SCR’s Research Report on the Veto, 19 October 2015.
Beyond permanency itself, the veto power is probably the most significant distinction between permanent and non-permanent members in the UN Charter. Article 27 (3) of the Charter establishes that to be adopted, all substantive decisions of the Council must be made with “the concurring votes of the permanent members”. The veto is among the topics most frequently raised in the context of working methods discussions (it has been addressed by an increasing number of members speaking at the annual working methods debates).
Permanent members use the veto to defend their national interests, to uphold a tenet of their foreign policy or, in some cases, promote a single issue of particular importance to a state. Since 16 February 1946—when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) cast the first veto on a draft resolution regarding the withdrawal of foreign troops from Lebanon and Syria (S/PV.23)—the veto has been recorded 275 times. In total, 229 draft resolutions or parts thereof have been vetoed. (Most recently, the veto was employed in July 2015, by Russia. On 8 July, Russia vetoed a draft resolution on the 20th anniversary of genocide in Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina [S/2-15/508], and on 29 July it vetoed a draft resolution [S/2015/562] on the creation of an ad hoc tribunal for prosecuting those responsible for the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.)
In the early years, the veto was cast primarily by the USSR, with a considerable number of these used to block the admission of a new member state. Over the years, the USSR/Russia has cast a total of 133 vetoes. The US cast the first of its 83 vetoes to date on 17 March 1970 (S/9696 and Corr. 1 and 2) and, from that point on, has used the veto far more than any other permanent member. The UK has used the veto 32 times, the first such instance taking place on 30 October 1956 (S/3710). France applied the veto for the first time on 26 June 1946 and has cast a total of 18. China has used the veto 11 times, with the first one, on 13 December 1955 (S/3502), cast by the Republic of China (ROC) and the remaining 10 by the People’s Republic of China after it succeeded ROC as a permanent member on 25 October 1971.
Since the end of the Cold War, new trends in the usage of the veto by the different permanent members have emerged. France and the UK have not cast a veto since 23 December 1989 (S/21048) when, in tandem with the US, they prevented condemnation of the US invasion of Panama. China, which has historically used the veto the least, has become increasingly active on this front, casting eight of its 10 vetoes since 1990, including six since 2007. Russia cast 14 vetoes in this period, 11 of them since 2007. The US has resorted to the veto 16 times since the end of the Cold War, with 10 cast between 2001 and 2006.
The veto impacts the work of the Council in ways that transcend its actual use during voting. It would be interesting to know how many draft resolutions were contemplated but never formally tabled because of the threat of a veto by one or more permanent members. This, however, is impossible to document since records only exist if a draft is circulated as a Council document and in most cases this only happens if there is a reasonable expectation of adoption. On some occasions, however, the sponsor of a draft resolution may want to put it to a vote with the full knowledge that it will be vetoed as a means to demonstrate symbolic support for an issue and at the same time to create a historic record of positions within the Council. In the run up to the 2005 Summit, the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change called on “the permanent members, in their individual capacities, to pledge themselves to refrain from the use of the veto in cases of genocide and large-scale human rights abuses”. Following the Summit, the S5 (Costa Rica, Jordan, Liechtenstein, Singapore and Switzerland) advocated for permanent members to “refrain … from using a veto to block Council action aimed at preventing or ending genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity”. Similar calls have been voiced by members at large in the open debates on working methods.
In 2006, a renewed Council focus on its working methods was largely prompted by the initiative of the S5. It seems, however, that the agenda of this group has been taken on in early 2013 by a new group of states that emerged as an informal caucus to advocate for improved Security Council working methods. Publicly launched on 2 May, Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (ACT) is a cross-regional group of 24 small and medium states aimed at enhancing the effectiveness of the Council through the improvement of its working methods, including putting constraints on the use of the veto power.
In 2013, France hinted at this possibility with Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius making informal reference to a possible “code of conduct” to rein in the veto under such dire circumstances. In an op-ed published in The New York Times on 4 October 2013, Fabius proposed that “(i) f the Security Council were required to make a decision with regard to a mass crime, the permanent members would agree to suspend their right to veto…[except]…where the[ir] vital national interests…were at stake.”
France and Mexico took this initiative one step further in 2014. On 25 September, on the margins of the 69th session of the General Assembly, the two countries co-chaired a ministerial-level event on this issue. The meeting was presided over by Fabius, and Mexican Secretary for Foreign Affairs José Antonio Meade Kuribreña. The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein made a statement in support of the French initiative. In a summary of the event, the co-chairs called on the P5 to “voluntarily and collectively pledge not to use the veto in case of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes on a large scale.” According to the proposed framework, the UN Secretary-General would have the authority to make a determination on whether the situation amounts to one of those crimes, if necessary at the request of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights or of 50 UN member states.
ACT has launched a code of conduct regarding Security Council action against genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes. As of 23 October 2015, this had been supported by 104 UN member states, including France and the UK. The other permanent Council members—China, Russia and the US—have not supported the ACT initiative, nor have they backed a French/Mexican declaration on veto restraint in cases of mass atrocity.