Monday, November 3, 2014

The Veto Power at the United Nations

It is interesting due to the importance of the Security Council to examine its powers, role, and effectiveness in the decision making process to maintain international peace and security. In this regard, we can look at the approach the members take in executing its powers whether in the legal context or otherwise. This will enable us to make our own judgment on how the Security Council formulates and makes its decisions on issues of significance in the advocacy of democracy, promoting human rights and adherent to the rule of law. One of the continuously debated subjects is the use of the Veto Power by the P5 members of the Security Council as provided under Article 27 (3). 

The question often asked, is whether the P5 members in the exercise of the veto acted in a manner consistent with its responsibility and the purposes and principles of the Charter. To begin with, one has to look at the principal document governing the UN and the organs it established, that is the Charter, in order to understand the roles and functions of these organs. Therefor in the same manner to appreciate the veto power, we have to refer to the empowering document. The preamble of the Charter states the vision and mission and the first Chapter spells out the objectives and the guiding purposes of the UN. In this regard, these objectives are stated as follows: 

“ To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace. The suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace”. 

Hence the core and fundamental guiding elements for carrying out such functions can be summarised as follows: firstly, to maintain international peace and security. Secondly, the use means by which that obligation can be performed and this objective is only possible by having the political will to prevent and remove of such threats to peace. Thirdly, is to take necessary action against such acts of aggression or breaches of peace. Fourthly and finally, to utilise peaceful means to resolve conflicts or disputes in accordance with the principles of justice and international law. For the proper and efficient running of the UN, two bodies have been created, namely the General Assembly (GA) and the Security Council. 

This Article describes it is the responsibility of the Security Council to maintain international peace and security and threats to it, which should be carried out consistent with the principles of justice and international law. In order to be true to the intent and purposes of the Charter the member states need to ensure they fulfil their rights and obligations in accordance with the letter and spirit of the Charter. 

Under Article 24, it specifically gives the prime responsibility for the maintenance of peace and security to the fifteen members (including five permanent members) of the Security Council. 

Article 27 stipulates, 
  1. Each member of the Security Council shall have one vote.
  2. Decisions of the Security Council on procedural matters shall be made by an affirmative vote of nine members.
  3. Decisions of the Security Council on all matters shall be made by an affirmative vote of nine members including the concurring votes of the permanent members; provided, that, in decisions under Chapter VI, and under paragraph 3 of Article 52, a party to a dispute shall abstain from voting.
Nothing in this Article mentioned about veto power but the language made it clear other than on procedural matters all votes must include the concurring vote of the P5. The discourse on the subject thus revolves on how the “veto power” so far has been exercised by the P5. This subject is not new as there have been many scholars, political writers diplomats and others have deliberated and written about it from differing perspectives. The writer has chosen to revisit the same subject as the world is witnessing chaos, conflicts, and wars in different regions inter and intra states that affect international peace and security as well as justice and international law with the involvement of the P5 directly or indirectly. Some have suggested that we are returning to the period of cold war not based on ideology but national interests. 

It is normal to see many parties blame this to the inability of the multilateral system to deal with them due to the veto power. According the group who opposed the veto power, it had been exercised in a way that attracts lively debates and controversies because it is not in accordance with democracy and international law. According to Cristina Fernandez, President of Argentina, “ We can’t deal with the problems in this new world with old instruments and old methods.” (August 6, 2013- The Associated Press). In other words, they concluded the formulation and the decision-making of the veto power are not in concordance with the advocacy of democratic practices or is it in compliance with international law as intended by the founding fathers of the UN. Moreover, many are of the views that the geopolitical landscapes of the globe have changed so much since the end of the cold war. Hence, the argument there is a pressing need for an overall reform of the structure and organisation of the UN, especially its most important organ the Security Council. Generally, it can be said that there is consensus of this need but the marked differences lie on what, where and how it should be done as whatever significant changes to be done must also have the acquiescence of the Security Council. Of course, the justifications are legitimate if we were to examine the actual case studies of the exercise of the veto power. We can straight away recognise that the motivation on national interest and political expediency by the P5 of the major powers and its allies will not be the best way to promote democracy, peace, security or even justice and international law. 

