October 30, 1956 (S/3710), during the Suez crisis and had cast 29 vetoes before ceasing to use the veto at the end of 1989. France applied first vetoed it on June .. 26, 1946, regarding the Spanish question (S/PV.49), and issued a total of 16 vetoes through the end of 1989. Since the People’s Republic of China took the seat previously occupied by the Republic of China on December 25, 1971, he used the right of veto 16 times.[3]

The use of veto power since 2000 highlights changes in voting patterns among permanent members. China has used its veto more actively – 13 of its 16 vetoes have been issued since 2000 – and in each of those cases it has done so with Russia. Along with Russia, he vetoed resolutions on Myanmar and Zimbabwe in 2007 and 2008, with the remaining 11 vetoes in that period being on resolutions relating to Syria. Since 2000, Russia has vetoed 27 draft resolutions, 16 on Syria and three on Ukraine. He also vetoed resolutions on the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Srebrenica, Georgia, on sanctions against Yemen, Venezuela, climate and security. The US is the only P3 member (France, UK and US) that has continued to use its veto power – 14 times since 2000, with all but two resolutions relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He vetoed a resolution on Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2002, and his most recent veto was a resolution against terrorism in August 2020.

As these figures and these problems indicate, vetoes affect the Council’s ability to deal with some of the most serious violations of the United Nations Charter and international law. On Syria, the use of the right of veto blocked the Security Council’s condemnation of chemical weapons attacks, closed a chemical weapons investigation mechanism and prevented a referral to the International Criminal Court. On Ukraine, the use of the right of veto has blocked investigations and the establishment of criminal courts, as well as the condemnation of Russian aggression against Ukraine. On “the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question,” the veto prevented condemnation of illegal settlement building and the use of violence against Palestinians.

The 2020 US veto of a draft resolution on the prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration of foreign terrorist fighters and the 2021 Russian veto of a draft resolution on climate and security could portend their new willingness to deploy the veto on thematic issues.

With the abolition of the veto seeming unlikely, as the required amendment to the Charter requires the support of all permanent members, the April 26 General Assembly decision is nevertheless a means of imposing greater accountability on the use of the veto. Some analysts think its impact will be minimal: members already offer public explanations of their votes in the council chamber, and simply having to explain their reasons to the full membership may not have a deterrent effect. Similarly, the mere threat to use a veto can be used to block a Council decision and is not recorded or explained anywhere. But the initiative breaks the ice on a long-stalled reform discussion. At a time when questions have been raised about the Council’s ability to carry out its mandate in accordance with the Charter and when multilateralism is under strain, the recent actions of the General Assembly could be a boost much needed and a reminder of its ability to act in the face of the impasse in the Council.

[1] Article 27(3) of the United Nations Charter states that decisions on all questions except questions of procedure “shall be taken by an affirmative vote of nine members, including the concurring votes of the permanent members”. In the early years of the UN, a norm developed that has held to this day that “concurring votes” included affirmative votes as well as abstentions.

[2] Australia, Bulgaria, Costa Rica, Denmark, Estonia, Ireland, Kenya, Kuwait, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Malta, Mexico, New Zealand, Qatar, Sweden and Turkey.

[3] Veto statistics are from the Dag Hammarskjöld Library. These figures relate to vetoes on draft resolutions and do not include vetoes on amendments and other proposals.

IMAGE: Members of the United Nations Security Council meet at the United Nations on April 19, 2022 in New York, amid discussions on humanitarian corridors in Ukraine. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

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