On April 4, a suspected chemical attack in the rebel-held town of Khan Skeikhoun, in Syria’s Idlib province, led to hundreds of casualties and the death of 87 people. Eight days later, a draft resolution was introduced at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), which would have condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria and called for the Syrian Government to cooperate with an investigation into the incident. Despite 10 of the Council’s 15 members supporting the resolution, and a further three abstaining from voting, the initiative failed. The Russian Federation (along with Bolivia) had rejected the proposal, and in doing so, had invoked its veto.
Many of the problems of the Security Council can be traced to its formation in the wake of World War Two. The “victors” of the conflict – the United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, Nationalist China and France – wished to shape the landscape of the post-WWII world. The veto was positioned as an effective tool in accomplishing this. With the specter of Cold War friction already rising, the veto would require the members of the Security Council to act in concert. If all agreed, then an action could be taken, and if they did not, the action would be blocked. These “Great Powers”, which formed the Security Council’s Permanent Members – the P5 – wanted the veto. As outlined in Ruth B. Russell’s A History of the United Nations Charter: The Role of the United States, the world was left with a choice between an “organization with great power privilege” and “no organization at all.” Unsurprisingly, the P5 have often wielded the veto in support of their interests, rather than as a tool for the maintenance of international peace and security. Given that this is the case, it is little wonder that the P5 are reluctant to reduce, reform or renounce their use of the veto.
The veto power as it is constituted currently does not reflect the world in which we live, and is arguably the main obstruction to the efficient and legitimate functioning of the Security Council. Three members of the P5 are from the ‘West’, while Russia straddles both Europe and Asia. There are no permanent representatives from South America, Africa or the Middle East. Asia has one veto. This is despite Africa having 54 member nations at the UN and accounting for three quarters of UN Security Council business, and Asia containing 60 per cent of the world’s population. The rise of countries such as Brazil, Nigeria, Japan and India, has made the concept of Great Powers increasingly defunct, and the reality is that upheaval in the economic world order will solidify this further. Yet, the P5 rail against giving up the power of their veto, a ploy to maintain diplomatic supremacy in an era when militarily imposing their will is increasingly difficult.
This geopolitical power play often comes at a grave human cost. Since the beginning of civil war in Syria in 2011, Russia has exercised its veto eight times in order to block actions condemning its ally, the Assad regime. China has issued six vetoes on the same issue. Russia’s backing of the Syrian government has allowed Assad to pursue his war with impunity. Deaths as a result of the conflict are estimated at more than 400,000, with nearly 10 million people displaced or having fled the country. With Security Council pressure brought to bear on the Assad regime, it is difficult to envision the war having lasted this long. Diplomatic action within the Security Council to bring about an end to the conflict represents a far more attractive proposition than the proxy war currently being waged.
To pin the blame for human misery squarely on the shoulders of Russia and China would be wrong. Another prominent issue affected by the veto is the Israel/Palestine dispute. The U.S. has exercised its veto nearly 30 times on the issue, most recently in 2011. It has been particularly damaging in regards to efforts aimed at condemning Israel’s construction of illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. An estimated 500,000 settlers now live on land won during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, in effect, making the Israeli occupation permanent. The more settlers on Palestinian land, the harder a peace deal under the “two-state solution” becomes. This prolonged conflict has cost at least 15,000 lives since 1948, created a Palestinian refugee population estimated at 4.7 million, and has become a lightning rod for racial and sectarian violence in the region and across the world. It is reasonable to assume that pressure from the Security Council would have stopped or hindered these efforts, but for the American veto providing cover.
On May 8 and 9, the General Assembly will convene for the fourth plenary intergovernmental negotiations (IGN) on UN Security Council reform at UN headquarters in New York. While all issues on the table are unlikely to be resolved in the near future, negotiations on the veto will be the most intractable. All members of the P5 have signalled their intention to block any proposed changes to the veto power.
So what can be done? Ideally the veto would be abolished, and the Security Council would function as a democratic body in exercising its responsibilities. This is incredibly unlikely. The answer, then, is to provide options that the P5 may agree to, without completely forgoing their right to a veto. Initially, the Security Council should be expanded to better reflect the geographic distribution of states and address the current imbalances on the Council. This would entail a Council membership in the mid-20s, with additional seats allocated to Africa, Asia, South America and Central Europe. Most blocs involved in Security Council reform believe this should include a number of additional permanent seats, although it could be argued this would serve to create additional congestion in the Council. Entire papers could, and have been, written on this topic, but a wider geographical representation is broadly accepted, and necessary for the Council’s legitimacy.
Next, a code of conduct for the use of the veto should be proposed, and adhered to by all those who wield the veto power. This is not a new suggestion. In 2013, France and Mexico founded a joint initiative aimed at ‘restraining the use of the veto’ in the case of mass atrocity violations. In 2014, France launched a ‘Political Declaration’ to this end aimed at the P5, but open to all member states to sign. As of March 2017, it had been signed by 93 member nations. The Accountability, Coherence and Transparency Group of 27 countries put forward its Code of Conduct in 2015, which calls on all members of the UNSC not to vote against a credible resolution regarding war crimes, genocide or crimes against humanity. The Code of Conduct currently has 110 signatories. The support for these initiatives demonstrates the momentum behind veto reform, even having drawn the support of France and the UK.
Finally, a proposal by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) to change the working methods of the Council should be instituted. CARICOM has suggested that in the case of an overwhelming majority in the Security Council, a veto override may apply. CARICOM has yet to flesh the proposal out further. My recommendation would be this: An 85 per cent majority or greater is sufficient to trigger an override. For the current makeup of the Security Council, it would require 13 votes, or in a 26 member Security Council, 23 votes. This remains a high bar to clear, but would have, for example, allowed for the passage of the April 4 resolution on the use of chemical weapons in Syria. This represents a compromise position between abolition and maintenance of the veto. Passing resolutions would still be difficult, but would require P5 members to convince at least some members on the Council of the merits of their positions. In future, the override could present a gateway for further reform or abolition.
However it may be accomplished, it is clear that the veto power should be subject to change. As it currently stands, the veto is an impediment to peace and security, a millstone on the neck of what should be the peak body in addressing international conflict. The momentum for reform must be maintained, the pressure on the P5 intensified. If it is not, the people of Idlib and Hebron, or the next hotspot subject to the interests of the P5, will continue to suffer.
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