There should be a call for a collective political will of the international community to objectively think on the question of ‘power of veto’, which has been solely reserved to the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (Article 27 UN Charter) consisting namely of China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and United States. 

Repeatedly we hear the view that whenever the veto is used, more often than not it is not based on democratic principles or international law or the principle of sovereign equality of nations as provided in the Charter. The stark truth veto and national interests of the P5 are inseparable and seem to override all other justifications. That being the position and every member recognise it is, why then the veto still in the Charter. The immediate answer is the power is entrenched in the Charter and the GA or the Security Council cannot repeal it without getting the consensus of the P5. 

What the veto power does is to grant to all members of the P5 the ability to prevent the adoption of draft resolutions on substantive matters, covering membership, political questions and situations, organizational matters and UN operations, no matter what level of international or popular support the draft has. After the Second World War and through negotiations the major powers agreed amongst themselves that veto is the only inducement to get all of them to agree to the formation of the UN and they are the best parties to prevent the recurrent of another global war. This argument sounds logical and rationale enough at that era. Does it hold water today? 

Looking back, this power was given in order to pursue the goal on the ground with international peace and security can be maintained. Nonetheless, the contrary had happened and caused frustration which stems from the fact that instead of using it for the maintenance of peace and security, or in the name of justice and international law, it serves the individual national interests of the P5 and its allies. This prevents any possible consideration of looking at the real issues confronting the international community objectively based on the principle of justice and international law. The veto lists of the Security Council are glaring with decisions made under the Veto Power that is predicated on national interests considerations inconsistent with international interest on democracy, human rights, and international law provided in the Charter or the Geneva Convention. 

The history of the veto shows it was incorporated in the Charter after the Permanent Members of the Security Council, namely UK, US, USSR and France after a long negotiation at Dumbarton Oaks (August-October 1944) and Yalta (February 1945) decided that they could agree to the formation of the UN only if the veto provision is included. It was made on the ground that it was necessary for all of them to act together on matters pertaining to international peace and security. The other consideration was to protect their sovereign rights and national interest. Truman was bold enough to say that if veto were not incorporated in the Article it would not be possible to get US Senate approval.

The term ‘veto power’, in its ordinary meaning is the act of preventing or overriding a decision made by a person or body that is authorised by law or the procedure under it to exercise such power to prevent abuses or unlawful acts. The phrase “veto power” originates from Latin, would mean, “I forbid”. This power can be traced in the Roman period where it was used by the tribunes to oppose measures of the Senate or magistrates (Etymoonline). In its ordinary usage, the ‘veto power’, would mean a vote to block a decision (Cultural Dictionary). In modern time, it is normally a power given to a President, Prime Minister, or Governor to reject a bill or a law under a written constitution to allow the legislature the right to revise or override the decision of the President, Prime Minister, or Governor. In the case of the U.S, the ‘veto power’ is the power provided under the constitution to the President to prevent Congress from passing laws construed as unconstitutional. 

The inclusion of the “veto power” on the other hand under the UN system stood on the idealism of democracy, human rights and rules of law. The idea behind the “veto power” is to provide check and balance in the exercise of specific power granted to the state actors in the governing organ to perform their functions as the protector of democracy, human rights, justice, and international law. 

The proposition is that the global citizens want to live in a world without conflicts or war. In the event there is such a threat, there is a body tasked with the responsibility and powers to take action to prevent it from happening. 

