Abstention games on the Security Council

Abstention games on the Security Council

Colum Lynch is reporting that the UN Security Council resolution authorizing a no-fly zone and military action to safeguard civilians in Libya will likely pass 10-0. Some key Council members, including Russia, China, Brazil and India will apparently abstain.

For all their discomfort with intervention, it seems that Russia and China won’t deploy the veto. In part, this is a sign of how disfavored the veto has become. These days, the United States uses the tool more than anyone else, and primarily on draft Middle East resolutions it deems hostile to Israel.  Once a critical mass for a resolution forms, permanent members usually figure out ways to avoid the veto, and abstention is always an attractive option.  Over the years, China has made a high art of abstaining from Council resolutions it doesn’t particularly like and easily outpaces all other permanent members in frequency of abstention. (The one area where it will use the veto without hesitation is anything that touches on Taiwan.)   

It’s worth noting that the right of permanent members to abstain–while by now deeply established in Security Council practice–doesn’t find much support in the UN Charter, which provides that valid Council resolutions "shall be made by an affirmative vote of nine members including the concurring votes of the permanent members." At the San Francisco conference creating the UN, it was assumed that resolutions wouldn’t be effective without the support of all permanent members. Practical politics won out. Fairly quickly after the Security Council began operating, the permanent members discovered that abstention could be an awfully convenient option, and they tacitly agreed not to question the practice. 

If the current lineup on Libya holds, it will also highlight the fissure in the UN between a Western-led interventionist group and a "sovereignty bloc" led by Moscow and Beijing, but with real appeal to key emerging powers like Brazil, South Africa and India. There are exceptions. Germany’s militarist past makes it deeply hesitant to endorse military force absent clear evidence of a humanitarian catastrophe. And in certain cases, the emerging powers themselves might become interventionist. But the divide is real, and it may be one of the most critical dynamics at the UN. 

For the moment, the West still has the pull to carry the day. Whether that will be true a decade from now is anyone’s guess.