You are here: Giancarlo Gini on the (mis)use of the veto

Under the UN Charter, the Security Council (SC) “takes the lead in determining the existence of a threat to peace or act of aggression” and can “authorise the use of force to maintain or restore international peace and security.” In practice this means that the major powers can determine if, when and where the UN would take military action against an aggressor.

But as we have seen there is little real chance of decisive action forceful or otherwise because the practice of using the veto demonstrates that the major powers use it to protect their interests and those of their allies’ rather than to preserve international peace and stability, rekindling arguments amongst critics for reforms.

History of the veto

The level of use of the veto was very high during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Until 1989 the average number of vetoes cast each year was over five, since then, the average annual number is just above one. The heavy use of the veto in the first decade discredited the SC. Furthermore, the threat to use the veto would also have a great impact as it paralysed the action of SC on many occasions. Because of the use or threat of the veto, the SC could have a limited role in certain wars and interventions, particularly in which its permanent members were involved – for example in Iraq (2003) and Georgia (2008).

Russia and the US

Russia (and formerly the Soviet Union) is the country that has used the veto power most. In the first 10 years, the Soviet Union was responsible for 80 vetoes. Molotov, the Commissar and later Minister for Foreign Affairs, was known as Mr Nyet. However, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia has used its veto power only nine times.

The United States started using the power of veto in 1970 and since the end of the Cold War has taken over from Russia as the most frequent user of this right. The US has vetoed 10 resolutions criticising South Africa, eight on Namibia, seven on Nicaragua and five on Vietnam. More recently, the US has used its veto regularly to protect the Israeli Government from international criticism or attempts to restrain the behaviour of its military by vetoing such resolutions just over 40 times.

Two contemporary cases

In October 2011, China and Russia vetoed a draft resolution condemning the suppression of protests in Syria. Russia, an ally of Syria's since the Cold War, argued that an SC resolution on Syria could be used to justify military action against the government there, something it criticised in relation to Libya. The veto exercised by Russia and China paralysed any action of the United Nations concerning the repression in Syria and the systematic violations of human rights by the Syrian authorities. After the vote, France's UN Ambassador Gerard Araud said the veto showed "disdain for the legitimate interests that have been fought for in Syria" since the protests in the country began.

Earlier that year, the United States had vetoed a draft resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Nearly half a million Israelis live in more than 100 settlements built since Israel's 1967 occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. They are held to be illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this. All 14 other members of the SC backed the resolution. The US argued that taking the issue to the UN would only complicate efforts to discuss peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Sometimes even just the threat to veto can often kill a draft resolution. In the run-up to the Iraq war in March 2003, France and Russia indicated that they would not support a new resolution sanctioning war. Thus the US, UK and Spain withdrew their draft and went to war without SC backing.

Another main criticism of the veto system is that the permanent members, in effect the winners of World War Two, do not reflect the geopolitical realities of today. Were the veto to be abolished, the majority view at the SC would prevail and we might expect more resolutions passed, more situations identified as threats to global security and more cases of sanctions being imposed. This assumes that a new, reformed SC would have widely respected powers of enforcement and the financial capital to carry out its will. The current permanent members supply little under half of the UN’s overall budget. None of the existing permanent SC members have indicated that they want to surrender their veto and changes to the UN’S Charter have to be approved by all five permanent members, making any change unlikely in the near future.

Giancarlo Gini is currently volunteering as an Outreach Intern at UNA-UK.