The new UN resolution on Security Council vetoes has no teeth

The 76th session of the General Assembly adopted without a vote, a resolution mandating that it meets whenever a veto is cast in the Security Council. Source: UN Web TV

How to reform the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has been discussed and debated for more than four decades, but it has recently regained new traction following the UNSC’s failure to intervene in the war in Ukraine due to a veto cast by Russia.

The veto power of the P5—the five permanent members of the UNSC (China, Russia, France, the United States, and the United Kingdom)—has been a significant source of frustration among UN critics. No resolution will be adopted when one member of the P5 votes against it, even though the other members might have voted in favor. In other words, a P5 member can block any resolution from being passed without worrying about any UNSC proposal it considers to be contrary to its national interests. That is what has blocked the Council’s action in Ukraine as one of the P5, Russia, vetoed a UNSC resolution that would have demanded the immediate cessation and withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine.

Amid growing criticism of the UNSC’s inaction on the war in Ukraine, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) unanimously adopted a resolution in April, requiring the P5 to justify their use of the veto power in the future. According to the text, the General Assembly will automatically meet within ten days after a veto to “hold a debate on the situation as to which the veto was cast.” The adoption of the resolution aims to ensure greater accountability and transparency of the Council while allowing all UN member states to express their views on important issues related to international peace and security. But will it make a difference?

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

Limiting the veto power

According to the data from the Dag Hammarskjöld Library, the veto has been used close to 300 times by the P5 since 1946. As of February 2022, the USSR/Russia has been the most frequent veto user (120 times), followed by the U.S. (eighty-two times). While France and the United Kingdom have not formally used their veto power since 1989, China has continued to deploy it more actively (thirteen times) since 1990.

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,” according to a UN Security Council report.

The new resolution’s impact will be minimal as it neither stops nor limits the P5 from exercising their veto powers. In other words, the great powers could still use their veto powers to achieve their respective political ends regardless of the level of international support they receive from the larger membership of the UNGA.

When a member of the P5 casts a veto, that member will usually publicly clarify its veto rationale in the Council chamber. Providing the same explanation to the larger membership of the UNGA is meaningless and will not act as a deterrent. Each P5 member certainly can publicly defend its use of veto power, even if it is controversial. While the new resolution may enable all UN members to voice their views, it will not inconvenience the P5 when it comes to exercising their veto power.

More symbolic than substantive

Although the UNGA’s new mandate may seem to be a coveted victory in making the UNSC more accountable and transparent, it does not substantively change anything. The use of the veto power by the P5 cannot and will not be regulated by the UNGA at this point because the UNGA resolutions are generally considered non-binding, which makes them different from the UNSC binding resolutions.

While there has been wide international condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Moscow still has Security Council veto power. It can still use that power to serve its national interests and keep itself safe, even if the larger membership of the UNGA may not agree with its action. Even though 141 member states voted overwhelmingly in early March to a  UNGA resolution demanding Russia immediately halt its invasion of Ukraine, the nonbinding resolution was only a symbolic message to the international community and Russia.

An important step, but no panacea

There is no denying that the new provision is an important step forward in strengthening the role of the General Assembly and ensuring greater accountability of the Security Council. However, the provision does not grant the Assembly regulation power over veto use by the P5 on the Council. At this point, the UN’s hands remain tied. While the UN has taken an important step to make the Council more accountable and transparent, it is still far from a panacea.

This article was orginally published by The National Interest. Republished here with kind permission. Copyright remains with the original publisher. 

Teh Zi Yee
Teh Zi Yee is Director of External Affairs for the ASEAN Youth Advocates Network (AYAN) in Malaysia