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Security Council vetoes make it impotent

Apr 13, 2023 | News, Ukraine, Opinion, Editorials, World, Featured, Politics

The UN Security Council

Marco Levytsky
Editorial Writer

Last week we commented on the absurdity of having a country led by an accused war criminal chair the United Nations Security Council. Absurd as it is, that is not the real problem. The Presidency of the Security Council is rotated monthly between the 15 member states – five permanent ones and 10 non-permanent ones, which are elected for two-year terms by the UN General Assembly. The role of the President involves calling the meetings of the Security Council, approving the provisional agenda (proposed by the secretary-general), presiding at its meetings, deciding questions relating to policy and overseeing any crisis. That could be a serious issue if the Security Council itself was effective. But it is not and this is due to the veto power each of the five permanent members – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States – possess. That gives them the right to single-handily prevent a majority of the Security Council from taking any action to maintain peace – which is supposed to be its primary function. Instead the five permanent members have historically used their veto to “promote their political self interest or geopolitical interest above the interest of protecting civilians,” as Amnesty International put it. And that is the real problem.

Frankly, the veto is an anachronism. It dates back to the political situation during the Second World War itself. The proposal for a UN, including its structure and the composition of the Security Council was discussed by delegations from the Allied “Big Four”, the Soviet Union, the UK, the US and the (Nationalist) Republic of China, which was replaced in 1971 by the (Communist) People’s Republic of China. Upon British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s request, France was added to this elite group. They decided to make themselves permanent members of the Security Council and grant each other a veto. Initially, the Soviet delegation argued that each nation should have an absolute veto that could block matters from even being discussed, while the British argued that nations should not be able to veto resolutions on disputes to which they were a party. Eventually a compromise was reached by which each of the “Big Five” could veto any action by the council, but not procedural resolutions, meaning that the permanent members could not prevent debate on a resolution.

As of May 2022, the Russian Federation and its predecessor, the USSR have used their veto 121 times, the US 82 times, the UK 29 times, China 17 times, and France 16 times. Since 1946 the UN was only able to mount any military action to counter aggression twice and both times this was due to unique circumstances.

In 1950, when North Korea invaded the South, China was still represented by the Republic of China which had been driven off the mainland by the Communists a year earlier and relegated to the island of Taiwan. In protest over the exclusion of the PRC, the Soviet government decided to boycott the Security Council and was thus not present to veto the resolution. Twenty-one countries of the United Nations eventually contributed to the UN force, with the United States providing around 90% of the military personnel. Next in order were Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. The war ended in a stalemate and although an armistice was enacted in 1953, no peace treaty was signed leaving both Koreas in a technical state of war to this day.

The only other military action (aside from peacekeeping) was taken in 1960 when the newly independent Congo descended into chaos and disorder, prompting its former colonial power to invade under the pretext of restoring order and protecting Belgian nationals. In response to the Congolese government's appeal for assistance, the Security Council passed a resolution calling upon Belgium to withdraw its troops and authorizing the Secretary-General to provide the Congolese government with military assistance. The UN troops were drawn mostly from African and Asian states plus Ireland, and Sweden.

Sometimes even the threat of a veto (also known as a “hidden” or “pocket” veto) can prevent intervention in a conflict. In 1994, the United States and France both threatened vetoes regarding the Rwandan civil which prevented the UN from undertaking an effective intervention to prevent the resulting genocide, while in 1998–99 Russia and China threatened vetoes to prevent UN intervention against the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, and again in 2004 to prevent intervention in the Darfur genocide.

Since Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014, it has vetoed every resolution brought before the Security Council regarding this conflict including the illegal annexation of Crimea, the launch of the full-scale invasion in February 2022, and the illegal annexation of four Ukrainian oblasts in September of last year.

After the atrocities committed in Bucha came to light Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy blasted the Security Council noting that if it can’t act decisively then it should simply dissolve itself. “We are dealing with a state that is turning the veto of the United Nations Security Council into the right to die,” he noted. And an international group of lawyers and diplomate last month launched a worldwide petition urging that Russia be kicked out of the U.N. entirely. “If we let Russia's aggression stand, if Russia gains what it is seeking to gain out of its aggression against Ukraine, really the entire framework that we set up in 1945 is at risk,” Thomas Grant, professor at the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law and a member of Civic Hub, the organization seeking to eject Russia, told ABC News.

This is the right solution but it is also wishful thinking. What we have here is a Catch 22. Russia’s veto prevents the Security Council from taking any action to curb Moscow’s rapacious aggression. But it also prevents the UN from kicking Russia out. And this reflects upon the United Nations itself. While agencies such as UNESCO and UNICEF have done some very good work as far as humanitarian issue are concerned, the UN has failed miserably in its principal function which has been to prevent war. And unless the Security Council is given the means to act decisively when needed, it will remain nothing more than a glorified debating club.

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