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Its time to put an end of the Security Council Veto

After the latest UNSC debacle and the wider criticism of its structure and the permanent member's veto rights, it is time to put an end to this charade

October 8


London , United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland - 8 Oct 2016 - Ghassan Matar

Those who argue that the rising power of the international public opinion is the strong argument against the preservation of the veto power are in fact wrong.

As he retreated from Moscow in 1812, huddled in his carriage with his army collapsing around him, Napoleon Bonaparte asked his foreign minister why Europe’s rulers resisted him so fiercely. “It’s your majesty they fear”, the minister told him. “The governments are afraid of universal monarchy”. And they still are. Uncontested power is disliked around the world.

So, it is not surprising that Article 27 of the UN Charter allows the permanent members of the Security Council to quash any non-procedural draft resolution with their negative votes, irrespective of the level of international support and popularity it may have. In his fascinating book “Governing the World” Columbia University historian Mark Mazower has powerfully demonstrated that international institutions have been only as effective as the Great Powers of the age have allowed them to be. So, should we hope that the world be a better place if the Permanent Five are stripped of their veto power? My answer is “no”. The world will not be a better place, it will be more unstable place and while we can legitimately ask the question if the current permanent members of the Security Council are indeed sill the great powers of our age, the question about their veto powers should be treated separately.

In a paradoxical way the debate on the veto power of P5 resembles the discussion on the elimination of the nuclear weapons. Everybody is going to agree that the existence of the nuclear weapons and the status of some countries to be more equal than other in the international system is an awful thing but many will argue that both nuclear weapons and the veto power of the P5 make the world a more governable place.

The analysis of the recent uses of veto power in the UN Security Council will reveal some interesting trends. First, the use of veto has dramatically declined after the end of the Cold War. The Soviet Union was the first one to cast veto in February 1946. And in the days of the Cold war permanent members of the UN Security Council have used their veto right 240 times. In striking contrast in the first post-Cold war decade only nine draft resolutions were vetoed. In the recent years the veto was used more actively and Russia ended up being the one most ready to veto while France and Britain never used their veto right after 1989. But what is more important, the “pocket veto” (the explicit or implicit threat of veto) was an important incentive for finding solutions in the face of some of the most difficult crises the world has been facing. So, we can see that when veto power is exercised, it comes at a high cost for the respective country while at the same time the treat of veto forces cooperation.

Prior to the Nixon administration, the United States had never employed its veto power in the U.N. Security Council. It was first used March 17, 1970 over Southern Rhodesia. The second U.S. veto came two years later, when Washington sought to protect Israel from a resolution condemning Israel for one of its attacks on its neighbors. Since then, the United States has cast its veto a total of 39 times to shield Israel from Security Council draft resolutions that condemned, deplored, denounced, demanded, affirmed, endorsed, called on and urged Israel to obey the world body.

In the post-Cold war period any time when a single member of the Security Council has decided to use its veto unilaterally this was not so much a demonstration of power but a manifestation of defeat when it comes to winning the support of international public opinion. This is true in the 13 cases when the US has unilaterally vetoed resolutions related to Israel and it is true in the case of the latest Russia’s resolutions related to the Ukrainian crisis. In the case of the US, the permanent use of Washington’s veto in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dramatically hurts US’s attempts to present itself as an honest broker in the Middle East conflict. In a similar vein, Moscow’s decision to veto the establishment of the UN tribunal for investigating the crash of the Malaysian airplane in Ukraine made many believe that the military units of the rebels in Donetsk had something to do with the accident. It is symptomatic that even majority of the Russians were in favor of the establishment of the Tribunal, according to the Levada opinion polls.

Those who argue that the rising power of the international public opinion is the strong argument against the preservation of the veto power are in fact wrong. It is exactly the fact that people around the world are better informed and ready to take position on the world crises that makes me believe that the veto option does more good than bad. In the interconnected world in which the most important actors are in fierce competition for the hearts and minds of the global public using UN Security veto could not be an easy decision. Publics could be indifferent in the cases of China using its veto power in order to punish any country that has dared to recognize Taiwan as was the case twice in the last 25 years. But when it comes to major conflicts involving a lot of human tragedy states can veto only at the cost of losing much of their soft power.

SInce 1946, the veto has been used 269 times often to protect the vital interest of the five permanent members but never for the good of the world. As tonight's security council vote concluded I was left wondering the point of having a security council in the first place and whether or not it was time to move to General Assembly vote where the interest of the world would way in on vital issues then just the single hand of a permanent member.

Who has a veto?

