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Veto power in Security Council back on the agenda after Russia’s UN vote

Security Council votes on draft resolution on Ukraine, 25 February 2022. Image: UN Photo/Mark Garten

Following a veto cast by Russia in a vote of the UN Security Council on 25 February 2022 on a resolution condemning Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, the legitimacy and justification of the veto power of the five permanent members of the council, in short P5, is back on the agenda.

According to Column Lynch, a writer at Foreign Policy journal, there is “rising resentment over veto power held by the UN’s five permanent members, particularly Russia, but also the United States and China, which have frequently used their veto power to block initiatives with broad international support.”

Discussion of the veto in the General Assembly

In a speech at an emergency special session of the UN General Assembly on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine convened from 28 February to 2 March 2022 under the “Uniting for Peace” principle, Canadian foreign minister Bob Rae said that Russia’s use of the veto in this case “and many other occasions” was “illegitimate.”

The “Uniting for Peace” formula was originally adopted in 1950 and says that if the Security Council fails to take action due to a veto of a P5, the General Assembly has a subsidiary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. 

Liechtenstein’s UN representative Christian Wenaweser pointed out that Russia’s veto was “in obvious contravention” to Article 27(3) of the UN Charter, which prohibits parties to a dispute from voting on resolutions under Chapter VI that affect them. Legal experts note, however, that over decades this provision “has been obligatory in theory but voluntary in practice.” Furthermore, it does not apply to resolutions under Chapter VII that mandate binding enforcement measures.

Rising resentment over veto power

At an informal meeting of the General Assembly on Security Council reform on 7 March 2022, Japan’s UN ambassador Ishikane Kimihiro said that due to the use of the veto, the Security Council “at times” had failed to fulfill its responsibility to maintain international peace and security. “We have seen these failures are seriously undermining the legitimacy of this important body on multiple occasions”, he added, summarizing the view of the G4 group consisting of India, Brazil, Germany and Japan each of whom aspires to get a permanent seat on the council. 

Speaking on behalf the “Uniting for Consensus” group —including Italy, Argentina, Pakistan, South Korea, Turkey and others— Italy’s UN representative Maurizio Massari stated that the veto power was paralyzing the Security Council’s decision-making capabilities. “There are no doubts: the veto is in contradiction with the principles of democracy, efficiency and sovereign equality among states. It has been conceived in a specific historical context and today no longer has a plausible justification,” he said. The group advocates an abolishment of the veto power and opposes the creation of new permanent seats. 

General Assembly to convene after each veto?

A resolution adopted by the General Assembly’s special session on 2 March 2022 demands from the Russian Federation to immediately end its invasion of Ukraine and unconditionally withdraw all its military forces, effectively overriding Russia’s veto in the Security Council. The document was adopted by a two-thirds majority of 141 member states, with 5 against and 35 abstentions.

The UN General Assembly overwhelmingly adopted a resolution demanding that Russia immediately end its military operations in Ukraine. Image: UN Photo/Loey Felipe

A proposal to have the General Assembly routinely play a stronger role in containing and reviewing the veto is now receiving renewed attention. Foreign Policy reports that Liechtenstein is leading an effort by a group of small and midsize countries—including Costa Rica, Estonia, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Qatar, and Sweden—to push for a General Assembly resolution that would automatically require the assembly to convene after a P5 casts a veto in the Security Council. The rationale behind the proposal is that if a veto automatically triggers a special session of the General Assembly, the threshold for doing so is raised. 

Civil society representatives, among others, expressed support for this idea. 

“The Liechtenstein proposal should be widely embraced and implemented. It increases the political cost of veto-use while providing a useful route for the General Assembly to step into the breach,” said Ben Donaldson on behalf of the United Nations Association-UK.

The Liechtenstein proposal should be widely embraced and implemented

“We commend those member states who are seeking to make full use of the provisions of the UN Charter for the maintenance of peace and security”, commented Daniel Perell, co-chair of the Coalition for the UN We Need and UN representative of the Baha’i International Community. 

According to former Ecuadorian foreign minister María Fernanda Espinosa who was president of the 73rd UN General Assembly and now serves as the other co-chair of the coalition, “initiatives that increase the UN Security Council’s transparency, and its accountability to the General Assembly are to be encouraged. This initiative is long overdue, and one hopes that now is the moment when it can receive sufficient support among member states.”

“When the P5 members deploy a veto to prevent early interventions in crisis situations, they transform it into a global insecurity council”, said Tim Murithi of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town. “This is all the more the case when they themselves are party to a conflict. If a veto is misused in such a situation, the General Assembly should deal with the matter”, he added.

Argentinian lawmaker Fernando Iglesias noted that the veto power in the Security Council is “an old phantom of a past world.” According to the co-president of the World Federalist Movement, “it should be abolished and in the meantime it has to be limited. The General Assembly’s role in this is decisive for achieving peace in the world”, he said.

“At this time we do not endorse any particular model for Security Council reform,” said Andreas Bummel, executive director of Democracy Without Borders. “But one thing is clear: granting individual countries a veto right is no longer tenable,” he noted. With a view of the vetoes cast in the Security Council to block UN action on mass atrocities in Syria, among others, the group’s co-founder previously called for a resolute application of the “Uniting for Peace” principle.

In an article published at IPS this week, the former permanent representative of Bangladesh to the UN, Anwarul K. Chowdhury, stated that the veto power of the P5 in the Security Council is “the chief culprit in the failure of unified global action by the UN”. In his opinion, “the veto power is not the cornerstone of the United Nations but in reality, its tombstone.”

Dmitri Makarov, a human rights defender in Russia and co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group raised fundamental questions: “Do we still need the Security Council the way it has been created? Or do we need something entirely different?”