UN Security Council Working Methods

The Veto


Download the PDF of the complete table: The Veto

Also see SCR’s Research Report on the Veto, published on 19 October 2015.

Beyond permanency itself, the veto power is probably the UN Charter’s most significant distinction between permanent and non-permanent members. Article 27 (3) of the Charter establishes that all substantive decisions of the Council must be made with “the concurring votes of the permanent members”. The veto has been addressed regularly during the annual working methods debates and is among the topics most frequently raised in the context of almost all discussions of Council working methods.

Permanent members use the veto to defend their national interests, to uphold a tenet of their foreign policy or, in some cases, to promote a single issue of particular importance to a state. Since 16 February 1946—when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) cast the first veto on a draft resolution regarding the withdrawal of foreign troops from Lebanon and Syria (S/PV.23)—the veto has been recorded 293 times.

In the early years, the USSR cast most of the vetoes, with a considerable number of these used to block the admission of a new member state. Over the years, the USSR/Russia has cast a total of 143 vetoes, or close to half of all vetoes. The US cast the first of its 83 vetoes to date on 17 March 1970 (S/9696 and Corr. 1 and 2). The USSR had by that point cast 107 vetoes. Since 1970, the US has used the veto far more than any other permanent member, most frequently to block decisions that it regards as detrimental to the interests of Israel. The UK has used the veto 32 times, the first such instance taking place on 30 October 1956 (S/3710) during the Suez crisis. France applied the veto for the first time on 26 June 1946 with respect to the Spanish Question (S/PV.49) and has cast a total of 18 vetoes. China has used the veto 16 times, with the first one, on 14 December 1955 (S/3502), cast by the Republic of China (ROC) and the remaining 13 by the People’s Republic of China after it succeeded ROC as a permanent member on 25 October 1971.

Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, new trends in the usage of the veto by the different permanent members have emerged. France and the UK have not cast a veto since 23 December 1989 (S/21048) when, in tandem with the US, they prevented condemnation of the US invasion of Panama. China, which has historically used the veto the least, has become increasingly active on this front and cast 13 of its 16 vetoes since 1997. Russia cast 24 vetoes in this period, whereas the US has resorted to the veto 16 times since the end of the Cold War.

The use of the veto by Russia and China rose considerably since 2011, with the conflict in Syria accounting for the bulk of these. Since 2011, Russia cast 19 vetoes, 14 of which were on Syria. Eight of the nine Chinese vetoes during this period were over Syria and one was on Venezuela. The remaining Russian vetoes since 2011 were against two resolutions related to the conflict in Ukraine, one on the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Srebrenica, one on sanctions against Yemen, and one on Venezuela. (The US cast three vetoes since 2011, all of them on Israel/Palestine issues.)

The veto affects the work of the Council in ways that transcend its actual use during voting. It is not unusual for a draft resolution not to be formally tabled because of the threat of a veto by one or more permanent members. This is difficult to document: a paper trail exists only if a draft is circulated as a Council document, which in most cases occurs only when there is a reasonable expectation of adoption. On some occasions, however, the sponsor of a draft resolution may put it to the vote in the full knowledge that it will be vetoed to demonstrate symbolic support for an issue and to create a historical record of positions within the Council.

In the run-up to the 2005 World Summit (following from the 2000 Millennium 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”. After the Summit, the governments of Costa Rica, Jordan, Liechtenstein, Singapore and Switzerland, collectively nicknamed the Small Five (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”. Similar calls have been voiced by members at large in the open debates on working methods.

The S5 disbanded in 2012 but its agenda, notably its stance on the veto, was taken on in early 2013 by a group of states that emerged as an informal caucus to advocate for improved Security Council working methods. Publicly launched on 2 May that year, Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (ACT) is a cross-regional group of 27 small and medium-sized states aimed at enhancing the effectiveness of the Council through the improvement of its working methods, including putting constraints on the use of the veto. ACT undertook work on 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. It urges the permanent members voluntarily to agree to refrain from using their veto in situations involving mass atrocity crimes, but any member of the Council is invited to accede to the code, as is any other state that may, at some point, become a member of the Council. On 1 January 2020, there were 120 member states supporting the Code of Conduct, including two permanent members of the Council—France and the UK—and eight elected members serving in 2020: Belgium, Dominican Republic, Estonia, Germany, Indonesia, Niger, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Tunisia.

Permanent member France has advocated a voluntary restraint on the veto on the part of the permanent members since the mid-2000s. In September 2014, on the margins of the 69th session of the General Assembly, France, joined by Mexico, organised a ministerial-level event on this issue. Then High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein made a statement in support of the French initiative. In a summary of the event, the co-chairs called on the P5 to “voluntarily and collectively pledge not to use the veto in case of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes on a large scale.” However, from among the permanent members, only the UK has supported the initiative.