‘Veto Restraint’ and the UN Security Council

By Jess Gifkin, Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Politics and Applied Global Ethics, Leeds Beckett University.

Is ‘veto restraint’ possible in the UN Security Council in cases of mass atrocity crimes?

Last week I presented a seminar for the R2P Student Coalition Leeds on the proposal of ‘veto restraint’ for permanent members of the UN Security Council. Similar proposals have been debated in international politics before, but the Council’s deadlock over Syria has reenergised these debates. A resolution in the UN Security Council requires affirmative votes from nine of fifteen members, as long as none of the permanent members vote negatively, which vetoes the resolution. Russia and China have jointly vetoed four resolutions in the Council on Syria so far. Is it right that in 2015 an individual member of the UN Security Council can block action when mass atrocity crimes are occurring, as they are in Syria?

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Photo credits: Benedict Docherty, Georgiana Epure and Jess Reed.

There are different proposals for ‘veto restraint’ currently being debated by states. I focused on two proposals: one put forward by France and one led by a group of UN member states who call themselves Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (ACT). Both of these proposals are firmly within the remit of the ‘responsibility to protect’, or R2P as it is known, and would apply when mass atrocity crimes are occurring – genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The French proposal has two key parts:

  1. Permanent members of the Security Council would agree in advance not to use their veto in cases where mass atrocity crimes are occurring
  2. The existence of mass atrocity crimes would be determined by a) the UN Secretary-General; b) the High Commissioner for Human Rights; or c) 50 members of the UN General Assembly

Similar to the French proposal, the ACT group have created a ‘Code of Conduct’, which currently has support from over 100 UN member states. The Code of Conduct asks all UN member states to agree in advance that they won’t block resolutions when they are in the UN Security Council if: a) mass atrocity crimes occurring; and b) there is a “credible” draft resolution to address such crimes.

After outlining these proposals I presented two broad sets of arguments, first focusing on the positive aspects of the proposals, and then the negative aspects: the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’.

Pros

To legally remove the veto rights in the Security Council would require an amendment of the UN Charter, which sets the bar very high. A formal amendment requires a two-thirds majority in the UN General Assembly and agreement from all five permanent members of the UN Security Council. This means that permanent members effectively have a veto on removing the veto. There are significant barriers to formal reform of the UN Charter. The proposals for informal reform (ie agreed veto restraint) are a pragmatic alternative.

There is broad support from UN members for the veto restraint proposals. This issue currently has momentum, and was recently debated in the UN General Assembly.

There is also a moral argument supporting veto restraint: that mass atrocity crimes are so egregious that different rules should apply.

After presenting these arguments that support the proposals, I took a vote from the audience on the question of “whether veto restraint proposals are a good idea”. Just over half the audience agreed.

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Photo credits: Benedict Docherty, Georgiana Epure and Jess Reed.

Cons

Then I moved to the second set of arguments. While there is widespread support for veto restraint from the UN as a whole, there is not support from the US, Russia or China. The UK and France support the proposals, but they haven’t used their veto since the end of the Cold War anyway. As such there are real problems with implementation of both of the proposals for veto restraint.

Taking Syria as a case study, I argued that even if there was agreement from all permanent members (which there isn’t) the proposals would likely only change the terms of debate, rather than the substantive outcome. As I have previously written, Russia has consistently disputed the Western interpretation of the situation on the ground in Syria. Russia argues that the Syrian government is legitimately targeting terrorist groups and international fighters, rather than committing mass atrocities, so would presumably argue that any veto restraint proposals would not apply to debates on Syria. There is consistent evidence disputing Russia’s interpretation of the situation, for example here and here, but this example shows that even if there were agreement on veto restraint, it may simply change the terms of debate around whether the situation was or was not mass atrocity crimes. This is why the French proposal attempts to formalise this determination and take it away from Security Council members, but the French proposal would currently fall down on the first point anyway (prior agreement from all permanent members).

How might ACT’s Code of Conduct work in the case of Syria? Again, the question of prior agreement would pose a problem. But assuming there was sufficient agreement, and that Council members could agree that mass atrocity crimes were occurring, what about a “credible draft”? The UN Security Council has a range of tools at its disposal and there are legitimate differences of opinion over which tool might work in responding to any given conflict. The Syrian conflict, which has reenergised the debates over veto restraint, also highlights the very real barriers to the veto restraint proposals.

I then asked the audience to vote on “whether veto restraint proposals are feasible and likely to advance R2P”. With this extra context, no one in the audience agreed (although it is hard to be the first to raise your hand!). As we discussed in question time, the barriers to veto restraint highlight how important it is to address escalating conflicts at the domestic and regional level, ideally circumventing the need for the UN Security Council to become involved. A new article by the UN Secretary-General’s Special Advisor on R2P, Jennifer Welsh, stresses the need to improve the preventative aspects of R2P, which is important in light of the barriers to both formal and informal reform of the veto.

Dr Jess Gifkins recently joined Leeds Beckett University from the University of Exeter.  Jess’s research interests are in international organisations, the UN Security Council, decision-making, and the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P). She is a founding member of the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, at the University of Queensland, where she remains affiliated in an honorary capacity. Her article ‘Libya and the State of Intervention’, co-authored with Professor Tim Dunne, is ranked among the ‘most read’ articles in the Australian Journal of International Affairs. Her latest article in Cooperation and Conflict analyses the use of language on R2P within UN Security Council Resolutions and how this has changed over the past decade. She has published research on conflicts in Darfur, Libya and Syria and is also the Associate Editor for the Journal Critical Military Studies.

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Proms, PhDs & Post-conflict reconstruction

Today is my daughter’s school prom, a recent American import (and not one I’m very keen on if I’m honest) to celebrate finishing her exams and compulsory schooling. Aside from parental nostalgia at the passing of time, we are being exercised by the fact that she had mentioned a “pre-prom” party on Facebook, so 30+ of her friends are due to descend on our house for 2 hours in their finery, no doubt in a highly excitable state and wanting feeding and watering. This first world problem was thrown into sharp relief by an article I read this morning in Third World Quarterly (see what I did there?). It was sent to me by a new research student after I suggested we could work through a couple of papers of his choice together, discussing methodological approaches, arguments and writing styles. The subject matter is reintegrating child soldiers, and it argues that initiatives may fail because of an artificial distinction between adults and children, they deny children agency, and furthermore they reintegrate into poverty and marginalisation which are some of the root causes of the problem in the first place. Much of the legal and practical framework for these processes stems from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which this year marks its 25th anniversary. The subject matter and these disparate milestones prompt me to reflect on the nature of the childhood experience globally, and how fortunate most of us are in the ‘West’, that our children grow up largely unaffected by these issues. So here’s to you Ellie – although the bad news is your rights don’t extend to your father not turning up and embarrassing you in front of your friends.