Going back to the Article, the power given to the fifteen members Council to make a decision without the fear of being vetoed is limited to procedural matters. In this case, if a permanent member voted against a substantive draft resolution or threaten to do so, it could not be adopted (excluding from being absent or abstained from voting). For a resolution to be adopted it requires the affirmative votes of nine members including the P5 before it can be carried for adoption by the Council (Article 27 of the UN Charter). Regardless of what have been said, the “veto power” is in fact perceived to frustrate democracy, human rights violations within the UN system, when it consciously failed to adhere to the principles of international law and jeopardise the attainment of international peace and security.

The significance of this provision is, the Council in reality becomes the sole organ of the UN with the authority to enforce international law. The great majority of the member states would agree that there is a need for the reform of the whole UN system particularly on the membership composition and the veto powers of the P5 of the Council. The biggest challenge is to obtain sufficient consensus of the General Assembly (GA), and if it involves the P5, it needs their agreement for any reform to happen. 

The current controversy is on whether the P5 has in the exercise of their powers acted faithfully and truly to the original spirit and intent of the Charter. Has the UN system been successful in establishing a new norm that placed international interest for examples on breaches of international humanitarian law and genocide affecting world peace and security above that of their national interests? The quick response to both questions is that the P5 has not done so based on their international responsibility and commitment on the issues of democracy, human rights, and international law. These become obvious when we study the veto list as published by the UN. It is more true to say that the exercise of the veto reflects the Pax Imperium of the major powers. On many occasions, the P5 has caused the paralysis of the UN itself in respect of democracy, human rights and rule of law. Some would consider the impotency of the UN is brought about due to the manner the P5 has exercised the veto. An illustration of this situation is in the case of the construction of the wall by Israel and its continued building of new settlements on occupied land contrary to the Article 41 of the Geneva Convention. The ICJ in the construction of the wall decided that it was illegal and should be dismantled. The effect of this case is to stop a permanent member of the Council from exercising its right of veto contrary to international and human rights law. In other words the ICJ had decided to veto the veto. However, this remains in the records of the UN but nothing could be done if there is no unanimity in the Council. 

In reality, the veto power exists in order to prevent the UN from taking any future action against the major founding members. The experience of League of Nations (1919-46) showed that an international organisation like the UN could not succeed if the major powers do not become members. This was demonstrated when the Soviet Union was sacked from the League because of their war with Finland in 1939. In the founding conference of 1944 it was decided that Britain, China, the Soviet Union, the United States and later France, even though it was not a victor.

The contradictions and inconsistencies of the veto power

The core factor in carrying out the responsibility and functions of of the Security Council has been the presence of the veto powers. Throughout the history of UN since its formation in 1945, up to the end of 2009 for example, 215 substantive resolutions had been vetoed. In some of these resolutions, more than one P5 member had vetoed it. During the Cold War period, the use of the Veto Power by United States and Soviet Union was high. The reputation of the Security Council and with it the UN had been tarnished due to what is considered as unreasonable use of the veto. It can also be said that the role and function of the SC became limited or ineffective in the area of maintenance of international peace and security. For examples, these cases outlined are just some of the vetoes that undermined the UN, in Algeria (1954-62); Hungary (1956); Vietnam (1946-75), Iraq (2003), and Georgia (2008). 

The exercise of Veto Power by country will demonstrate how unreasonably the Veto had been used:

Soviet Union/Russia

Base on records the Soviet Union/Russia in the first ten years of the formation of the UN, is the country that used the veto power extensively in the SC (80 times) especially during the Cold War days, such that the Foreign Minister Gromyko has the reputation of being called Mr Nyet. However, upon the dissolution of the Soviet, Russia as the successor had used the veto power sparingly, only 5 times. It is not only the number of times she had used this power but equally significant how and when it is used. 

