In Hindsight: Challenging the Power of the Veto
The veto power conferred by the UN Charter is, after permanency itself, the most significant distinction between permanent and non-permanent members of the Security Council. The UN would not have been founded without the five permanent members having the power of the veto; indeed, the organisation was designed so that all major decisions would require the support, or at least the acquiescence, of the big powers. But from the start, the veto has been a steady source of tension between the permanent members and the wider membership of the UN. Since the end of the Cold War, veto reform has been an element of many initiatives seeking structural reforms of the Council. These initiatives have come from member states that believe that the Council no longer reflects the ways the global order has changed since 1945. Frequently, member states also take up the perceived “abuse” of the veto in discussions of Council working methods, including during the body’s annual working methods debate.
On 26 April, the UN General Assembly adopted by consensus resolution A/RES/76/262, which calls for the General Assembly to meet whenever a veto is cast in the Security Council. The President of the General Assembly will convene a formal meeting to hold a debate on the vetoed subject within ten working days and, on an exceptional basis, the member or members who have cast a veto will be given precedence in the speakers’ list.
The vote was the culmination of an initiative led by Liechtenstein and a core group of countries. Eighty-three members co-sponsored the resolution from every UN regional group, including three permanent members: France, the UK and the US. Although there have been veto initiatives in the past, this is the first time a UN body has taken action to modify the use of the veto.
Such initiatives have a history, though. In the mid-2000s, the deadlock over Syria led member states to search for ways to make veto use more difficult. In August 2015, France, with the support of Mexico, launched the ‘Political Declaration on Suspension of Veto Powers in Cases of Mass Atrocity’. The aim was to have the permanent members—the P5—voluntarily pledge not to use the veto in cases of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes on a large scale. Among the veto-wielding permanent members, so far only France and the UK have supported this initiative. As at April 2022, 103 member states and two UN observers had signed the declaration.
This voluntary initiative to suspend veto powers has been dogged by the lack of definition of atrocity crimes. This may also explain why it hasn’t come to the fore in connection with the current situation in Ukraine, as some members are wary of describing crimes there as “atrocity crimes” until they have been duly verified.
In a similar vein, in July 2015, the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (ACT) group, which consists of 27 small and medium-sized states working to enhance the Council’s effectiveness by strengthening its working methods, developed a code of conduct for member states regarding Security Council action against genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The code is meant to encourage timely and decisive action by the Council to prevent or end the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. As with the later French-Mexican initiative, the code of conduct urges the permanent members to agree to refrain from using their veto in situations involving mass atrocity crimes, and also invites current and aspiring elected members to refrain from casting a negative vote in such cases, as it envisions the fight against atrocities as a collective responsibility of all member states. The code of conduct had been signed by 122 member states by 10 February 2022, including eight current elected Council members, two permanent members (France and the UK), and two observers.
The current Liechtenstein-led veto initiative was apparently conceived more than two years ago but was put aside as COVID-19 compelled the UN to work remotely. The return to more normal UN functioning, combined with Council deadlock over Ukraine sparking renewed interest in its reform, created the conditions for the initiative to be revived.
Backers of this initiative may also have been emboldened by the Security Council’s referral of the situation in Ukraine to the General Assembly on 27 February. For the first time in 40 years, the Council adopted a “Uniting for Peace” resolution, whereby it refers to the General Assembly a situation on which its permanent members are deadlocked. This followed Russia’s veto, on 25 February, of a resolution condemning Russian aggression against Ukraine. Since then, the General Assembly has adopted three resolutions directly related to the war in Ukraine. The first, which garnered 141 votes, expanded on the failed Council resolution condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. The second focused on the humanitarian consequences of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, receiving 140 votes. A third resolution, which had the support of 93 member states, suspended Russia’s membership in the UN Human Rights Council.
