The United Nations was established in 1945 by means of the Charter of the United Nations. The membership of the organisation currently comprises almost every recognised state in the world, the notable exceptions being Kiribati, Nauru, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Switzerland. Every member state is represented in the General Assembly where it holds a single vote. This forum holds debates on any matter within the scope of the Charter and passes decisions by a simple majority or exceptionally a two thirds majority of members present and voting. Under article 24 of the Charter, the Security Council has primary responsibility for “the maintenance of international peace and security”. This mandate includes the authorisation of the use of force for purposes other than self-defence. This body includes 5 permanent members or the P5 ; the United States, the United Kingdom, China, France, and Russia. In addition, 10 seats on the Security Council are held by non-permanent member states that are elected for a term of 2 years. Although decisions of the Security Council are made by the affirmative vote of 9 of the 15 members, the P5 hold the power of veto over any such decision. This debate must incorporate two themes of argument, specifically concerning whether the power of veto has been abused, and whether the United Nations has become redundant in terms of international security and thus the veto power is rendered immaterial. The latter theme can form the substance of an entirely new debate and is discussed only briefly below. A common subsidiary argument concerns the practical difficulty of bringing agreement among the P5 to abolish their prerogative power. The proposition must be careful to avoid this arid speculation dominating a thorough examination of some of the most pressing matters of international relations.
The world no longer needs the Security Council veto. The P5 were given this privilege for two reasons that have no application in the post Cold War world. Firstly, the Allied powers, with the addition of China, tried to bind themselves to the UN Security Council, which was designed to prevent events like World War II repeating themselves. Secondly, the P5 held unrivaled strategic might through their possession of nuclear weapon technology or imminent nuclear capacity. However, to examine the status quo, the UN is no longer in danger of collapse. Considering the state of international politics and the symbolic meaning of the UN, the P5 can no longer abandon the UN or the cause of global peace simply because the veto power is taken away.
The global power balance has shifted dramatically since 1945, making the nations’ participation in global cooperation for security more crucial. Nuclear proliferation has accelerated in the past decade, such that inter alia India, Pakistan, North Korea, Egypt, Iraq and Iran are developing inter-continental ballistic capacity, which is incentive for the P5 and other nations to continue to support the Security Council under any circumstances.
A P-5 country typically vetoes a resolution in the United Nations because they or their allies have a strong national or cultural interest in doing so. These interests often contrast sharply with the interests of other countries. And the veto, given the fact that it unilaterally stops things from happening, brings these contrasts to the surface in an often bitter, angering, and antagonizing way. It, therefore, makes a direct connection between antagonism and the differences between countries. This is unhealthy in the international system.
The UN veto system was established, in part, to ensure that the United Nations fits within the broader geopolitical game and that it is tolerated within that game. It, therefore, perpetuates an unfortunate geopolitics of self-interested states instead of assuming a higher, fairer role of global governance with the objective of securing common global interests.
The P-5 veto holding members of the UN SC are unique in that they are the only countries that have nuclear arsenals (not simply a small stock nuclear weapons). They are the only countries with the power to initiate full-scale nuclear war. Therefore, it is important that that they be able to end measures with their veto power to ensure that measures are not realized that could foment serious international tension and possibly nuclear war.
If all states are given equal power in the UN SC, it is possible that the most powerful states in the international system will simply not participate. This is not within the interests of the international community, as the participation of the most powerful states is essential to achieving international objectives, particularly security objectives. Offering veto powers to the most powerful states helps incentivizes the participation of these powerful states, and this ensures the longevity of the UN and its objectives.
The most important function of the United Nations, as defined in the UN Charter, is the maintenance of international security. But, different states make very different contributions to international security. Thus, it is appropriate to reward states that make a greater contribution to this primary mission of the UN. The veto to the P-5 does this.
“If the Security Council is to enforce its collective decisions, U.S. participation is, at present and for the foreseeable future, a sine qua non. If its purpose is to prevent Washington from doing what it has decided is vital to U.S. interests, only a hopeless romantic would claim this is feasible. Although perhaps understandable as a visceral reaction, the idea that the remaining superpower will continue to participate— politically or financially—in an institution whose purpose has become to limit its power has no precedent.”
It is no longer viable to argue that nations agreed to join the UN as an unequal body. As a global constitution, the UN charter must uphold sovereign equality. And, yet, the UN SC veto power violates this principle.
The UN charter does not explicitly offer sovereign equality as a right in the international system. Rather, international security and equality of security is the primary objective. UN SC veto power is a means to maintaining the greatest level of international security, and is thus consistent with the primary objectives of the UN charter.