There are five permanent members who were the the second world war's principal victors, all of whom are now nuclear-armed states. There are also 10 temporary members at any one time, elected by the general assembly for two-year terms. ... that veto power and the global inequality it represents, is at the heart of the struggle over the council and its future. For a resolution to be passed, nine of the 15 council members must vote for it, but permanent members have a veto.

Seventy years on, hardly anyone claims the security council is representative. There are no African or Latin American states among the permanent members. Nor is India, despite its vast population and increasingly powerful economy. It still produces large numbers of resolutions and manages 16 peacekeeping missions, but on Syria, the most lethal and destabilising conflict in the world today, it is paralysed by disagreement and vetoes. So is it becoming obsolete?

A recent poll poll which asked if the veto powers of the permanent members of the UN sercurity council be abolished showed that 73% of the respondents said yes with the biggest argument being that 

"If everybody is equal before law, then every country is equal before international law. The five permanent members holding the veto power have jointly or severally defied UN General Assembly decisions passed with absolute majority. Thus the veto power has always been, and will be for ever, an undemocratic instrument wielded by the world powers to their own advantage as defined by their respective governments regardless of human rights international law."

Those who argue against abolishing the veto stated that

"the Veto is crucial in society. Without the veto, dictatorship could happen.  At the end of World War two,  the United Nations was creasted to prevent future world wars.  Has there been one since?  NO. no, there hasn't.  In addition to this,  the five countries who gained the power deserved it, and MOST are known to be democratic societies.  If  Syria was in the permanent five, would the world work? It wouldn't. The veto is imperative to ensure no bad, crazy actions occur."

A kind of ‘checks and balances’ of our time, P5’s veto option remains an instrument of last resort in the resistance against uncontested power.

Other stronger arguments for the abolishing of the veto centered around the appearances of reason:

With the Veto powers Intact, we have seen, time and time again, where the Veto powers have been used not as a format to address legitimate threats to National Security or In support of Protection of Lesser Nations, but for the Political Insularity of nations (Russia & China) primarily. Whereas a "Majority Rules" outcome would more equally represent the needs and benefits requried by unrepresented Nations. These 5 Veto Nations hold the fates of too many peoples in their hands to allow for a Veto to undo months, even years of work on existing issues, and to effective react to emergencies, ie; Wars whether domestic, ethnic cleansing, you name them. We also have countries who are so economicaly tied to the two VETO nations previously mentioned, that an Automatic VETO is to expected for them to protect their Major trading partners. It appears to no longer be a "Security Council" but more closely mirrors an "Economic Council".

There are those who argue that we need countries to lead the world. They argue that

" If veto power is abolished, it might lead to disastrous effects on the world, because small countries might make alliances to pass resolutions which would make other countries pay for their development. Important countries have to have a big impact on the UN's decisions. Countries like the United States give about 40% of the UN's funds, therefore their view has to be taken into account more seriously."

The counter argument was that it only benefits selfish countries

"The Security Council failed to act during the Rwandan genocide in 1994 due to the hidden vetoes of France and the US. The Americans were interested in saving money and the French were interested in saving their ally, the genocidal government. 800,000 people died because permanent members considered an earlier UN intervention contrary to their interests"

Others stated it discriminates because those same 5 permanent members; wrote the rules to ensure there will be no discrimination and that give equal rights to all members, however, with the presence of a veto, those rules are effectively diluated or washed away.

Another possible remedy involves reining in the use of the veto.

In recent times, east-west antagonism has brought back paralysis when it comes to major crises. Over the past 10 years, Russia has used its veto on 10 occasions, largely to avoid scrutiny over its actions in Ukraine – or to protect allies, such as the Syrian regime, from UN pressure. China has used its veto six times but never on its own – always in tandem with Russia. The US has issued vetoes three times since 2005, each time to defend Israel from censure. France and others argue an immediate fix would be for permanent members to waive their veto rights in cases of mass atrocities, but Russia is adamant in its opposition.

