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. ...

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. 

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. 

David Bosco is an associate professor at Indiana University's School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of books on the U.N. Security Council and the International Criminal Court, and is at work on a new book about governance of the oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist

More from Foreign Policy

Two unidentified military vessels off Taiwan
Two unidentified military vessels off Taiwan

Beijing’s Taiwan Aggression Has Backfired in Tokyo

Military exercises have stiffened Japanese resolve.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin

How to Take Down a Tyrant

Three steps for exerting maximum economic pressure on Putin.

A Taiwanese military outpost is seen beyond anti-landing spikes along the coast in Kinmen, Taiwan, on Aug. 10.
A Taiwanese military outpost is seen beyond anti-landing spikes along the coast in Kinmen, Taiwan, on Aug. 10.

Why Doesn’t China Invade Taiwan?

Despite Beijing’s rhetoric, a full-scale invasion remains a risky endeavor—and officials think the island can be coerced into reunification.

Crosses, flowers, and photographs mark the graves of victims of the battles for Irpin and Bucha at the cemetery of Irpin, Ukraine, on May 16.
Crosses, flowers, and photographs mark the graves of victims of the battles for Irpin and Bucha at the cemetery of Irpin, Ukraine, on May 16.

Russia’s Brutal Honesty Has Destroyed the West’s Appeasers

Yet plenty of Western intellectuals and politicians still ignore what Moscow is saying loud and clear.