The day after Russian troops crossed the border to begin their invasion of Ukraine, the United Nations Security Council drafted a resolution condemning the invasion and calling on Russia to withdraw unconditionally. What happened next was predictable enough: Russia vetoed the resolution.
As one of five permanent members of the Security Council, Russia has veto powers over any resolution put to the UN. While the UN Charter charges the Security Council with primary responsibility for international peace and security, any action requires the affirmative vote of the permanent five. A negative vote is, in effect, a veto.
The “veto problem” has plagued the UN since its inception and efforts have been made over the years to reform this. One or another of the permanent five – the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France – has always stymied those efforts in the past. But now, thanks to some imaginative thinking by the UN General Assembly, there is at least some progress in this area.
From now on, the General Assembly will automatically review any use of the veto by any of the permanent five members. Within ten days of casting its veto, the permanent five states is “invited” to justify its use of the veto before the General Assembly.
The problem of the veto has been a bleeding sore for the UN, effectively dashing hopes and expectations of using the United Nations to maintain a truly collective security. While France and the UK have not formally used their veto since 1989, Russia and the US continue to deploy it and China, having only used it once during the Cold War, has used it 13 times since 1990.
Unsurprisingly, there have been numerous proposals to solve the veto problem – most of which got no further than policy exhortations. By contrast, the most recent proposal for a review of veto use – launched in early April – gathered sufficient momentum not only to be debated but to be “adopted by consensus” (reflecting the agreement of the entire General Assembly) in less than a month.
The invasion of Ukraine galvanised UN action to address the veto problem and the spectre of Security Council inertia in the face of pressing crises.
General Assembly resurgent
The UN General Assembly has been innovative when filling the void left by the inaction of the Security Council. Of note here is the 1950 Uniting for Peace procedure, adopted by the General Assembly in response to the Security Council inaction on the Korean crisis. It also aided the birth of UN peacekeeping as the General Assembly recommended action following a double veto by France and the UK in respect of the Suez Crisis.
But it has been used sparingly since 1950 as it is only triggered upon a request of any nine states of the 15 members of the Security Council. It was most recently used in early March to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine and call for the country’s withdrawal.
But the new mandate to review any use of the veto is not dependent on the Security Council. It is automatic – triggered when any permanent five state uses the veto in respect of any situation. So now the tight grip of the Security Council in matters of international peace and security is loosened.
The new mandate means that the Security Council (specifically the permanent five) is accountable to the General Assembly for inaction, not only in the face of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity (the focus of the current initiatives) but any situation that endangers international peace and security. But will it make a difference?
An inconvenient truth?
The adoption of the resolution by consensus was undoubtedly influenced by the fact that since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine there is a palpable desire to both do something and – perhaps as importantly – to be seen to be doing something.
As noted, the resolution is certainly significant – the General Assembly has achieved a coveted victory in its long-running attempt to increase its regulatory powers over the Security Council. Any initiative that diminishes the veto power of the permanent five – a source of contention and dismay from the very beginning of the UN – must be welcomed. It is also not inconceivable that this may lead to further, more substantive, reform.
Yet, the General Assembly’s new mandate is far from a panacea. The fact that the proposal passed without objection may actually highlight its central weakness – that it will not significantly inconvenience the permanent five.
The permanent five veto is employed in an overt fashion when a hand is raised, but it is used more frequently in ways we cannot see. Most resolutions doomed to be vetoed are simply not brought to the Security Council – indeed, the formal casting of a veto is essentially theatrics.
No veto has ever come as a surprise. Those who have brought a resolution to the Security Council knowing it will be vetoed have done so to embarrass one of the permanent five. The General Assembly’s new mandate will not in any way influence the backroom meetings which precede all Security Council debates.
But will this at least serve as a new means by which the permanent five can be “shamed”? It is certainly true that states – even the permanent five – do not welcome being publicly cast as “heartless” or “aggressors”. The permanent five’s persistent reluctance to delegate more oversight power to the General Assembly is evidence of this aversion to public scrutiny.
Yet, we should not exaggerate this. Each time a veto has been cast the permanent five members has issued an explanatory statement. While at times these justifications have strained credulity, each of the permanent five has certainly demonstrated both an ability to publicly defend their vetoes and a willingness to incur the condemnation from others that has often followed.
In short, the permanent five are not easily shamed. The new provision does not give the General Assembly any power to censure the Security Council. So, while this is a step in the right direction, it is a very small step and little meaningful change should be expected in the short to medium term.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.