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Reform Proposals II – The Veto Power

June 26th, 2015

By Michelle McKenna – Senior Fellow

Having addressed proposals for enlarging the size of the Security Council and rearranging its composition, the next logical step is to examine the role of the Permanent Member’s veto and how this can be reformed.

The veto power awarded to the five permanent members of the Security Council is perhaps the most controversial aspect of the entire United Nations. The veto resulted in the Council being nearly entirely inactive during the Cold War due to continued opposition between the United States and the Soviet Union. Even since the end of the Cold War, the veto power, despite being used sparingly, has resulted in the Security Council being accused of being illegitimate as it places all power essentially in the hands of 5 states, some of which are no longer even major players in the international arena. The veto power blocks the Council from being able to take decisive action, as demonstrated by Kosovo and, more recently, Syria. The case of Syria exemplifies the fact that the veto doesn’t even need to be used in order for it to have devastating effects; the mere threat of veto from Russia was enough for a resolution to not even be tabled.

In addition to the problem of the veto being used to block action being taken, there is also the issue of the so-called ‘reverse veto’ where by the veto is used to block the lifting of an existing resolution. This was seen during the first Gulf War when the harsh sanctions against Iraq were unable to be lifted.

These problems have led to calls for the veto to be abolished, but, as discussed already, this would require agreement from the permanent members and unless a drastic change in international affairs was to happen, this is unlikely to ever occur. There is instead the suggestion that the veto be suspended for a period of time whilst reform is completed, but, again, it is difficult to see the permanent members agreeing to this restriction of their power. The permanent members are also unlikely to agree to giving other states a veto in the event of enlarged membership, but on the basis that so many states oppose the veto, increasing its availability would not be desirable anyway.

What has instead been proposed is some form of voluntary restriction on the veto. There are many forms in which this could take. One suggestion is that a double veto could be instituted, whereby 2 permanent members would have to veto a proposal before it would be struck down. An alternative, but similar idea, is the negative veto, where by there would have to be more vetoes than non-vetoes from permanent members in order for the resolution not to pass. It is unclear whether these ideas would require an amendment to the Charter or whether it could just pass into custom through state practice. However, like abolishing the veto power altogether this is unlikely to garner favour with the permanent members, as it would be an unduly restrictive burden on their power.

A more favourable approach towards limiting the veto power came to the forefront from the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty’s 2001 Report into the Responsibility to Protect. This report proposed the idea that the permanent members should refrain from using the veto on matters involving genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing, unless their vital interests are affected. This idea has become known as the Responsibility Not To Veto (RN2V)[1]. This responsible use of the veto would not require an amendment to the Charter as in essence there would be no concrete restriction on the veto, but a formal agreement from the 5 permanent members that they would take this approach would help to improve the credibility of the Council and enable it to take action in the areas where it is most needed, such as Syria. This would also help to bolster the position of the Responsibility to Protect, which is a useful tool in legitimising intervention. This approach is supported by the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (ACT) Group.[2]

Tied into the RN2V idea is the suggestion that the permanent members should use their veto responsibly and explain the reasons behind their veto if they use it. This could either be done before the Council itself, or the General Assembly or, indeed, by a public statement. At present there is no requirement for a state to explain why they have vetoed or would veto and this gives them unlimited power to do as they wish for any minute reason without facing major criticism for it. By requiring them to explain why they have chosen to veto might force states into reconsidering it and use their veto more responsibly. This would be particularly important for when there are calls to remove sanctions and a permanent member continues to block it.

The 2004 High-Level Panel Report also suggested the possibility of introducing ‘indicative voting.’[3] Under this proposal, the Security Council would hold a non-binding vote to gather public opinion on the outcome. A second vote would then be taken which would become binding. The idea behind this is that the Council, and more particularly the permanent members, would take into account the view of leaders and civil society when taking the binding decision and this would approve their accountability in comparison to the often secretive voting that currently occurs. This would be a welcome addition to the decision-making process of the Council as it would make the Council more transparent and if the members took into account public opinion following the first vote then its legitimacy would be heightened considerably.

If the permanent members were to accept some of these restrictions on the use of the veto then it could be envisaged that the consensus could lead to it being completely abolished in the future, which is what the Uniting for Consensus group hopes to see happen. While this is unlikely to happen anytime soon, some form of restriction on the veto is necessary in order for the Security Council to keep its legitimacy and credibility and not face a backlash from the international community for its continued inaction.

The final article looking at concrete proposals for reform will examine the working methods of the Security Council and its relationship with the International Court of Justice.

[1] Citizens for Global Solutions, The Responsibility Not to Veto: A Way Froward (2010), available at http://responsibilitytoprotect.org/Responsibility_not_to_Veto_White_Paper_Final_7_14__2_.pdf

[2] See Center for UN Reform Education for more information on ACT http://www.centerforunreform.org/?q=node/498

[3] A More Secure World, paragraph 257

About Michelle McKenna

Michelle is a Senior Fellow at the HSC. Her research interests include military interventions in the Middle East and Africa, international development and the plight of small island states against climate change. She completed her final year thesis on the Responsibility to Protect in the context of the Libya conflict.