UN: General Assembly shifts power balance, will debate future vetoes

A view of the flags outside the UN Headquarters on 23 September 2020. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

In a landmark resolution adopted today, the UN General Assembly decided that it will convene for a formal meeting each time one or more permanent members of the Security Council cast a veto “to hold a debate on the situation as to which the veto was cast.”

The resolution was put forward by Liechtenstein together with over 70 cosponsors, among them France, the United States and the United Kingdom, three of the council’s five veto powers. It was adopted without a formal vote. The new arrangement may shift the power balance between the Security Council, its veto-wielding members, and the assembly. 

The Security Council works on behalf of the UN’s membership

In an interview last week, Liechtenstein’s UN ambassador Christian Wenaweser emphasized that “the Charter of the United Nations says clearly that the Security Council does its work on behalf of the membership.” Accordingly, he argued, when a veto is cast by a permanent member, “we would like to hear from them why they vetoed, and why they think it’s in the interest of the organisation, why they think it’s compatible with the principles of the Charter.” 

Ambassador Wenaweser (left) met with Abdulla Shahid, President of the 76th UN General Assembly a day before the vote on the #VetoInitiative. Image: UN Mission of Liechtenstein/Twitter

The ambassador noted that the new procedure is “not about putting anyone on the spot, but about accountability.”

The veto power of the Security Council’s permanent members has come under fire once again following Russia’s veto on 25 February this year which blocked the body from passing a resolution condemning Russia’s attack on Ukraine, a blatant breach of the UN Charter. Subsequently, a statement to this effect was adopted by a special emergency meeting of the General Assembly convened under the “Uniting for Peace” principle.

According to “Uniting for Peace”, the General Assembly assumes a subsidiary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security if the Security Council is blocked by a disagreement between its five permanent members. Automatic meetings under the new procedure will be held “provided that the Assembly does not meet in an emergency special session on the same situation.”

While Liechtenstein’s ambassador stressed that the new procedure is “open-ended with regards to the outcome” and “completely non-prescriptive”, many critics of the veto power hope that it will help shift the power balance in favor of the General Assembly.

The political cost of misusing the veto will be raised

“The veto power in itself undermines the democratic character of the UN. But if a permanent member is party to a conflict and the sole purpose of its veto is to protect it from any UN involvement or even criticism, then there is zero legitimacy and the General Assembly needs to step in”, said Andreas Bummel, Executive Director of Democracy Without Borders. “We certainly hope that the new procedure will help strengthen the General Assembly and lead to a more determined and frequent application of the ‘Uniting for Peace’ principle”, he added.

Talking to IPS, Bummel “strongly welcomed” the initiative and noted that the procedure “will force the permanent members of the council to justify their vote to the world community. The political cost of misusing the veto will be raised. Further the General Assembly routinely will be able to consider its own measures.”

The chair of Democracy Without Borders’ UK chapter and chair of the Executive Committee of the World Federalist Movement, John Vlasto, commented that “it is heartening to see this initiative for review by the entire UN membership when nationalism gets out of hand in the Security Council.”

According to Democracy Without Borders, however, the General Assembly itself suffers of a democratic deficit. “The UN cannot remain an exclusive club of governments. The General Assembly needs to be complemented by a parliamentary body that gives a voice to elected representatives”, Andreas Bummel said.

“Concurring resolutions adoped by both, the General Assembly and a Parliamentary Assembly will have unprecedented legitimacy”, he explained.

As Ben Donaldson reports at Passblue, Liechtenstein diplomats first floated the idea for today’s resolution two and a half years ago, spurred by the inability of the Security Council to act on the Syrian war.

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