If the veto was abolished, more measures would make it through the general assembly and security council that reflect the will of the general assembly. More would get done in the world, the UN would better fulfill its mission, and it would subsequently achieve greater credibility in the international system, furthering its ability to get things done.
Morality in the international system is defined in large part by equality. Because the UN SC veto undermines the notion of soveregn equality, it undermines the moral foundation and authority of the UN itself. This damages its credibility in the international system, and thus impairs its long-term functionality.
The United Nations exercises “soft power” better than “hard power”. It gives legitimacy to the actions taken by states, or it takes away from that legitimacy by passing resolutions that, for example, condemn certain actions. This is a highly important function in shaping the international system into a more desirable form. Yet, the veto undermines this function by enabling veto-holders to veto UN resolution that seek to legitimize or de-legitimize actions taken in the international system.
If measures are passed in the UN that even a single of the Great Powers objects to, the chances that the measure will be implemented are very slim, as a Great Power is liable to take unilateral actions to block implementation. The UN will be powerless to carry through its measure, and its credibility will be damaged. Therefore, the veto is something of a safety valve that ensures that no measures are passed that will fail in the face of geopolitical realities.
This makes it still necessary for increased efficiency in the Security Council. Between 1945 and 1990, 240 vetoes were cast. Yet between 1990 and 1999 the power was utilised on only 7 occasions, while more than 20 peacekeeping operations were mandated. This figure exceeds the total number of operations undertaken in the entirety of the preceding 45 years. Therefore, the veto, rather than bringing the feared side effects of slowing up the Security Council, has been used increasingly well. The prodigious use of the veto during the Cold War period might have saved the world from the realisation of nuclear war. Now, increasing nuclear proliferation is a reason for maintaining the unity of the P5 by means of the veto. The current rhetoric concerns ‘rogue states’ gaining possession of nuclear weapons. These are states whose potential deployment of arms is unpredictable and with whom there is limited international dialogue. If the P5 is split on a matter of international security, any one or more of its members could become equally ‘rogue’. Thus, the veto has been effective in uniting the P5 powers in the face of security issues.
In the rare recent circumstances in which the veto power has been utilised, it has been hijacked by ideological demands and petty national interests. China prevented peacekeeping operations proceeding in Guatemala and Macedonia on account of the engagement of those countries with Taiwan. The veto is no longer applied for the maintenance of collective security.
The United States has protected Israel from international condemnation in the UN SC dozens of times. The condemnation has surrounding such things as Israel’s alleged oppression of Palestinians or abuses and international law violations in its war against Hezbollah in Lebanon. There are too many instances in which Israeli abuses and violations of international law were fairly clear. US defenses of Israel in these instances, therefore, constitute a abusive and unprincipled attempt to protect an ally. This all exposes how the UN SC veto opens the door to abuse.
The threat of the use of the veto is as powerful in preventing resolutions being passed as the actual veto itself. Veto-wielding countries often notify promoters of a resolution that they will veto it, subsequently causing those promoters to back down and to never actually bring legislation to the floor of the general assembly.
The problem with General Assembly “Uniting for Peace” resolutions is that they don’t circumvent the reality that the security council is still responsible for the implementation of measures. Therefore, if a “Uniting for Peace” measure was designed to take any action, it would almost certainly fail to be implemented by the security council due to blockage by the vetoing member.
Country admission into the UN and into the Security Council is a sensitive topic for some countries, and can often involve deeply rooted prejudices. But, admission should not be held ransom to these prejudices in the form of the vetoe.
The military might of each of the P5 members individually, and within separate groups, notably the UK and US axis within NATO, is such that the avoidance of disagreement is crucial to international peace. The P5 may occasionally cast the veto for selfish reasons. Yet this cost is outweighed by the maintenance of unity that becomes ever more critical in the post Cold War multipolar world.
“There’s an esoteric maneuver to get around a threatened veto: invoking the obscure U.N. Resolution 377, also known as the “Uniting for Peace” Resolution. In early 1950, the United States pushed through the resolution as a means of circumventing possible Soviet vetoes. The measure states that, in the event that the Security Council cannot maintain international peace, a matter can be taken up by the General Assembly. This procedure has been used 10 times so far, most notably in 1956 to help resolve the Suez Canal crisis. Britain and France, which were occupying parts of the canal at the time, vetoed Security Council resolutions calling for their withdrawal. The United States called for an emergency “Uniting for Peace” session of the General Assembly, which passed a withdrawal resolution. (A simple majority vote is required.) Britain and France pulled out shortly after.” Therefore, it is not really necessary to abolish the veto as sufficient means exist to get around it in the exceptional instances in which the veto contravenes international norms and consensus.