The power of veto held by the five permanent members (P5) of the UN Security Council — the US, Russia, China, Britain and France — is one of the most contentious rules of the international organisation. Every now and then proposals are put forward to moderate the use of the veto and prevent a P5 member from abusing its power in the name of “vital national interests”.
Since its inclusion in the 1945 UN Charter, every one of the P5 has used its veto power at one time or another. This has often been to the detriment of the very goals and ideals for which the world body was established to uphold.
Since 1946, the former Soviet Union, and later Russia, has used its veto more than any other country, with 120 vetoes to Moscow’s name. However, since the 1970s, when Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem became a major flashpoint in world politics, the US has made the most egregious use of its veto in the Security Council. With more than twice the number used by Russia, the US has been far and away the country with the highest number of vetoes since 1970.
Israel has been the biggest beneficiary of US vetoes. With an unprecedented 53 vetoes in its favour, no other country in the international community has received as much protection from UN Resolutions as Israel. Such resolutions generally condemn the occupation state’s countless violations of international law and human rights.
The unequivocal support given by the US to Israel has seen it veto resolutions condemning violence against protesters, for example, illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank built since 1967 and even calls for an investigation into the 1990 killing of seven Palestinian workers by a former Israeli soldier. The US has often been the only country to back Israel in defiance of the UN, as happened with Resolution 8139 which called for the withdrawal of former President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. During the 2017 vote, the US was outnumbered 14 to 1 when it vetoed the resolution on the status of Jerusalem.
Critics say that Washington’s blanket support for Israel not only encourages the occupation state to continue its rogue behaviour towards Palestinians, but also undermines international law. They stress that US endorsement of Israeli law breaking over many decades has been so clear and persistent that it has weakened the legitimacy of the so called rules-based international system and further emboldened autocrats and dictators like Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The paralysis within the UN as a result of the veto system has long been a major bone of contention. It is hardly surprising, though, that reforms have not been easy to push through, with the current system privileging the major powers which are the most resistant to change.
When, in 2011, Russia and China cast four vetoes to block international action in Syria after more than 200,000 had been killed since the start of the conflict earlier that year, France called for the adoption of a twenty-year-old proposal to overcome paralysis within the UN Security Council. The French argued for the adoption of a “code of conduct” for the use of the veto in the Security Council in cases involving genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing covered by the “responsibility to protect” principle endorsed at the 2005 World Summit.
Over the past decade, support for a “responsibility not to veto” has grown considerably amongst UN member states and respected international commissions and panels. In particular, 2013 saw increasing momentum on this issue, sparked in part by the inability of the council to respond to the catastrophic humanitarian crisis in Syria. In 2015 Amnesty International joined others in calling for the veto to be scrapped in cases of grave human rights violations. In February this year, the rights group accused Israel of practicing apartheid, which is akin to a crime against humanity under international law, so the reform of veto rules could limit Washington’s ability to back the occupation state in its now traditional manner.While pressure has been building outside the UN Security Council, the reality is that any meaningful reform that would require the P5 to put aside narrow self-interest can only come from the countries themselves. The US gave its biggest endorsement to the principal of “responsibility to protect” during the former administration of President Barack Obama. Russia and China have both argued against reform, calling it a “piecemeal” approach to the wider reform of the Security Council. However, both have participated in meetings about the veto restraint initiative.
After repeated failures to address the humanitarian crisis in Syria, more effort has been put into thinking creatively about how to improve the UN’s ability to address complex political crises. With Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, the idea of making the council’s permanent members cut back on their use of the veto has been revived.
The US announced plans last week to overhaul the rules to prevent a P5 member from abusing its veto. Washington’s UN envoy Linda Thomas-Greenfield said that she had joined other members of the world body to propose a resolution for consideration by the 193 countries in the UN General Assembly to curb overuse of the veto by the fifteen-member Security Council. “This innovation would automatically convene a meeting of the General Assembly after a veto has been cast in the Security Council,” she explained. “The UN General Assembly resolution on the veto will be a significant step toward the accountability, transparency and responsibility of all of the Permanent Members of the Security Council members who wield its power.”
The proposal has been co-sponsored by fifty countries. It provides for members of the General Assembly to meet “within 10 working days of the casting of a veto by one or more permanent members of the Security Council, to hold a debate on the situation as to which the veto was cast.”
Thomas-Greenfield also released a statement outlining details of the overhaul. In it, she stressed that the US “takes seriously its privilege of veto power” and that it is a “sober and solemn responsibility that must be respected by those Permanent Members to whom it has been entrusted.” She made a point of denouncing Russia for its “shameful pattern of abusing its veto privilege.” Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February, the General Assembly has voted to act against Moscow three times and, in each case, Russia has — unsurprisingly — vetoed the resolution.
The UN is expected to debate the proposal today. If passed, it could lead to much-needed reform of the Security Council and the P5 veto power that has paralysed the ability of the international community to protect the world’s most vulnerable people.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.