In Hindsight: Security Council Decision-Making and the Veto
In the lead-up to the UN’s 70th anniversary on 24 October, three initiatives addressing one of the more challenging issues facing the organisation—how the Security Council can more effectively prevent and halt mass atrocities—have been garnering considerable attention. These include: a French initiative; the Accountability, Coherence, and Transparency Group (ACT) initiative; and a reform proposal by the Elders.
All three are being discussed in the context of heightened controversy regarding Security Council decision-making. Russian vetoes in July prevented the Council from adopting a resolution that would have commemorated the 20th anniversary of the genocide at Srebrenica and a second one that would have established an international criminal tribunal to prosecute those responsible for the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17. Also in July, New Zealand hosted an informal discussion on Council decision-making, including practices which have developed around the veto and the impact on the Council’s effectiveness. Elected members reportedly expressed concerns about the ways in which the permanent members arrive at outcomes without adequately consulting the elected members.
The veto and the threat of a veto play considerable parts in the growing disappointment with how the Council is managed. Under article 27 (3) of the UN Charter, the “concurring votes of the permanent members” are required to adopt resolutions on substantive matters. However, there is a perception that the privilege of the veto granted to permanent members is at times abused to the detriment of international peace and security.
There have been longstanding concerns about the veto being employed to block Council action in situations of mass atrocities, but four joint China-Russia vetoes since October 2011 on the situation in Syria, a conflict that has now claimed more than 250,000 lives, have added renewed vigour to these concerns. The current initiatives reflect the view that the Council needs to do a better job of preventing and responding to mass atrocities.
On 4 October 2013, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius published an op-ed article in The New York Times advocating that the permanent members refrain from using the veto “if the Security Council were required to make a decision with regard to a mass crime…[except in] cases where the vital interests of a permanent member…were at stake”. Fabius laid out criteria for triggering this veto restraint, stating that the UN Secretary-General would make the determination on the occurrence of mass crime at the request of at least 50 member states.
For the second consecutive year, France co-hosted on 30 September a ministerial-level meeting with Mexico on the veto during high-level week. In preparation for the meeting, France and Mexico presented a “political declaration on suspension of veto powers in cases of mass atrocity”, open to the support of UN member states. The declaration “welcome[s] and support[s] the initiative…to propose a collective and voluntary agreement of the permanent members…in which the permanent members would abstain from using their veto powers in cases of mass atrocities”. France announced at the 30 September event that it had received the support of 70 member states for the declaration.
ACT Code of Conduct
In July, ACT circulated a “code of conduct” that calls on member states to “pledge to support timely and decisive action by the Security Council aimed at preventing or ending the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes”. The text calls on Council members not to vote against draft resolutions that seek to end or prevent such crimes. This means that the pledge is applicable to the UN’s broader membership—not just the permanent members of the Council—as all member states are eligible to run for a seat on the Council and thus to serve as elected members. There is no procedural trigger for the code’s application. The code simply requests the Secretary-General, using the early-warning capacities and expertise of the UN system, to continue to bring to the Council’s attention situations involving, or likely leading to, genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes.
ACT will officially launch its code of conduct at an event on 23 October. In the lead-up to this event, ACT is holding a ministerial-level presentation of its code on 1 October. At press time, 53 member states—including France and the UK, among the permanent members—had committed to the code.
The Elders’ Proposal
On 7 February, the Elders, a diverse and independent group of global leaders working to promote peace and human rights, adopted a statement on strengthening the UN. Among their proposals, the Elders called for the permanent members of the Security Council to pledge “not to use, or threaten to use, their veto in…crises” in which genocide or other mass atrocities are committed or threatened “without explaining, clearly and in public, what alternative course of action they propose, as a credible and efficient way to protect the populations in question”. According to the Elders, the explanation should pertain to concerns about international peace and security and not be based on national interest, which they say represents an abuse of the veto privilege. In cases where the veto is cast by one or more permanent members, the Elders argue that efforts must be made by Council members “not to abandon the search for common ground”.
On 26 September, the Elders co-hosted a high-level panel discussion with the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and the International Peace Institute (IPI) at IPI entitled “Preventing Mass Atrocities: How Can the UN Security Council Do Better?”
There is a divergence of views on the veto-restraint initiatives among the P5. Like France, the UK has expressed support for veto restraint in cases pertaining to atrocity crimes. On 29 July, in a meeting for the UN membership on the ACT code of conduct, the UK stated that it would never use its veto “to block credible Security Council action aimed at stopping mass atrocities and crimes against humanity”. However, Russia has been particularly vocal in its opposition to the notion of veto restraint. In a briefing of the UN press corps on 2 September at the outset of Russia’s Council presidency, Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said that the veto is “a tool which allows the Security Council to produce balanced decisions” and that “sometimes the absence of veto can produce disaster.” China and the US appear to be wary over restraint of their veto prerogative.