"While the use of the veto in this instance certainly constitutes archetypal “realpolitik”, this failure to respond to the escalating crisis in Syria highlights more than Russian and Chinese mendacity"

Aidan Hehir
Date published on SAFPI: 
Wednesday, 15 February, 2012
Date published on source: 
Wednesday, 15 February, 2012
Source organisation: 
Irish Times

Time to end abuse of veto by big powers at UN

Double: The double veto cast by Russia and China blocking the draft UN Security Council resolution on Syria 10 days ago has provoked a chorus of international outrage. UK foreign secretary William Hague decried them as “cold-blooded cynicism”, while US secretary of state Hillary Clinton declared that “To block this resolution is to bear responsibility for the horrors that are occurring on the ground in Syria.”

While the use of the veto in this instance certainly constitutes archetypal “realpolitik”, this failure to respond to the escalating crisis in Syria highlights more than Russian and Chinese mendacity. The fact that Russia and China are responsible for the most recent triumph of national interests over humanitarian need should not obscure the fact that the veto is a profound legal and political corruption at the heart of the UN system, and one that has been routinely exploited by all the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (P5).

The council was primarily designed to prevent, and if necessary halt, interstate war, especially between the major powers. The veto was envisaged as a means to ensure that the sanctioning of force would be severely proscribed and only ever a function of the collective judgment of the council. As the rivalry between East and West accelerated during the cold war, the veto quickly became a political tool and its use, and the threat of its use, rendered the security council largely impotent.

In the post-cold war era, the council has certainly increased its involvement in intrastate crises and sanctioned an unprecedented number of resolutions under its chapter VII powers – those related to the collective use of force – but the council’s record has still been erratic and buffeted by fluctuations in national interests and the relative distribution of power.

Indicatively, in 1994, the security council passed resolution 940 mandating the collective use of force to depose the military junta in Haiti, yet, in the same year the council spectacularly failed to act in a comparably swift and robust manner in response to the genocide in Rwanda. While certain crises have benefited from security council unanimity, many – such as Rwanda, Kosovo and Darfur – have become unwitting victims of the rampant power politics in evidence in New York.

Under articles 24.1 and 24.2 of the charter, the security council is charged with acting on behalf of the member states of the UN and in accordance with the purposes and principles of the charter. This responsibility has rarely interfered, however, with the decisions made by the P5. The problem is compounded by the fact that there is no provision for juridical review of the decisions taken by the security council, and thus committing to “act in conformity with the charter” is highly subjective.

In the post-cold war era, the P5 have creatively interpreted the powers afforded to them under chapter VII and thus significantly broadened their reach. This has meant the council today routinely involves itself in issues considered beyond its jurisdiction 20 years ago, and yet there has been no concomitant strengthening of the means by which the P5’s decisions are regulated. The P5, therefore, has negligible obligations but enormous discretion as to how it responds to situations – including when and where it will use force.

The security council can intervene to prevent or halt mass atrocities, but it has no duty to do so. So long as this discretion is codified in international law, the decision to intervene will be dependent on the political will of the P5 and situations such as the Russian and Chinese veto on Syria should occasion little surprise.

Lost in the recent chorus of outrage is the fact that the use of the veto is not the preserve of the Russians and the Chinese; the idea that Russia and China are uniquely recalcitrant or cynical overlooks the willingness of the three Nato states to actively support known human rights abusers, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to name but three.

Additionally, in the post-cold war era, the US has used the veto more times than the other members of the council combined and often in obviously cynical ways.

In 2002, the US threatened to veto a routine resolution extending the mandate of the peacekeeping force in Bosnia until it secured special concessions for its troops which would put them beyond the reach of the International Criminal Court. The US admitted it was in favour of the extension of the Bosnian mandates but nonetheless bullied the council into submitting to its demands on a largely unrelated issue.

Ten days ago, Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, condemned Russia and China for their “outrageous” behaviour, yet just over a year ago, on February 18th, she vetoed a resolution condemning illegal Israeli settlements. In that instance, the US stood alone against the other four permanent members and all 10 non-permanent members of the security council.

The Russian and Chinese vetoes on Syria certainly constitute evidence of hypocrisy and cynicism, but not just on the part of Moscow and Beijing. While the US, UK and France are currently lamenting the use of the veto, they have shown no interest in scraping or even amending it. The permanent members of the security council have, in fact, collectively and steadfastly refused to countenance any reform of the voting system precisely because, though occasionally inconvenient, the veto imbues each with privileges too great to rescind regardless of the detrimental effect the veto has on the UN’s efficiency or the consequences for innocents caught up in mass atrocities.

Given this constitutional curiosity, we cannot reasonably be surprised that the UN’s response to humanitarian crises has historically been unedifying, even since the end of the cold war.

The Syria vetoes are the latest evidence that the security council is prey to an anachronistic voting system and is desperately in need of profound reform. States evidencing a comparable degree of political interference in domestic law enforcement are rightly described as “failed” and “corrupt”.

The people suffering in Homs, and throughout Syria, are just the most recent in a long list of victims sacrificed to self-interest and cynicism at the security council. So long as the veto remains a sword that can be wielded at will by the great powers, they will not be the last.

  • Dr Aidan Hehir is director of the security and international relations programme at the University of Westminster; a.hehir@wmin.ac.uk

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