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Wielding The Veto Power

The U.N. Security Council permanent members' veto power is being used to undermine peace. In the light of Russian aggression, what could the future hold?

United Nations meeting
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Russia Ukraine war has had spillover effects into third-party countries. We have expressed horror at the refugee crisis in mainland Europe and the potential risk of nuclear war. We have outlined problems of food insecurity in Africa and West Asia, rising fuel costs, 40-year inflation highs, stagflation tendencies, and even cases of foreign governments declaring bankruptcy.

But a little talked-about concern has been the United Nations.

The leader of North Korea recently launched an intercontinental ballistic missile. The intent was to saber-rattle the West for imposing crippling sanctions for over a decade and be recognized as a nuclear power worthy of respect. This week the United Nations Security Council, which has 15 members, including five permanent members (the P5), voted on enhancing sanctions against North Korea. While a majority of the Council voted in favor of the new U.S.-proposed sanctions, two permanent members, Russia and China, vetoed the resolution, placing Japan, South Korea, and the entire Pacific theater at further risk.

The Security Council, established after World War II, has primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security. The designers of the Council understood that powerful nations, even with different ideologies, needed to come together on issues of global importance. All Member States are obligated to comply with Council decisions. While any member-state can lead the body in rotation (Germany is the current president), the U.N. charter recognized that the five nations that collectively defeated Adolf Hitler, all nuclear-powered countries, deserve a special privilege.

The United States, the former Soviet Union (now Russia), France, Britain, and China, were named as permanent members. There is nothing in the U.N. charter to remove a permanent member from the Council. Further, each permanent member has a veto over the actions of the entire Council. The veto authority is so powerful that the U.N. could never take action against Russia for its brutal actions in Ukraine. Russia could simply veto such action.

There have been 306 vetoes at the Security Council since its founding. More than 200 of these have been exercised by either the Soviet Union (now Russia) or the United States. When a Security Council resolution is vetoed, it simply dies. There is no way to resurrect it.

On 29 November 1990, the Security Council passed Resolution 678, which gave Iraq until 15 January 1991 to withdraw from Kuwait. If Iraq failed to comply, the resolution authorized states to use "all necessary means" to force Iraq out of Kuwait. China abstained (an abstention doesn't count as a veto). Cuba and Yemen opposed the resolution. The resolution passed, giving coalition powers international legitimacy to act aggressively during the first Gulf War.

Veto By Five Permanent United Nations Members
United Nation's Vetoes By Top 15 Topics

Since the Russian invasion began, the United States has joined hands with France and Britain to bring about maximum pressure to isolate Russia, arguing that Russia violated the principles of international order when it attacked its neighbor. America has also been wary of Chinese behavior in the South China Sea. But little has been or can be done about these issues at the U.N.

The irony is that America and its western allies are placing at risk the very international order they deem to protect by ignoring the crucial roles that both Russia and China play on the Security Council. Even when Russia and China philosophically agree that North Korea deserves to be punished for firing ICBMs, it is not in either country's strategic geopolitical interest to act in the world's favor by joining hands with the United States.

So, the two countries exercised the one privilege they both have on the world stage and rejected the American resolution. "I think it was a big mistake for the U.S. to push for what was sure to fail rather than showing unified opposition to North Korea's actions," said Jenny Town, director of the US-based 38 North program, which analyzes events in and around North Korea.

Cold War 2.0 is already here. Ideas brought to the Council in the coming years by Russia and China will likely be vetoed by the United States, France, and Britain, and vice-versa. This means global action for bringing about peace in numerous regions, such as Yemen, countries in Africa, and even Iran, will remain in flux.

The West's current policy of isolating Russia will likely have disastrous consequences if the U.N. Security Council, the one potent agency left within the U.N. that still retains the respect of member states, becomes impotent.

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