Written by: Mysha Farah (General Member, DUMUNA)
From the very beginning, the UN security council has been considered as a deeply flawed institution for promoting peace and collective security, thus creating a huge controversy about their role and how they operate within the United Nations. The Council has a distinctive authority under international law. The decisions of the security council stand unchallenged to a great extent by the World Court or the General Assembly. Its resolutions (unlike those of the GA) are unalterable on UN member states and despite not being always obeyed, the council tries to define what is acceptable conduct (and what is not) in the international arena.
What is Veto ?
Veto power is the most distinctive feature of the security council, a crystal clear line of power division between the permanent and non-permanent members. Article 27 (3) of the Charter establishes that all substantive decisions of the Council must be made with “the concurring votes of the permanent members”. Permanent members use the veto to defend their national interests, to uphold a tenet of their foreign policy, or, in some cases, to promote a single issue of particular importance to a state. Since 16 February 1946—when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) cast the first veto on a draft resolution regarding the withdrawal of foreign troops from Lebanon and Syria (S/PV.23)—, the veto has been recorded 293 times.
The Security Council was never a democratic institution. Chapter 5 of the UN Charter set up a Council dominated by the five Great Powers that were the victors in World War II–the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France, and China. In 1945, when the Charter was written, most of today’s countries were still colonies; UN membership at the beginning was just 51 vs. its present total of 184.
The five Permanent Members sit continuously on the Council and they wield a veto, which allows them to block action on all substantive issues, including the appointment of the Secretary-General and revisions of the Charter. In January 1966, after a Charter revision, the Council grew from eleven to fifteen members. There are now ten non-permanent members, elected from the Assembly for non-renewable two-year terms.
Sadly while everyone agrees with the fact that the Security Council reflects the world of 1945 and not the 21st century’s distribution of power, no one has a solution that satisfies the various factions.
Proposals for additional members include total numbers ranging from 19 to 25 (rather than the current 15), with variations of increased numbers of two-year elected members, the addition of new four-year renewable members, and the creation of four to six additional permanent members, with and without a veto. The most frequently mentioned possible candidates for permanent membership – the so-called Gang of Four consisting of Germany, Japan, India, and Brazil – are resisted by at least some of the P5, and regional rivals are actively hostile or passively aggressive about various candidates.
Debates about the role of Veto :
Many high ranking diplomats, several high-ranking diplomats, as well as scholars and NGO Representatives, discussed in a conference in May 1994 about how the Council must become more democratic, consistent, accountable, and open, and that it must function less as a geopolitical instrument of a few major powers. They also raised serious questions about the current Council’s capacity to be a credible or legitimate source of international peace and international law.
The veto affects the work of the Council in ways that transcend its actual use during voting. There are two things related to Veto one should keep in mind – firstly, the veto was agreed upon in San Francisco in 1945 because it was really important to ensure US and USSR (United of Soviet Socialist Republics) participation in the world organization as they were considered ‘Superpowers’ who supposed to have a greater say than most other member states in decisions about international peace and security. Because the UN wanted to avoid the disastrous failed result of the previous universal intergovernmental organization a.k.a the League of Nations as Washington never joined the League of Nations, and Moscow withdrew.
Secondly, the logic of the veto is a variation on the Hippocratic Oath: UN decisions should not harm let alone make matters worse. The idea of going to war against a major power, even for a land-grab or abuse of power, makes little sense if the result is World War III. Only if the danger were grave enough would a worldwide conflagration perhaps be justifiable; but Crimea does not qualify, nor did Iraq.
Basically, the veto means that the world organization is as ineffective in Syria and Crimea as it was in Iraq in 2003. As the UN’s constitution requires the P5 to agree or at least not object, this resulted in the UN’s failure in stopping Saddam Hussein ( according to proponents for the Iraq War) On the other hand, those who were against the war said that the UN was a complete failure in stopping Washington and London. As we can see, sadly both sides were correct.
Also, there’s this fact: The veto has been little used in the post-Cold War period, but use alone is not a measure of its importance. According to the account of knowledgeable delegates like Amb. Nabil Elaraby of Egypt, Permanent Members frequently threaten to use the veto in closed-door consultations, as a means to get their way. This practice is called a “closet veto.”
The future of the Veto power and the probable solutions to the controversies related to it :
Vetoes (whether threatened or used) are a block to action, as UN performance in former Yugoslavia and other recent crises have clearly shown. A single veto-wielding power can stop international response dead in its tracks and frustrate the will of the overwhelming majority of the international community. This blockage, which has frustrated UN action on key questions since its founding, must be progressively eased, insist reformers. New veto-wielding permanent members would only increase the likelihood of blockage and still further paralyze the organization.
Most reformers admit that at present their chances of doing away with the veto or with permanent membership are slim since the Permanent Members would block the necessary changes in the Charter. So reformers have proposed incremental strategies, including a slow but steady assault on the veto, seeking to restrict its use through procedural changes, which do not require Charter revision. Austria, among others, has called for this type of restrictions and Olara Otunnu, President of the International Peace Academy, has said that the burden of proof in the future should be on permanent members to justify veto use.
The prestigious Commission on Global Governance, of which Otunnu was a member, has proposed veto restrictions in its recent report. One proposal being discussed would require two concurrent vetoes. Another would restrict circumstances in which vetoes are cast (e.g. to cases of international aggression under Chapter VII). Yet another would develop a kind of weighted vote to replace vetoes altogether.
Permanent Security Council membership and the veto seem outdated and in need of change due to many controversies but we also should remember that they are here because every proposed change raises as many problems as it solves. The crises in Crimea and Syria and the ongoing troubles in the Middle East indicate why Russia and the US Senate will not set aside veto and agree to any such change. The reform won’t be easy due to the opposite of the permanent members although they favor adding Japan and Germany plus one or two non-permanent members. Although there are no quick or easy victories despite the adversities, reform advocates are convinced that the possibilities of a more democratic and peaceful global future depend very much on the outcome of the reform movement of the security council and the veto process.
1. Veto analysis. (2020). Retrieved 19 September 2020, from https://www.globalpolicy.org/security-council/security-council-reform/41128-veto-analysis.html
2. The Veto: Problems and Prospects. (2020). Retrieved 19 September 2020, from https://www.e-ir.info/2014/03/27/the-veto-problems-and-prospects/
3. The Veto : UN Security Council Working Methods : Security Council Report. (2020). Retrieved 19 September 2020, from https://www.securitycouncilreport.org/un-security-council-working-methods/the-veto.php