Some rather interesting quotes from last night's securty council vote.:

Veto power is not a privilege. It's a responsibility - Francois Delattre - France

I can easily see a situation in which there are some problems and then people start saying these are mass atrocities and there should be no veto - Vitaly Churkin - Russia

I think Syria is a stain on the conscience of the security council - Mathew Rycroft - United Kingdom

We need to shape a security council that is truly in tune with the 21st century - Antonio Patriota - Brazil

If a particular body reveals itself to be dysfunctional, then people are going to go elsewhere - Samantha Powers - United States

The consequences are there to see on television screens every day ... It is a slippery slope down which the security council is going - Asoke Kumar Mukerji - India

How to Fix it

We can start by forcing every member of the United Nations to abide by all passed United Nations resolutions. That includes Israel which has repeadtedly ignored every resolution passed by the security council. According to the foreign policy journal, Israel is a rogue state having ignored resolution 57, 89, 93, 100, 101, 106, 111, 119, 171, 228, 237, 242, 248, 250, 251, 252, 256, 259, 262, 265, 267, 270, 271, 279, 280, 285, 298, 313, 316, 317, 332, 337, 347, 425, 427, 446, 450, 452, 465, 467, 468, 469, 471, 476, 478, 484, 487, 497, 501, 509, 515, 517, 518, 520, 521, 573, 592, 605, 607, 608, 611, 636, 641, 672, 673, 681, 694, 726, 799, 904, 1073, 1322, 1402, 1403, 1405, 1435, 1544, 1701 and finally 1860. Whats ironic, is that the United States and its coalition went to war against Iraq for being in violation of UNSCR 1441, 1284, 1205, 1194, 1154, 1137, 1134, 1115, 1060, 1051, 949, 707, 687, 688, 687, 686, 660 and 678. Both resolutions deal with the persecution of people, in some way or another, so unless the United States can muster the courage to face up to Israel and force it to abide by UN resolutions, then there is no point in passing any and there is n o point in having a veto. The reality is that fixing this problem will be difficicult because of the veto itself. The only real path for the world to remedy the situation is to expand the security council and its permanent membership or to give the general assembly the vote. A majority vote in the General assembly would be far more representative of the world but would immensely diluate the powers of the permanent five members. The existing members have mixed feelings. The UK and France say they are in favour of expanding the permanent members; while the US and Russia are more tepid, warning a big council could be less effective. And China who itself is worried about being contained is dead against it. And there are also jealous regional rivals who don't want to see their rival neighbours ascend. But big candidate countries such as Brazil, India, Germany, Japan and South Africa say there is no realistic alternative. Some say the security council can carry on with its current flaws, perhaps making small changes when it comes to the transparency of its decisions. After all, the council still seems to matter to much of the world. But the critics argue that without fundamental reforms, it is doomed as an institution, and then we will all be in trouble. Until a decision is taken, the United States and Russia will continue to abuse the veto while innocent Palestinians suffer due to the U.S. veto and innocent Syrians die due to the Russian vetos. This will go on until the world takes unilateral action and decides enough is enough.

US Policy towards Israel & Palestine can be easily seen through the use of the veto.