United States

The data on the US use of the Veto showed it began in 1970 and from then on it has become the frequent user of veto which was premised on its role as the super power as well as its intention to protect its national interest and that of its close allies. This was demonstrated in the cases of South Africa (10 resolutions), Namibia (8 times), Nicaragua (7 times) and, Vietnam (5 times). In the recent years, the veto had been used frequently by the US in order to protect the Israeli governments from international criticisms or to prevent the Israeli military from using excessive or disproportionate force against the Palestinians. The country has vetoed 83 draft resolutions since the establishment of the Security Council, 14 were cast after 1991. From these 14 resolutions, 13 were in respect of blocking resolutions against Israel. According to Robert Hill whilst US is inclined not to frequently use the veto but the exception is on Israel due to political domestic reason, she will always veto. There is no difference on this score between Obama and Bush administration, though Obama had been making very positive speeches during his visits to Muslim countries on Islam and Muslims. In fact, John Negroponte at the UN had made the position of the US vis-à-vis draft resolutions on Israel in the UN crystal clear in July 2002. His statement is popularly referred to as the, “Negroponte Doctrine” which outlined that any draft resolution on Israeli/Palestinian conflict must contain four elements in order not to be vetoed by the US. 

These are: 
  1. Explicitly condemns acts of terrorism. 
  2. Condemn by name the three groups of Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade, the Islamic Jihad, and Hamas that were responsible for suicide attacks. 
  3. Appeal to all parties for a political settlement of the crisis and 4) demand the improvement of the security situation as a condition for any call for withdrawal of Israeli forces to their position in September 2000. 
This made any draft resolution impossible to be adopted with that type of preconditions and contrary to the principles of the UN Charter. 

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom often used the veto power 31 times mostly in concert with the United States and France but on its own 7 times. The first time it used the veto was in 1956 together with France, on a resolution to resolve the Suez Canal crisis. Both withdrew their vetoes after the US instigated for a special session of the GA under the terms “Uniting for Peace” resolution. The UK had also used seven times the veto relating to Rhodesia, which later became Zimbabwe.


France seemed to be quite circumspect in the use of the Veto and the record showed only 17 times. Its first veto was against Egypt in 1956 in the war between Israel and Egypt. In 1976, the unilateral veto was used against Comoros independence because it excluded the Mayotte Island. The most surprising was in 2003 when France wanted to veto an impending invasion of Iraq, which upset the US. France also used the veto to support Morocco’s position in the Western Sahara conflict.

China (ROC/PRC)

The period between 1946 and 1971, the ROC in 1955 used the veto to block Mongolian People’s Republic application for membership on the ground it was part of China. Mongolia was however admitted in 1960 under the Soviet’s pressure. When the PRC replaced ROC in August 1972, it used the veto to block Bangladesh’s admission to the UN. In total China used the veto 7 times, four of which with Russia


From these Veto Lists published by the UN and the analysis thereon it clearly shows the use of the Veto Power has nothing to do with protecting minority interests, international interests, human rights, democracy or rule of law. Simply the national interest and political expediency of its allies are the dominant motivating factors. In order to overcome this shortcoming on 3rd November 1950 the UN adopt GA Resolution 377A under the title of “Uniting for Peace” which gives itself the power to act for the purpose of maintaining international peace and security when the Security Council P5 could not achieve unanimity. The requirement for adoption of this uniting for peace resolution is so difficult because it has to obtain two-thirds majority rendered this power meaningless, as it is highly unlikely that this can be achieved. What is obvious is that the practice of veto by the major powers never seem to be concerned with maintaining international peace and stability or human rights or even to stop genocide being committed or continued to be committed, or international law flouted but more to protect their interests or that of their allies. 

It is true that the UN as a multilateral framework has played a significant role to the maintenance of peace and security globally, which is a plus for the UN. However examining the records of the use of veto power by the P5 demonstrate that the formulation and decision making mechanism of do not reflect current geopolitical reality or the principles upon which the UN was founded. True there have been many proposals for reform including the veto power but the fact remains that these reforms require the concurrence of the P5, hence it could not happen. The argument then is for a new approach to the equation of democracy, human rights, justice and international law under the international system.

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