To veto, or not to veto, that is the question
There has recently been a barrage of vociferous condemnations aimed at the United Nations Security Council’s members’ use of the veto power to prevent action being taken to alleviate or avert tragic scenarios around the world.
The United Nations Charter, although imperfect and undoubtedly not fully democratic, captures the essence of responsible inter-state behavior. It was through the UN system that civilized nation-states established crucial global norms. From nuclear disarmament, human rights, the protection of civilians and sustaining peace to the global environment and sustainable development, standards have been set with discernible results.
The United Nations was established in 1945 under the Charter of the United Nations. The membership of the organization currently comprises almost every recognized state in the world. Under Article 24 of the UN Charter, the UN Security Council (UNSC) – the US, UK, France, China and Russia, collectively known as the P5 – is responsible for the maintenance of international peace and security.
This mandate includes the authorization of the use of force for purposes other than self-defense. Although decisions of the Security Council are made by the affirmative vote of nine of the 15 members, the P5 holds the power of veto over any such decision.
The P-5 veto-wielding members of the UNSC are among the only countries with the power to initiate a full-scale nuclear war. Hence, it is important that the P5 be able to stop measures with their veto power to stifle serious international tensions that could potentially lead to nuclear war. The veto power is therefore justifiably wielded by major nuclear powers.
The P5 veto powers encourage the strongest military and economic players to be part of the international economic and legal system, and work inside rather than outside of it
Based on the hypothesis that if all nation-states were to be given equal power and status in the UNSC, it is most likely that the most powerful states in the international system would simply not participate. This scenario is certainly not in the interests of the international community as the participation of the most powerful states is essential to achieving international objectives, particularly those concerning peace and security.
Offering veto powers to the most powerful states helps incentivize the participation of these superpowers, which ensures the longevity of the UN and its objectives. Thus, the P5 veto powers encourage the strongest military and economic players to be part of the international economic and legal system and work inside rather than outside of it.
The most important function of the United Nations, as defined in the UN Charter, is the maintenance of international peace and security. Nevertheless, different states make different contributions towards the maintenance of the international order. Hence, it is appropriate to reward states that make greater contributions to this primary mission of the UN. The veto of the P5 unstintingly does this. The P5 veto rewards their disproportionate contributions to global peace and security.
The UN Charter itself does not explicitly offer sovereign equality as a right in the international legal system. Rather, it seems that the provision of international peace and security and the equality of security is the primary objective. The UNSC veto power is a means of maintaining the greatest level of international peace and security and is arguably consistent with the primary objectives of the UN Charter. The UNSC P5 veto itself fosters an inherent system of check and balances.
When measures are passed at the UN to which even a single member of the P5 objects, the chances that the measure will be implemented are very slim, as that P5 member is most likely able to take unilateral actions by itself to block the implementation of such measures. The UN organization by itself will be powerless to implement its own measures, and its credibility will be severely damaged. As such, the veto system by itself is akin to a safety valve that ensures that no measures are passed that will fail in the face of geopolitical realities.
The world must recognize that the abolition of the veto power, while considered highly desirable in some quarters, is a very unlikely outcome. The P5 member states will not willingly cede their preeminent positions in the international legal system and global politics. As expected, Articles 108 and 109 of the UN Charter grant the P5 veto power over amendments to the UN Charter itself, requiring that the P5 members themselves approve the elimination of their own veto powers.
Practically and theoretically, given the influence wielded by a veto-bearing superpower nation-state, it is very unlikely that any of the P5 members would agree to give up this elite privilege.
In order to prevent the tragedy of mass atrocities such as the Bosnian War, it is imperative that the P5 voluntarily and collectively pledge not to use the veto to prevent action in scenarios such as genocide and other types of crimes against humanity.
The voting provisions of the UNSC are founded in justice and will go a long way to ensure international cooperation in the maintenance of peace as long as there is responsible unanimity among its members, which are among the best-equipped countries to back up decisions with military force.
The veto power is not entirely negative. Its positive aspect is that no action to preserve or restore peace is likely to be successful unless the five powers agree on it unanimously.