  1. Sept. 10, 1972—Condemned Israel’s attacks against Southern Lebanon and Syria; vote: 13 to 1, with 1 abstention
  2. July 26, 1973—Affirmed the rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination, statehood and equal protections; vote: 13 to 1, with China absent.
  3. Dec. 8, 1975—Condemned Israel’s air strikes and attacks in Southern Lebanon and its murder of innocent civilians; vote: 13 to 1, with 1 abstention.
  4. Jan. 26, 1976—Called for self-determination of Palestinian people; vote: 9 to 1, with 3 abstentions.
  5. March 25, 1976—Deplored Israel’s altering of the status of Jerusalem, which is recognized as an international city, by most world nations and the United Nation’s; vote: 14 to 1.
  6. June 29, 1976—Affirmed the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people; vote: 10 to 1, with 4 abstentions.
  7. April 30, 1980—Endorsed self-determination for the Palestinian people; vote: 10 to 1, with 4 abstentions.
  8. Jan. 20, 1982—Demanded Israel’s withdrawal from the Golan Heights; vote: 9 to 1, with 4 abstentions.
  9. April 2, 1982—Condemned Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and its refusal to abide by the Geneva Convention protocols of civilized nations; vote: 14 to 1.
  10. April 20, 1982—Condemned an Israeli soldier who shot 11 Muslim worshippers on the Temple Mount of the Haram al-Sharaf near the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem; vote: 14 to 1.
  11. June 8, 1982—Urged sanctions against Israel if it did not withdraw from its invasion of Lebanon; vote: 14 to 1.
  12. June 26, 1982—Urged sanctions against Israel if it did not withdraw from its invasion of Beirut, Lebanon; vote: 14 to 1.
  13. Aug. 6, 1982—Urged cut-off of economic aid to Israel if it refused to withdraw from its occupation of Lebanon; vote: 11 to 1, with 3 abstentions.
  14. Aug. 2, 1983—Condemned continued Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine territories of West Bank and Gaza Strip, denouncing them as an obstacle to peace; vote: 13 to 1, with 1 abstention.
  15. Sept. 6, 1984—Deplored Israel’s brutal massacre of Arabs in Lebanon and urged its withdrawal; vote: 14 to 1.
  16. March 12, 1985—Condemned Israeli brutality in Southern Lebanon and denounced Israel’s “Iron Fist” policy of repression; vote: 11 to 1, with 3 abstentions.
  17. Sept. 13, 1985—Denounced Israel’s violation of human rights in the occupied territories; vote: 10 to 1, with 4 abstentions.
  18. Jan. 17, 1986—Deplored Israel’s violence in Southern Lebanon; vote: 11 to 1, with 3 abstentions.
  19. Jan. 30, 1986—Deplored Israel’s activities in occupied Arab East Jerusalem which threaten the sanctity of Muslim holy sites; vote: 13 to 1, with 1 abstention.
  20. Feb. 6, 1986—Condemned Israel’s hijacking of a Libyan passenger airplane on Feb. 4; vote: 10 to 1, with 1 abstention.
  21. Jan. 18, 1988—Deplored Israeli attacks against Lebanon and its measures and practices against the civilian population of Lebanon; vote: 13 to 1, with Britain abstaining.
  22. Feb. 1, 1988—Called on Israel to abandon its policies against the Palestinian uprising that violate the rights of occupied Palestinians, abide by the Fourth Geneva Convention and formalize a leading role for the United Nations in future peace negotiations; vote: 14 to 1.
  23. April 15, 1988—Urged Israel to accept back deported Palestinians, condemned Israel’s shooting of civilians, called on Israel to uphold the Fourth Geneva Convention and called for a peace settlement under U.N. auspices; vote: 14 to 1.
  24. May 10, 1988—Condemned Israel’s May 2 incursion into Lebanon; vote: 14 to 1.
  25. Dec. 14, 1988—Deplored Israel’s Dec. 9 commando raids on Lebanon; vote: 14 to 1.
  26. Feb. 17, 1989—Deplored Israel’s repression of the Palestinian uprising and called on Israel to respect the human rights of the Palestinians; vote: 14 to 1.
  27. June 9, 1989—Deplored Israel’s violation of the human rights of the Palestinians; vote: 14 to 1.
  28. Nov. 7, 1989—Demanded Israel return property confiscated from Palestinians during a tax protest and allow a fact-finding mission to observe Israel’s crackdown on the Palestinian uprising; vote: 14 to 1.
  29. May 31, 1990—Called for a fact-finding mission on abuses against Palestinians in Israeli-occupied lands; vote: 14 to 1.
  30. May 17, 1995—Declared invalid Israel’s expropriation of land in East Jerusalem and in violation of Security Council resolutions and the Fourth Geneva convention; vote: 14 to 1.
  31. March 7, 1997—Called on Israel to refrain from settlement activity and all other actions in the occupied territories; vote:14 to 1.
  32. March 21, 1997—Demanded Israel cease construction of the settlement Har Homa (called Jabal Abu Ghneim by the Palestinians) in East Jerusalem and cease all other settlement activity in the occupied territories; vote: 13 to 1, with one abstention.
  33. March 26, 2001—Called for the deployment of a U.N. observer force in the West Bank and Gaza; vote: 9 to 1, with 4 abstentions.
  34. Dec. 14, 2001—Condemned all acts of terror, the use of excessive force and destruction of properties and encouraged establishment of a monitoring apparatus; vote: 12-1, with 2 abstentions.
  35. Dec. 19, 2002—Expressed deep concern over Israel’s killing of U.N. employees and Israel’s destruction of the U.N. World Food Program warehouse in Beit Lahiya and demanded that Israel refrain from the excessive and disproportionate use of force in the occupied territories; vote: 12 to 1, with 2 abstentions.
  36. Sept. 16, 2003—Reaffirmed the illegality of deportation of any Palestinian and expressed concern about the possible deportation of Yasser Arafat; vote: 11 to 1, with 3 abstentions.
  37. Oct. 14, 2003—Raised concerns about Israel’s building of a securiy fence through the occupied West Bank; vote 10 to 1, with 4 abstentions.
  38. March 25, 2004—Condemned Israel for killing Palestinian spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in a missile attack in Gaza; vote: 11 to 1, with 3 abstentions.
  39. Oct. 5, 2004—Condemned Israel’s military incursion in Gaza, causing many civilian deaths and extensive damage to property; vote: 11 to 1, with 3 abstentions.

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