The conflicts in Ukraine, Gaza and Syria are symptomatic of deeper problems in the international system. If the Security Council were to fulfil its role under the UN Charter, tackling many of these tragic situations would be much more possible. But, as things stand, the Security Council’s permanent members (the US, UK, France, China and Russia) continue to protect their privilege and use of the veto power to prevent intervention where it is needed.
The general lawlessness in Eastern Ukraine and Russian intervention has not met with a sufficient UN response, especially from the Security Council, due to Russia’s threat of the veto. With UN options limited, Russia’s bold and illegal annexation of Crimea has not been dealt with seriously by the international community. And, the main response following the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 has been bilateral and ad hoc, in the form of sanctions, that do little to strengthen the UN system as a whole.
Recent weeks have seen numerous Palestinian civilians killed in Gaza as a result of disproportionate military action. Israeli civilians also face rockets raining down on them, launched by Hamas – but they are fortunately protected by the Iron Dome defence system. The prospect of the UN or international law constraining these unacceptable attacks on innocent civilians seem dim, not least because of the US veto constraining the Council’s options.
We should also not forget that an estimated 150,000 people have now died in the protracted and brutal Syrian conflict, for which the international community has largely been a bystander. The Council (or more accurately the US and Russia) agreed a programme to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons and, helped by Australia, Jordan and Luxembourg, has also achieved humanitarian aid delivery within certain boundaries agreeable to Assad’s regime.
From the low expectations of diplomats born of experience, this is naturally seen as positive. In the context of the UN’s objectives and the Security Council’s stated role it is unequivocally a failure. It is tragic this scale of civilian death could be allowed to happen today, after the mea culpa and “never again” of the genocide in Rwanda. But the Russian veto and alliance with Syria has been the block to serious action.
The growing regularity of these high-profile situations in which the UN and international law plays little or no role due to the veto is cause for concern. The international community, its decision makers and the public risk becoming normalised to such immense injustice and human suffering.
The original design
In the UN Charter negotiations in 1945, the Security Council’s permanent members, or P5, committed to not use the veto in situations in which they were involved. Over time, however, this has become the constant, if not almost exclusive, reason for the P5 using the veto. The veto was originally agreed as a quid pro quo for these powerful states which had carried the heavy burden in World War II of fighting the Nazis and Japan on behalf of the international community.
As they stated in 1945, the P5 could not be expected “to assume the obligation to act” and especially “in consequence of a decision in which they had not concurred”. Yet, out of almost 100,000 soldiers and police deployed today in UN-led peace forces around the world, only 3.7% of them are provided by the P5, and a measly 0.24% or 239 soldiers and police by the US and Russia. While the P5 pay financially for this common endeavour, their contribution to UN forces is much more treasure than blood.
A great deal of reform effort by other UN members has targeted the veto, including through the much vaunted, but now regrettably rather hollow, “Responsibility to Protect”. The Global South is quite clear (and reasonably so) that this idea is selective and corruptible in the absence of veto reform. This is demonstrated by the contrast between the UN-backed Western intervention and regime change in Libya, with the inaction in Syria and Gaza.
The reform efforts over the past 60 years have regrettably come to naught, as ironically the P5 have a veto over any proposed changes to the veto mechanism. The P5 have also worked well as a team to protect their privilege, despite their disputes in relation to particular country situations.
One break in these dark clouds is the recent French initiative for a voluntary code to restrict the veto’s use. The French have proposed that the P5 “voluntarily regulate their right to veto” by not using it when the Council has to make a decision “with regard to a mass crime”.
It’s the first time there has been any concession on the veto’s use by a P5 member, especially without the support of the others. The French intend to promote the proposal’s discussion at a ministerial meeting in New York in September, and the US and UK positions will be particularly critical to any faint prospect of success. One problem is that anything “voluntary” will likely suggest that the veto’s use, for example in the face of genocide, is inappropriate but at the same time also lawful.
In the context of the UN Charter and current international law, it is almost impossible to understand the veto as an absolute right with no limits whatsoever. The alternative to the status quo is not to eliminate the veto, which could cause significant new problems, but rather to not permit its use in the most egregious situations of civilian suffering. Power cannot be completely decoupled from authority and responsibility.
The prospects for veto reform would be better aided by seeking an advisory legal opinion on the veto’s limits from the International Court of Justice in The Hague. This would require a request from the UN General Assembly supported by the majority of member states. That request, though, would require many small states to run the gauntlet of P5 disapproval, and potentially hurt their bilateral relationship and interests with these powerful states.
The US and UK’s continued commitment to retaining the privileged veto status is killing both people and international law. If the British and American public want the root causes of current international inaction addressed, one place to start is to get their leaders to finally break with the devil’s pact.