Recent events in Gaza and Ukraine and the ongoing gridlock in Syria have dominated newspapers and airwaves – and debate in the United Nations Security Council. Despite UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon voicing strong condemnation of alleged crimes against humanity in Gaza, the UN has been widely criticised for its inability to ensure global co-operation to protect the world’s most vulnerable populations.
Given the high-profile vetoes of Russia and China on Syria and the repeated vetoes from United States in regard to the Israel-Palestine conflict, renewed debate over United Nations Security Council reform and attempts to curtail the controversial power of veto has ensued.
So, why do some Security Council members have the veto power? And where would the Security Council be without it?
Establishing the veto
The UN Charter, proclaimed at the UN’s establishment in San Francisco in 1945, gives the Security Council primary responsibility for international peace and security. Today, the Security Council comprises five Permanent Members, the “P5” – China, France, the UK, the US and Russia – and ten non-permanent members elected for a two-year term. Australia is currently one of the non-permanent members.
Nine affirmative votes are required for a resolution to pass. However, if one of the P5 casts a negative vote, a draft resolution will not be approved.
The P5’s veto powers proved controversial in San Francisco. An Australian-led revolt against the veto was rejected by the US. Washington argued that a world organisation that hinged on ongoing participation of the great powers must allow them to protect their “vital interests” or fall into irrelevance.
This proved to the case for the UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations, which had no veto provisions in its Covenant. By the time it was most needed, at the onset of the Second World War, none of the most significant world powers (US, USSR, Germany, Japan) were members. Without the veto, the UN Security Council would surely have suffered the same fate.
It is difficult to imagine how the UN would have survived the Cold War were it not for the veto. Facing an anti-Soviet majority in the years immediately after 1945, the USSR is unlikely to have remained committed to a capitalist-dominated UN with international enforcement powers.
Division or consensus?
Although a veto is undoubtedly frustrating to those on the receiving end, the omnipotence of the veto is greatly exaggerated. Agreement in the Security Council is, and always has been, much more common. Even at the height of the Cold War – when the Security Council was divided along ideological lines – the number of vetoes never went beyond 20 in one calendar year.
Although recent media attention on the gridlock in the Security Council in the cases of Syria and Israel/Palestine paint a bleak picture of the divisions, the council has achieved noteworthy consensus.
The veto does mean, however, that in some instances the Security Council can be paralysed, but today it has a much broader agenda than at any other time in its history. As well as the high-profile cases such as Syria, its agenda includes:
- Timely and decision action (including the use of force) to protect populations from atrocities and chronic instability (in the Ivory Coast, Libya, Mali and the Central African Republic);
- Intervention brigades to restore order and protect civilians (in the Democratic Republic of Congo);
- Referring individuals and situations suspected of committing war crimes and/or crimes against humanity to the International Criminal Court (in cases such as Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony and Sudan’s Darfur region);
- Implementing peace agreements (in Lebanon, Liberia and Burundi) and assisting fragile states (Haiti);
- Monitoring truces (in the Middle East, Kashmir and Cyprus); and
- Nuclear and chemical disarmament (in Syria, North Korea and Iran) and counter-terrorism.
The Security Council has found sufficient unity to act on most of these issues. This is remarkable given the breadth of its deliberations has never been so broad nor its agenda so comprehensive.
There are also grounds for thinking that the veto might inhibit the escalation of local or regional crises – one of the purposes for which it was intended. Given the radicalisation of elements of Syria’s opposition, manifested in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), it is at least plausible to argue that tougher one-sided measures against the Assad regime might only have made the situation worse by strengthening the hands of groups even more callous than Assad.
The veto allows Security Council members to set aside those issues on which they cannot agree but to remain engaged on those others – the great majority of cases – where they can.
A Security Council without the veto?
It is useful in situations when we despair over the deliberative processes of the Security Council to think through the alternative: a Security Council with no veto.
International peace and security would not be well served if no veto had existed and Russia was able to influence eight other members to validate the annexation of Crimea; if the US was able to persuade eight other states that no Palestinian state should ever exist; or if nine states agreed that Israel did not have a right to exist.
The Security Council’s lack of action can sometimes be frustrating and devastating. But, on balance, history has taught us that the world order is better served by working through the great powers rather than by alienating them.