UNGA Resolution on Veto Power
UN dribbles self in search of relevance
On April 26, the United Nations General Assembly adopted by consensus, i.e. without voting, a landmark resolution that requires the five permanent members of the UN Security Council to justify the use of the veto power. The resolution, titled ‘Standing mandate for a General Assembly debate when a veto is cast in the Security Council’, was moved by Lichtenstein and was co-sponsored by 82 other countries. The UNGA also decided to automatically meet within 10 days, if the veto is used in the Security Council by one of its five permanent members. Directly targeting the United States, China, Russia, France and the United Kingdom — the only holders of the veto right — the measure would “make them pay a higher political price” when they opt to use their veto to strike down a Security Council resolution. The resolution, which will take immediate effect, accords on, an exceptional basis, precedence to the veto-casting States in the speakers list, of the subsequent General Assembly debate, thereby inviting them to account for the circumstances behind the use of the veto.
The UNSC has 15 members, but only five permanent members of it – the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China and Russia – hold the power to impose a veto on the Council’s resolutions. 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”. While many critics see it as undemocratic and a catalyst for war, proponents see it as a tool for maintaining global stability. Many argue, however, that avoiding US dominance is the way of the world. Although 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, the idea to reform the Security Council, especially the use of veto power, has been floated for years, it regained new traction following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The current Liechtenstein-led 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 – around 82 countries joined Liechtenstein in co-sponsoring the reform included, besides the United States, Japan and Germany, which are hoping to become permanent members in a potentially enlarged Security Council (a rapid rally of support that caused widespread surprise at the UN) – may also have been emboldened by the Security Council’s referral of the situation in Ukraine to the General Assembly on Feb. 27. 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 Feb. 25, 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.
Cause to act
The reason behind this was a growing concern that the Council had found it increasingly difficult to carry out its work in accordance with its mandate under the UN Charter which conferred the primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security on the Council and gave the permanent members the power of veto. Elaborating the idea, Liechtenstein’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Christian Wenaweser, said the text aimed to “promote the role of (the) United Nations, to promote multilateralism and to promote the voice of all of us who are not veto-holders and who are not on the Security Council on matters of international peace and security.”
Noting that all Member States had given the Council the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, and agreed that it acts on their behalf, he underscored that the veto power comes with the responsibility to work to achieve “the purposes and principles of the UN Charter at all times”.
“We are, therefore, of the view that the membership as a whole should be given a voice when the Security Council is unable to act, in accordance with this Assembly’s functions and powers reflected in the Charter, particularly Article 10,” he said.
Article 10 spells out that the Assembly may discuss any questions or matters within the scope of the Charter or the powers and functions of any organs provided for within it, and, except as provided in Article 12, “may make recommendations to the Members of the United Nations or to the Security Council or to both on any such questions or matters.”
What does the resolution do?
The resolution takes immediate effect. The enormous support from member states, sends an unequivocal message – no longer can members of the Security Council evade accountability for abusing their veto power. No longer can they simply hold up their hand and block measures that could have saved lives without expecting any recriminations?
According to Agnes Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International, “The UN Charter states clearly that the Security Council works on behalf of the entire UN membership. Now the membership will get to hold the Security Council to task when it fails in its mandate, as we have seen it do too many times in the past.”
How will it work?
The text of the Resolution calls for the 193 members of the General Assembly to gather in a formal meeting that the President of the General Assembly will convene “within 10 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.”
As the text is non-binding, and nothing prevents a country that has used its veto from declining to explain its actions to the General Assembly, there will be no abolition of veto power, as the required Charter amendment needs the support of all permanent members, the General Assembly’s 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.
Since the resolution is non-binding in nature, it seems that it was all hot air without substance. The veto truth stood naked, but those who moved and supported the motion preferred to wrap it in layers of beautiful words and an inelegant top lace resolution. What the world needs are not exhibition matches but a reversal of the veto provision that would give power to the General Assembly in line with democratic practices where the vote matters; where the minority will have its say while the majority will not suppress that, — it’s the way. To ensure the UN is not misused, resolutions can be carried out or reversed by two-thirds of the Assembly. A case where one country’s vote is greater than the votes of 192 countries combined is unsustainable.
If under the new resolution, the General Assembly meets within 10 workdays to listen to why a veto was used and debates it while being aware it has no power to reverse it, is it to exhibit its impotence or a mere moral challenge? Such exercise in futility is like a dog barking at its owner; what can it do, bite? In any case, even if a dog is to bite, it must have teeth that the General Assembly does not have. Only the death of veto power can transform the United Nations from a rubber stamp assembly to a body reflecting the wishes of most of humanity.
The writer is a member of staff.
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