Since the UN’s founding, all five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US) have exercised the right to veto non-procedural decisions of the Council under article 27 (3) of the UN Charter. They have done so to varying degrees. The USSR/Russia has cast 119 vetoes, with 35 of these related to applications for UN membership in the organisation’s early years. The US cast the first of its 82 vetoes on a draft resolution on 17 March 1970 (S/9696 and Corr. 1 and 2), at which point the USSR had vetoed 80 draft resolutions. France and the UK have not cast a veto since 23 December 1989 (S/21048) when, in tandem with the US, they prevented the Security Council from condemning the US invasion of Panama. The UK first used its veto on 30 October 1956 (S/3710) during the Suez Crisis and had cast 29 vetoes on draft resolutions before ceasing to use the veto at the end of 1989. France applied its veto for the first time on 26 June 1946 with respect to the Spanish Question (S/PV.49) and cast a total of 18 vetoes on draft resolutions through the end of 1989. Since the People’s Republic of China assumed the seat previously held by the Republic of China on 25 October 1971, it has vetoed 16 draft resolutions.
Veto usage since 2000 highlights changes in voting patterns among the permanent members. China has used its veto more actively—13 of its 16 vetoes have been cast since 2000—and, in each of these cases, has done so with Russia. Together with Russia, it vetoed resolutions on Myanmar and Zimbabwe in 2007 and 2008, with its remaining 11 vetoes in this period being on resolutions related to Syria. Since 2000, Russia has vetoed 27 draft resolutions, 16 on Syria and three on Ukraine. It also vetoed resolutions on the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Srebrenica, Georgia, Yemen sanctions, Venezuela, and climate and security. The US is the only member of the P3 (France, UK and US) that has continued to use its veto—14 times since 2000, with all but two resolutions related to the Israel-Palestine conflict. It vetoed a resolution on Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2002 and its most recent veto was on a counter-terrorism resolution in August 2020.
As these numbers and issues indicate, vetoes affect the Council’s ability to address some of the most serious violations of the UN Charter and international law. On Syria, the use of the veto has blocked the Security Council’s condemnation of chemical weapons attacks, shut down a chemical weapons investigation mechanism and prevented a referral to the ICC. On Ukraine, the use of the veto has blocked investigations and the establishment of criminal tribunals, as well as condemnation of Russian aggression against Ukraine. On “the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”, the veto has prevented condemnation of the building of illegal settlements, and the use of violence against Palestinians.
The 2020 US veto of a draft resolution on the prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration of foreign terrorist fighters and Russia’s 2021 veto of a draft resolution on climate and security may portend their new readiness to deploy the veto on thematic issues.
With veto abolition appearing unlikely, as the required Charter amendment needs the support of all permanent members, the General Assembly’s 26 April decision is nonetheless a way of imposing greater accountability for veto use. Some analysts think its impact will be minimal: members already offer public explanations of their votes in the Council chamber, and simply having to explain their reasons to the larger membership may not act as a deterrent. As well, the mere threat of veto use can serve to block a Council decision and is nowhere recorded or explained. But the initiative breaks the ice on a long-stalled reform discussion. At a time when questions have been raised about the Council’s ability to carry out its mandate according to the Charter and multilateralism is under severe strain, the General Assembly’s recent actions may be a much-needed shot in the arm and a reminder of its capacity to take action in the face of Council gridlock.
 Article 27 (3) of the UN Charter states that decisions on all but procedural matters “shall be made by an affirmative vote of nine members including the concurring votes of the permanent members”. In the early years of the UN, a norm developed that has held to this day whereby “concurring votes” included affirmative votes as well abstentions.
 Australia, Bulgaria, Costa Rica, Denmark, Estonia, Ireland, Kenya, Kuwait, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Malta, Mexico, New Zealand, Qatar, Sweden, and Turkey.
 Veto statistics are from the Dag Hammarskjöld library: https://research.un.org/en/docs/sc/quick. These numbers are for vetoes on draft resolutions and do not include vetoes on amendments and other proposals.