When Russia vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution in July that called for an international tribunal to prosecute who is responsible for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine a year ago, it was the latest in a long string of vetoes exercised by the country as a permanent council member. Earlier this summer, Russia drew criticism when it vetoed a Security Council resolution condemning the Srebrenica massacre during the Bosnian War as genocide.
Other glaring examples in recent times of Russia wielding its veto, sometimes the only member of the permanent five Security Council cohort to do so, included a much-expected “nyet” on a resolution denouncing the annexation of Crimea and vetoes with another permanent member, China, refusing to condemn the state of Syria and the Bashar al-Assad regime in their role in the four-and-a-half-year civil war there.
Russia is president of the Security Council in the rotating seat this month, as the UN celebrates its 70th birthday and welcomes a record number of world leaders to its annual General Assembly debate. Pope Francis is also scheduled to attend, addressing the UN on Sept. 25, when the new universal development goals will be adopted. Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, is scheduled to attend the General Assembly debate on Sept. 28.
Perhaps it will be a month of rare unity in the Security Council, with its 15 elected and permanent members agreeing on every item put to a vote, from renewing peacekeeping mandates to countering terrorism in the Middle East. But historically, Russia has relied on its veto the most among the permanent members of the council. From 1946 to 2008, the Soviet Union and, subsequently, the Russian Federation, used the veto 124 times. The United States used it 82 times in the same period, followed by Britain with 32, France with 18 and China, 6.
Yet there is more to the frequent reliance on the veto by Russia than appears.
The Cold War saw the Soviet Union exercise a large number of vetoes, including its voting against 51 applications by nations to join the UN (as opposed to six vetoes by the US and two by China during this time). Most of the vetoes occurred from 1946 to 1961, during the height of the Cold War, as the Soviet Union thought Western powers were preventing its former satellites, socialist countries in Eastern Europe, from joining the UN.
In retaliation, the Soviet Union voted against UN membership to countries as diverse as Austria, Ireland, Japan and Libya, while the US voted against membership for Angola, South Vietnam and the Democratic/Socialist Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). China voted against UN membership for Bangladesh and Mongolia. The Soviet Union and the US have also submitted vetoes against a candidate for UN secretary-general.
More important, the number of Soviet-Russian vetoes and US vetoes turns out to be comparable on matters of international peace and security, say Loraine Sievers and Sam Daws in their book, “The Procedure of the UN Security Council.” Excluding vetoes regarding UN membership and candidates for secretary-general, the Soviet Union-Russia has cast 76 security-related vetoes, compared with 77 by the US.
What stands out in the last several years, however, is China and Russia repeatedly vetoing resolutions on the conflict in Syria, and the wide critical response against them for blocking the actions of the other three permanent members, Britain, France and the US, in trying to resolve the crisis politically.
The council pretty much anticipated a veto by Russia and China on a proposed resolution concerning Syria in 2012, early into the war. Yet France, a co-sponsor of the resolution, seized the chance to declare its dismay on the no votes, as cited by Sievers and Daws.
“We cannot be complicit in a strategy that combines a mockery of diplomatic action with de facto paralysis,” said Gérard Araud, France’s ambassador to the UN at the time. “To do that would have been to give short shrift to our responsibility as a permanent member of the Council, short shrift to the credibility of this Chamber, which cannot serve as a fig leaf for impunity, and short shrift to the Syrian people.”
Using the veto by the permanent five is a well-honed tool for determining action or inaction by the UN in an array of crises and other pressing geopolitical matters. A movement led by France in 2013 to voluntarily regulate the use of the veto in cases of mass atrocity, such as in Syria, has not been too successful so far. In September, Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the UN, called the proposal an “unworkable proposition” — saying that France could go ahead and limit its own veto if it wanted to do so. (The movement, which has a Twitter hashtag, #restraintheveto, has 67 countries signed up.)
Other high-profile cases of Russia using its veto include a resolution extending the mission of the UN in the former Soviet republic of Georgia in 2009. In 2008, Russia vetoed a resolution condemning human-rights violations and election irregularities in Zimbabwe; and in 2007, it vetoed a resolution urging democratic rule in Myanmar and a halt to ethnic violence and the detention of opposition members, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
China also vetoed the resolutions concerning Zimbabwe and Myanmar, but Russia acted alone on the one about Georgia.
The US has used its veto for its own political purposes, of course, as have the other permanent members; the US, for example, consistently votes against resolutions that condemn actions by Israel.
In remarks to the Russian news agency TASS in June, the Russian deputy foreign minister, Gennady Gatilov, said that Russia has always used its veto power responsibly.
“Unfortunately, there [is] not always unanimity in the UN Security Council on some issues,” he said, “and the veto right starts to be criticized. We responsibly use the veto right to find balanced political solutions of international problems.”
When vetoes have been exercised in more recent years by the permanent members, it has usually been for one of two reasons, Sievers and Daws say. First, the sponsors of a resolution, underestimating the strength of a permanent member’s objections, have mistakenly assumed that the member might, albeit grudgingly, vote affirmatively or abstain.
Alternatively, the sponsors may know ahead that a veto will be cast but decide that the point must be made publicly that a majority of council members favor a certain course of action but are blocked from effecting it because of opposition by one or more permanent members. That was clearly the case for the resolution on the tribunal for the MH17 crash.
The Russian veto has had a significant effect on the Western powers on the Security Council, said Richard Weitz, director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute. Britain, France and the US must “water down their proposed resolutions or pursue measures outside the UN,” he said, often “through coalitions of the willing.”
Security Council members are not always obvious in their motives behind a veto. (All 15 countries can vote yes or no or abstain, but it takes just one no vote from a permanent member to break a resolution’s back.) Some examples of possible miscalculations in reading a vote on a resolution include the Russian veto of a proposal to finance the UN peacekeeping operation in Cyprus in 1993, according to Sievers and Daws.
Their book also cites a Chinese veto on the proposed dispatch of military observers to Guatemala in 1997. In that veto, the representative of the Russian Federation regretted that the draft resolution “was put to a vote with such haste, at a time when consultations on the issue could have continued.”
The book highlights cases of draft resolutions brought to a vote to make a political point, including one on Israel’s expropriation of land in East Jerusalem in 1995, which was vetoed by the US, and a draft resolution on the reappointment of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, an Egyptian, as secretary-general in 1996, also nixed by the US.
In these instances, the US gave notice that it would use its veto if the texts were put to a vote, Sievers and Daws said.
The latest rift over the downing of flight MH17 in July 2014, in which everyone on board, 298 people, were killed, further strained relations between Russia and the West. Nevertheless, a report by the Dutch Safety Board examining the case is due to be released in October, possibly pointing the blame at Russian-backed separatists. That has already been concluded by several governments involved in the incident. The US has pointed the finger at Russia as well.
[This article was updated on Sept. 7, 2015.]
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Alexander Brotman is the Joseph S. Nye Jr. External Relations Intern with the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. He has a B.A. in film studies and media and communications from Muhlenberg College. He has worked for State Representative Alice Peisch of Massachusetts, Africa Center in Dublin, Harvard School of Public Health and Amnesty International.