In the never-ending struggle to reform the use of the veto in the United Nations Security Council, a new initiative may prove to be relatively successful in the quest by a range of countries to change the veto step by step.
This modest but potentially significant act of reform is called the “veto initiative,” and Liechtenstein originated it in 2020 to strengthen accountability of the permanent members when they dismiss a draft resolution with a single swipe: Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — the P5. The initiative was adopted by the General Assembly only two years after it surfaced, on April 26, 2022, under Resolution A/RES/76/262. If one or more of the P5 members casts a veto in the Security Council, an Assembly meeting is held within 10 days after the veto is cast. The member or members are invited to speak first on the matter at the meeting, and other countries can speak as well. The outcome is open.
Has the initiative changed the use of veto? So far, it has not deterred Russia and China from doing so. Within weeks of its adoption, on May 26, the two countries vetoed a US-led draft resolution to expand Council sanctions against North Korea. The debate that ensued in the Assembly over the veto was held on June 8, the first invocation of the Liechtenstein plan. Both veto powers took part in the debate and were joined in speeches by North Korea, the US, the European Union, South Korea, Japan and others. Overall, over a dozen countries or delegates of groups of countries participated in the meeting.
Syria, Russia, China and North Korea defended the use of veto, and North Korea and China blamed the US for the current security situation on the peninsula. Russia, however, criticized the negative impact of Western sanctions on the precarious humanitarian situation in North Korea, calling the US irresponsible. Diametrically, Japan, the US, the European Union and the Nordics separately criticized the use of the veto while others urged it be exercised with restraint.
The next veto in the Council followed quickly, on July 8, with Russia nixing a draft resolution, led by Ireland and Norway, to extend the cross-border humanitarian aid mechanism from Türkiye into Syria for six months, including an automatic six-month extension, “unless the Council decides otherwise,” among other aspects. Russia argued that the P3 — Britain, France and the US — also vetoed Russia’s parallel draft on the cross-border mechanism. In fact, since 10 members voted against it and three abstained, the P3’s “no” vote was not counted as a veto. (A resolution needs nine affirmative votes and no veto to pass.)
In the Assembly, Russia, Syria and Venezuela spoke for a range of countries on July 21, addressing Russia’s veto, also finger-pointing the P3. The European Union delegation took the opposite stance and reiterated the need for a 12-month extension of the cross-border mandate and criticized the Russian veto. (A third draft resolution requesting a six-month renewal of the mandate was approved by the Council on July 12.)
With the Assembly sessions drawing more than a total of 25 speakers (which often represented more than one country), the veto initiative appears to be fulfilling the primary goal of ensuring more accountability of the work of the Council. Both sessions, however, revealed a two-sided blame game rather than a substantial discussion, although it was important that the public airings enabled all countries to present their views — articulate, thought-out or otherwise — on the Council’s actions. That seemed to satisfy countries’ desires to have their views heard officially in a formal setting, instead of having to grumble and let the matter go.
The two sessions also showed that most countries do not favor the veto, which is not surprising. That position sends a strong signal to the international community and seeds a reputation loss for the veto powers.
The initiative was not meant to strictly deter its use. Christian Wenaweser, Liechtenstein’s ambassador, said its purpose was to have the General Assembly receive an explanation of the vote and to discuss the matter openly rather than to put veto powers on the pillory of world politics. Wenaweser told PassBlue that when the first General Assembly session was held for China and Russia to defend their veto on the North Korea draft resolution, it was rare for the Korean ambassador to take the rostrum and talk about his views on Council resolutions that affect his country.
“It’s not about putting anyone on the spot, but about accountability,” Wenaweser said in an interview with International Politics and Society magazine. “It’s about being given a voice in what we think are issues over which we have ownership. The Charter of the United Nations says clearly that the Security Council does its work on behalf of the membership.”
Much more is at stake than an explanation. The initiative provides a litmus test for the particular narratives of the veto holders speaking before the Assembly. The meetings also give them a chance to persuade other countries of their rationale and open the argumentative arena of the Council to the Assembly. Such transparency and accountability could alter the cost-benefit calculation of the veto and weaken the elitist character of the veto powers.
But has the calculation truly shifted? It is too hard to tell. Russia did not hesitate to exercise its privilege, given that its own interests were at stake in the second Assembly session, when it clarified its veto against the Syrian draft resolution. The initiative has the potential, though, to change the calculation of certain countries. As Britain and France already restrain their veto power and Russia has been making excessive use of it, the biggest effect will probably be made on the US and China, as both countries put a high emphasis on their international standing.
Further, the veto initiative could prove remarkable as an indication of the geopolitical climate and whether follow-up action is taken. That indication could strengthen the General Assembly, which has the final say in the matter. The initiative thus has the ability to improve standards in the use of the veto in the long term.
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Adrian Steube is a master’s degree student in international relations and diplomacy at the University of Trier, Germany, and holds a bachelor’s degree in political sciences from the University of Kassel.