Efforts regarding reform of the UN Security Council gaining support

| Updated: May 23, 2022 20:26:38

A meeting on progress at the UN Security Council A meeting on progress at the UN Security Council

For quite some time there have been moves to undermine the anachronistic and controversial veto powers that are enjoyed in the United Nations Security Council by its five permanent members-- China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and the United States, all nuclear-weapon States.

The veto power originated from Article 27 of the Charter of the United Nations. It states that (a) each member of the Security Council shall have a vote, (b) decisions of the Security Council on procedural matters shall be made by an affirmative vote of nine members and (c) decisions of the Security Council on all other matters shall be made by an affirmative vote of nine members including the concurring votes of the permanent members; provided that, in decisions under Chapter VI, and under paragraph 3 of Article 52, a party to a dispute shall abstain from voting.

Although the "power of veto" is not mentioned by name in the UN Charter, Article 27 requires concurring votes from the permanent members. Nevertheless, a negative vote from any of the permanent members will block the adoption of a draft resolution. However, a permanent member that abstains or is absent from the vote will not block a resolution from being passed.

With the passage of years, the veto power has become more controversial. Supporters regard it as a promoter of international stability, a check against military interventions, and a critical safeguard against United States' domination. Critics, however, point out that the veto is the most undemocratic element of the United Nations. It is also considered as the main cause of UN inaction pertaining to certain significant developments related to crimes committed against humanity or action that may be classified under international law as war crimes.

The use of the veto has gone through several distinct phases, reflecting the shifting political balance on the Security Council. From 1946 to 1969, a majority of the Security Council was aligned with the United States, which cast no vetoes because it won every vote. To block resolutions from the Western majority, the Soviet Union cast 93 per cent of all the vetoes. France and the United Kingdom occasionally used the veto to protect their colonial interests and the Republic of China used the veto only once. The Western majority eroded after the 1960s as there was expansion of decolonisation and consequent expansion in the membership of the United Nations. The evolving scenario also saw the newly independent countries from the Third World voting quite often against the Western countries, and this resulted in the United States resorting quite often to the use of the veto. From 1970 to 1991, The United States cast 56 per cent of the vetoes, sometimes joined by French and British vetoes. The Soviet Union cast fewer vetoes than any of the Western powers, and the People's Republic of China used the veto only once. It would be fitting in this context to recall that in 1971, the Republic of China was expelled from the United Nations, and the Chinese seat was transferred to the People's Republic of China (PRC). Interestingly, the PRC first used the veto on  August 25, 1972 to block the admission of Bangladesh to the United Nations.

However, after the end of the era known as the Cold War, there was a brief period of harmony in the Security Council. The period from  May 31, 1990 to May 11, 1993 was the longest period in the history of the UN without the use of the veto. The number of resolutions passed each year also increased. Usage of the veto has nevertheless picked up since the early 21st century, most notably because of the Civil War in Syria and the evolving situation related to Palestine and Israel.

Some critics see veto power exclusive to the permanent five as being anachronistic, unjust and counterproductive. Strategic analyst Peter Nadin has observed that "the veto is an anachronism" and needs to be "seen as a disproportionate power and an impediment to credible international action to crises."  In this regard, some have also pointed out that with the adoption of the resolution by the General Assembly known as "Uniting for Peace", and given the interpretations of the Assembly's powers this has become customary international law.  As a result, the Security Council "power of veto" problem can be over passed.

By adopting A/RES/377 A, on November 3, 1950, over two-thirds of UN Member states declared that according to the UN Charter, the permanent members cannot and should not prevent the General Assembly from taking any and all action necessary to restore international peace and security in cases where the Security Council has failed to exercise its "primary responsibility" for maintaining peace. Such an interpretation sees the General Assembly as being awarded "final responsibility" rather than "secondary responsibility" for matters of international peace and security, by the UN Charter. This is viewed by many observers as Uniting for Peace resolution being able to provide a mechanism for the General Assembly to overrule any Security Council veto, thus rendering them little more than delays in UN action, should two-thirds of the Assembly subsequently agree that action is necessary. Stephen Zunes, Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, has in this regard recalled that the General Assembly Resolution 377 enabled the General Assembly to invoke this Resolution on three occasions-- with regard to the Korean War, regarding Namibia, and  regarding the Resolutions concerning Palestine.

 This interesting evolving situation has recently emerged once again towards the end of April. Liechtenstein has initiated the idea of a Resolution at the United Nations that will mandate a meeting of the General Assembly whenever a veto is cast in the Security Council.  The new Resolution proposed before the UN General Assembly (UNGA) is entitled "Standing mandate for a General Assembly debate when a veto is cast in the Security Council". All the 193 Member States are monitoring the situation carefully. The move is likely to be supported by a majority of the States. By the end of April, the Resolution had 57 co-sponsors. US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield has informed that the United States is one of the co-sponsors of the Resolution. It has also been claimed by her that this proposed Resolution will be a significant step toward the accountability, transparency, and responsibility of all of the Permanent Members of the Security Council members who wield its power.

It is understood that the newly proposed Resolution suggests "that the President of the General Assembly shall convene a formal meeting of the Assembly within ten working days of the casting of a veto by one or more permanent members of the Security Council, to hold a debate on the situation as to which the veto was cast, provided that the General Assembly does not meet in an Emergency Special Session on the same situation."

Andreas Bummel, Executive Director of the Berlin-based Democracy without Borders has observed that "We strongly support Liechtenstein's initiative that the General Assembly is to meet automatically each time a veto is cast in the Security Council. This will force the permanent members of the council to justify their vote to the world community. The political cost of misusing the veto will be raised".

Ambassador Christian Wenaweser of Liechtenstein has explained why this effort towards UNSC reform is being undertaken now: "The reason why we're doing it now is two-fold. First of all, we were close to launching this initiative in March of 2020 when we were hit by the lockdown. This is not the type of thing that we can do online. So, we decided that we need support from close sponsors to push this. The lockdown is over while the pandemic is not, so that is one of the reasons why we're doing it now. The other reason is that we sensed that the wider membership of the United Nations is now particularly attuned to this initiative. Now people have a strong sense that the United Nations needs to innovate itself and find different ways of doing business".

Before concluding, one also needs to refer to another existing controversial dimension that remains unresolved. Strategic analysts have drawn attention to this aspect. They have underlined that such a Resolution as proposed by Liechtenstein might not get quick approval. It also needs to be viewed against another issue that has still not been resolved. It has been pointed out that another proposal to reform the Security Council has dragged on for more than two decades, with four strong contenders for permanent seats, namely Germany, India, Japan and Brazil still waiting for a successful resolution.


Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.

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