In Hindsight: The Veto
For two years—until the passage of resolution 2118 on 27 September requiring the verification and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons—the veto blocked Security Council action on Syria, where a brutal civil war has claimed over 100,000 lives and prompted 2.2 million Syrians to flee into neighbouring countries. Joint China-Russia vetoes on three draft Syria resolutions have sparked discussion on and condemnation of the use of the veto, including by other permanent members.
Permanent members use the veto to defend their national interests, or to uphold a tenet of their foreign policy, such as the principle of sovereignty. Sometimes the sponsor(s) of a draft resolution may suspect that it will be vetoed, but put the draft to a vote as a means to symbolically demonstrate support for an issue while publicly outing and recording opposition within the Council. There have also been cases when a draft resolution is vetoed, even though its sponsor(s) believed that it would be adopted.
The veto has been used publicly 271 times since the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) cast the first veto on 16 February 1946 on a draft resolution regarding the withdrawal of foreign troops from Lebanon and Syria (S/PV.23). In total, 226 draft resolutions or parts thereof have been vetoed. The veto was most recently employed on 19 July 2012 by China and Russia on a draft resolution threatening sanctions on Syria (S/2012/538). (See the accompanying Insert on “The Permanent Members and the Use of the Veto: An Abridged History”.)
Certain patterns have emerged over the years. The USSR/Russia (128) and the US (83) have used the veto more often than the other permanent members: the UK (32); France (18); and China (10), nine of which were cast by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) after it replaced the Republic of China (ROC) on 25 October 1971.
There have been 33 cases in which multiple vetoes have been cast during a vote. The USSR/Russia and the PRC have cast joint vetoes six times. Five of these have occurred since 2007: on Myanmar (S/2007/14), Zimbabwe (S/2008/447) and Syria (S/2011/612, S/2012/77 and S/2012/538). France, the UK and the US have concurrently vetoed 13 draft resolutions, all of them during the Cold War, ten of which blocked condemnation of or measures against the apartheid regime in South Africa. In addition, the UK and the US have jointly cast 10 vetoes, also all during the Cold War, while France and the UK have only twice jointly cast vetoes, both during the 1956 Suez crisis (S/3710 and S/3713/Rev.1). France and the USSR cast one joint veto on 26 June 1946 on the question of whether the “Spanish Question” was a substantive or procedural issue (S/PV.49).
In the early years, the veto was used primarily by the USSR. By the time the US cast its first veto on 17 March 1970, 112 draft resolutions or parts thereof had already been vetoed. The USSR was responsible for 108 of these, and in all cases but one, it cast the sole veto. A considerable number of these vetoes (51) were used to block the admission of new member states as the USSR sought to maintain East-West equilibrium in the UN during the Cold War. Other permanent members have been more restrained in using the veto to block admission, with the US doing so six times and the ROC and PRC once each. The application for membership of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was the last to be vetoed, by the US, on 15 November 1976 (S/12226).
The US cast the first of its 83 vetoes on 17 March 1970 (S/9696 and Corr. 1 and 2). Since then it has used the veto far more than any other permanent member, with the USSR/Russia falling to a distant second with 20 vetoes in the same time period. The US has cast 42 sole vetoes to stop condemnation of or measures against Israel or block support for Palestine. In the post-Cold War era, issues related to Israel/Palestine have been one of very few areas in which France, the UK and the US have demonstrated significant voting divergence.
Some other recent trends are worth noting. Neither France nor the UK has publicly used the veto since they last did so on 23 December 1989 (S/21048) in tandem with the US to prevent condemnation of the US invasion of Panama. China, which has historically used the veto the least, has become increasingly active on this front casting seven of its nine vetoes since 1997. These include its five joint vetoes with Russia since 2007, as well as sole vetoes on 10 January 1997 (S/1997/18) and 25 February 1999 (S/1999/201) regarding Guatemala and FYR-Macedonia, respectively, due to the diplomatic recognition accorded to Taiwan by both countries.
In the run up to the 2005 World Summit, the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change called on “the permanent members, in their individual capacities, to pledge themselves to refrain from the use of the veto in cases of genocide and large-scale human rights abuses.” Following up on this recommendation, the Small 5 (S5) advocated for permanent members to “refrain […] from using a veto to block Council action aimed at preventing or ending genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
To date, only France has hinted at this possibility with Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius making informal reference to a possible “code of conduct” to rein in the veto under such dire circumstances. In an op-ed published in The New York Times on 4 October, Fabius proposed that “(i)f the Security Council were required to make a decision with regard to a mass crime, the permanent members would agree to suspend their right to veto…[except]…where the[ir] vital national interests…were at stake.” Although the three China-Russia vetoes on Syria have been described by UK Foreign Secretary William Hague as “inexcusable and indefensible”, and “despicable” by then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, it seems highly unlikely at present that such a commitment will gain traction among any of the permanent members.