The Security Council is a UN body charged with maintaining international peace and stability. As a result of its important mission, it has been given powers that other UN bodies don’t have, such as being able to pass legally binding resolutions. According to Article 12 of the UN Charter, the General Assembly can’t even make recommendations about an issue that the Security Council is deliberating on without its permission.
However, there has been a lot of controversy about how it operates. The Security Council consists of 15 members, five of which are permanent. These five are the victors of the second world war: the UK, the US, China, the Soviet Union (now Russia), and France. As well as having a permanent seat, they have the additional privilege of being able to exercise a veto. This means that any of these five states can unilaterally block any resolution, even if all other members support it.
This has significantly impacted the UNSC’s ability to function in the past. During the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union rarely agreed on international security issues. Each world power was able to use its veto to block resolutions, rendering the UNSC ineffective in a context full of crises and threats to international peace. The Security Council is now more effective. After the Cold War ended, it authorised more peace-keeping missions in a decade than it had in the previous 40 years. However, this wasn’t due to reforms but to a change in the global order. If there was ever another Cold War between any of the five permanent members, the Council would be completely blocked again.
Furthermore, even now, there are key conflicts that the UNSC can’t intervene in because of the veto. For example, the US has used its veto to block action on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict 43 times, including resolutions calling for Israel to respect Muslim places of worship and abide by the Geneva Conventions in its military occupation of Palestinian territory. Meanwhile, Amnesty International has accused Russia and China of abusing their veto power during the Syrian war. This includes preventing the UNSC from holding the Syrian government accountable for illegal chemical attacks. Clearly, the veto is still being used by world powers to protect allies who have committed crimes against humanity.
However, it could be argued that the veto is still useful. Some of its proponents have argued that without it, the UNSC risked becoming irrelevant. Although not all of the permanent members remain world powers, it is clear that at least three of them are (the US, Russia, and China). If they did not have the power to block UNSC resolutions that went against their interests, it is possible that these world powers would switch to other methods of conflict resolution, which would inevitably undermine the Security Council. This argument has been raised by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and implied by the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. As a result of their positions, both of them should have a good idea of how their countries might react if the veto was abolished.
Arguably, the presence of a veto can also provide an incentive for world powers to operate without Security Council approval. A good example of this is the US and UK invasion of Iraq in 2003. There are two legal ways of using force according to the UN Charter; self-defence and collective enforcement, which require UN approval. Unable to use self-defence as an argument, the US and UK attempted to get the Security Council to pass a resolution authorising a war in Iraq. Unfortunately, France was strongly opposed and indicated that it would use its veto if necessary. Instead of waiting for their resolution to be voted down, the US and UK proceeded to invade Iraq without UN approval, leading to an illegal war that lasted nearly a decade. Whether a veto is or isn’t in place, world powers will always be tempted to undermine the Security Council when their interests are threatened.
Finally, it could be argued that the use of the veto itself threatens to weaken the power of the UNSC. GA Resolution 377, also known as the Uniting for Peace resolution, was passed during the permanent deadlock of the Cold War. It states that if the Security Council can’t act because of a veto, the General Assembly has the right to immediately consider the matter. This gives it the power to decide on issues that it wouldn’t normally have the power to. This is particularly the case as the Uniting for Peace resolution also gives the General Assembly the power to authorise the use of force. As a result, a permanent member could use their veto to block military intervention, only to find that the question goes to the General Assembly, which may have the power to authorise it. In this situation, the veto is essentially irrelevant. Furthermore, the Security Council is weakened as it loses the power to decide on a situation under its authority.
The veto does more harm than good, both to the UN’s overarching mission and to the Security Council’s role in it. The UNSC is meant to maintain international peace and stability, which it can’t do when conflicts involving the five permanent members frequently lead to vetoes. In the short run, this sometimes means that the UN fails to maintain peace and stability. In the long run, this will probably also mean that the Security Council is increasingly not the body entrusted with fulfilling this objective, as the General Assembly gains more powers to take action in its place. The only way of preventing both these things from happening is to abolish the veto.
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