The United Nations Has a Veto Dilemma

LOS ANGELES — In July 2020, amid the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, each one of the United Nations Security Council member states casted their votes on draft S/2020/667, an essential resolution regarding the humanitarian crisis in Syria.

The draft discussed the necessity for more crossing points to be opened throughout Syria’s border regions in order to allow more aid to enter the country. Although 13 of the 15 members voted yes on the draft, China and Russia, two of the five members with veto power, voted against the draft.

With the resolution not passing, the number of border crossing points that gave the international community access to Syria were diminished to two, which made getting humanitarian resources like food and medical supplies into the country much harder. China and Russia argued that this resolution would violate Syria’s sovereignty. However, other countries such as Germany and the United States sharply criticized Russia and China for acting out of political interest, rather than a humanitarian angle. 

The veto power, the ability for a member state’s vote to override any other votes cast, has existed within international governing bodies since the League of Nations was created in 1920. It was considered a crucial part of the UN’s charter when it was signed in San Francisco in 1945. 

This mechanism was so important to signing countries, in fact, that Francis Wilcox, then-advisor to the U.S. delegation to the UN, declared that, “at San Francisco, the issue was made crystal clear by the leaders of the Big Five: it was either the Charter with the veto or no Charter at all.”

The Security Council’s veto power is granted to the five permanent members of the committee: the United States, China, Russia, France and the United Kingdom. These countries are commonly referred to as the Big Five. This has raised several concerns from the international community about the disparities that exist between the powers of different countries within an organization where, presumably, every member should be regarded as an equal. 

The veto has been used 261 times in the UN’s 75-year history. The country that has used it the most has been Russia (formerly, the Soviet Union) with 117 instances, comprising about 45% of all vetoes. Russia is followed by the United States, which has used this power 82 times, or approximately 31% of all vetoes. 

Vetoes are often employed to further the national interests of the Big Five, something that has even been recognized by the UN Security Council Report. For example, the United States often vetoes any resolution that is critical of Israel and its government, while Russia and China usually veto any resolution that contradicts their military interests in areas of strategic importance like Ukraine or Venezuela, respectively.

In 2018, several member states, including Brazil, India, Japan, Germany and the entire African Union, spoke in the General Assembly and called for removing the veto power entirely, as well as adding new permanent seats to the council to better represent global interests. 

This meeting, and many others before and after it, have failed to persuade all five permanent countries to agree to any changes to the council. Any potential changes would require a two-thirds majority vote in the General Assembly, with the five permanent members also voting yes. 

Some of the most popular proposed changes to the Security Council structure are to get rid of the veto power, limit the amount of times or resolutions it can be used for, or add more permanent members with veto power. There have been some strong contenders for additional permanent membership. 

For example, in the same General Assembly meeting in 2018, the Chinese delegation expressed their support for reforms, and commented on the need for more developing nations taking a seat at the table, especially African countries. 

The United States has more recently expressed they are open to a “moderate expansion” of the Security Council. However, the Biden administration has put forward a more neutral and vague position on the topic compared to the previous Trump and Obama administrations, both of whom openly supported new members, mostly India, to join as permanent members of the council.

“We support building a consensus for modest enlargement of the Security Council for both permanent and non-permanent members, provided it does not diminish its effectiveness or its efficacy and does not alter or expand the veto,” said State Department Spokesperson Ned Price this past August, when asked about the possibility of India being a permanent member. 

The United States also stated that it would only consider reforms as long as it did not disrupt the veto power or its holders, which the United States asserts would diminish the efficacy of the council. 

Overall, each permanent member has signaled their support for a moderate reform of the organism, as long as their power within it is not altered. The central five members have expressed willingness to add extra permanent members without vetoes, expand the amount of non-permanent members allowed or create a new level of membership. However, none of these address the main source of the controversy: the power to veto. 

The veto holds a lot of political power that can be utilized for national interests as discussed previously. This ultimately makes it hard for the permanent members to want a change in the system that could affect the hierarchy of countries in the UN.

The most recent push for expansion has India as the most likely new permanent member, with Brazil, Japan and Germany close behind. These four countries have come to be known as the G4. Some of these countries face strong opposition from permanent and non-permanent members. Japan for example, faces heavy opposition from China and Russia, as well as other Asian countries such as South Korea, which disagrees with Japan representing East Asia to counter China.

The opposition to the UNSC expansion is also not an isolated event within certain countries, it has become a movement that has encompassed several countries from every continent. In the 1990s, a group called Uniting for Consensus, headed by Italy, was formed to counter the G4 bids for permanent membership. The group includes countries like Mexico, Turkey, South Korea and Spain. 

However, the group does not oppose reform entirely. In November 2020, Italy spoke on behalf of the group and proposed establishing a 26-member Security Council with nine  permanent members based on world regions. 

Overall, the power of the veto and permanence within the council give the Big Five a huge geopolitical advantage over world decisions, such as intervention and assistance. The permanent five members of the Security Council have resisted efforts to restructure the council’s veto power. It is yet to be seen if any of the new reforms will ever reach the voting stage or even adoption in the future. 

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Valeria Diaz
Valeria Diaz is a sophomore majoring in Journalism and minoring in Documentary. She was born and raised in Mexico City where she attended an international school, an environment which sparked her interest in international affairs. Throughout her life, she has nurtured these interests through travel, photography and writing, which contributed to her current career choice. As a Mexican national, one of her areas of interest includes Latin America, in addition to her interest for human rights and refugee issues around the globe.
Email: diaztoli@usc.edu