War in Ukraine prompts closer scrutiny of UN vetoes


UNITED NATIONS >> Two days after the Russian attack on Ukraine began, a majority of members of the UN Security Council voted to demand Moscow’s withdrawal. One thing stood in the way: a veto from Russia itself.

It was the latest in decades of vetoes — on issues ranging from the Korean War to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to climate change — that at least temporarily stalled the council that was designed to be the most powerful component. of ONU.

A series of exchanges followed on the right of veto granted to only five of its 15 members: China, the United States, Russia, France and Great Britain. Everyone has used this power over the years.

Proposals to change the structure of the board or curb vetoes have wavered for more than half a century. But now a new approach – simply submitting vetoed issues for consideration by the full UN membership – seems to be gaining traction.

Led by Liechtenstein, the measure has more than 55 co-sponsors, including the United States. The 193-member General Assembly is due to consider the proposed resolution on Tuesday.

“This is really an important initiative,” said Thomas Weiss, a political science professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center and a senior member of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, who specializes in UN politics. For him, the proposal promotes transparency and challenges the idea that a few powerful countries can block Security Council initiatives without even an explanation.

“This suggests, in an important way, that the veto is not sacrosanct,” he said.

The proposal would not limit vetoes, but they would trigger public debates in the General Assembly. The vetoing country or countries would be asked to say why.

The assembly would not have to take or even consider any action. Either way, the discussion could put the veto holders on the spot and hint at a host of other countries.

It aims to “raise the voice of all of us who do not hold veto power and who do not sit on the Security Council on issues of international peace and security because they concern us all”, said the Ambassador of the Liechtenstein to the UN, Christian Wenaweser.

Since the start of the UN in 1945, World War II allies Britain, France, China, the Soviet Union (succeeded by Russia) and the United States have been the only countries to have permanent seats and a right of veto in the Security Council. The other members are elected for a term of two years.

While the General Assembly had a broad membership and a broad agenda, the council had more power. Its resolutions are legally binding, if sometimes ignored, and can result in military action (i.e. the assembly of peacekeeping forces with troops provided by various countries.)

The vetoes appeared quickly. Frustration too. At the end of 1946, the assembly asked the council “to do everything possible” not to let the vetoes hinder rapid decision-making.

To date, more than 200 different Security Council proposals have been vetoed, including some by multiple countries, according to UN records. Topics were as broad as arms stockpile reports and as specific as the governance of part of the Indian Ocean nation of Comoros.

The Soviet Union/Russia issued by far the most vetoes, followed by the United States. Fewer still were dumped by Britain, China and France.

Countless other ideas never made it to a vote due to an expected veto.

All of this has spawned laments that the sometimes paralysis of the Council undermines its legitimacy and public confidence in the United Nations. And Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has only brought these grievances into sharper focus.

“We are dealing with a state that turns the veto in the UN Security Council into a right to die,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told the council by video on April 5. Stating that the group “simply cannot work effectively”, he called on members to eliminate Russia, reform or “disband and work for peace”.

Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia, in turn, bristled that his country had been thwarted in its efforts to hold a separate council meeting on Ukraine the day before. Current council chairman Britain said it was just a disagreement over timings.

With the Council deadlocked, the General Assembly without veto voted to demand that Russia stop the war, to blame Russia for the ensuing humanitarian crisis, to demand an immediate ceasefire and to suspend Russia from the UN. Rights Council. Russia later said it had pulled out of the rights group ahead of the vote.

Assembly resolutions can function as important statements of world opinion, but are not legally binding.

Liechtenstein originally planned to present its proposal in March 2020, but delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Wenaweser said. He said the standoff in Ukraine had helped build support for the idea.

US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield cited what she called Russia’s “shameful tendency to abuse its veto power” when she announced last week that Washington backed the government’s proposal. Liechtenstein. She called it innovative and a “significant step towards accountability, transparency and accountability” for countries with veto power.

The United States last used it to kill an August 2020 proposal on the prosecution and rehabilitation of those involved in terrorism. Washington objected that the measure did not call for the repatriation of foreign fighters from the extremist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Other countries with veto power did not respond to requests for comment on Liechtenstein’s proposal. Wenaweser said Russia had raised objections, centered on opinions about the proper role of the General Assembly in matters of international peace and security.

Wenaweser said his country is “pragmatic” about the future of the veto, but “we want to help initiate a change in mindset about how the veto is expressed.”


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