Russia’s Actions Fuel Calls for U.N. to Rein in Security Council Veto Power

The U.N. Charter puts limits on the veto power permanent members enjoy. Now, some countries want that enforced.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia
Russia's United Nations Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia at a press briefing at U.N. headquarters in New York on Feb. 28. Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

As Russia blocks action in the United Nations Security Council on the Ukraine crisis, a group of smaller countries has mounted a campaign to weaken the veto power that permanent members of the council wield. And they say they have the U.N. Charter on their side.

A key provision of the U.N. Charter, paragraph 3 of Article 27, says that member states that are party to a conflict have no right in certain situations to exercise the veto to block action in the 15-nation council. The provision has largely been ignored by other key powers, in part because it could potentially dilute the power of the veto, which they may find useful in the future. But it has served as a source of deep frustration among the U.N.’s rank and file, who believe that Russia’s use of the veto represents an existential threat to the core principles and objectives of the United Nations.

On Friday, Russia voted to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution, drafted by the United States and Albania, that would have condemned Moscow’s “aggression” against Ukraine and demanded it immediately withdraw its forces from Ukrainian territory.

As Russia blocks action in the United Nations Security Council on the Ukraine crisis, a group of smaller countries has mounted a campaign to weaken the veto power that permanent members of the council wield. And they say they have the U.N. Charter on their side.

A key provision of the U.N. Charter, paragraph 3 of Article 27, says that member states that are party to a conflict have no right in certain situations to exercise the veto to block action in the 15-nation council. The provision has largely been ignored by other key powers, in part because it could potentially dilute the power of the veto, which they may find useful in the future. But it has served as a source of deep frustration among the U.N.’s rank and file, who believe that Russia’s use of the veto represents an existential threat to the core principles and objectives of the United Nations.

On Friday, Russia voted to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution, drafted by the United States and Albania, that would have condemned Moscow’s “aggression” against Ukraine and demanded it immediately withdraw its forces from Ukrainian territory.

“We deplore the use of the veto in the Security Council this past Friday, cast in obvious contravention to Article 27(3) of the U.N. Charter,” Christian Wenaweser, Liechtenstein’s U.N. ambassador, told the General Assembly on Monday. “In the scope, scale, and form of its actions, the political leadership of Russia is perpetrating a simultaneous attack on the rules-based order.”

Liechtenstein is leading an effort by a group of small and midsize countries—including Costa Rica, Estonia, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Qatar, and Sweden—to press for the adoption of a U.N. General Assembly resolution that would automatically require the General Assembly to meet after a permanent member casts a veto. It would also invite the Security Council to submit a report on the use of the veto in question.

The United States, Britain, and France—all permanent members of the Security Council—have shown little interest in invoking the veto prohibition, which could potentially constrain their ability to block action in a future conflict when their troops are deployed. And no other council member has formally invoked the article to challenge Russia’s use of the veto.

The United States maintains that the veto prohibition doesn’t apply to the draft resolution Russia vetoed on Friday. The prohibition, a spokesperson from the U.S. mission to the United Nations said, only applies to non-binding resolutions. The text Russia vetoed, the official contended, was legally binding under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter. “Accordingly, the provision was not available to invoke on Friday,” the spokesperson said.

 The U.S. legal position is not without controversy. In order to avoid a Chinese veto, the U.S. agreed to remove language from an earlier draft of the resolution explicitly stating the resolution would be adopted under Chapter 7, which is traditionally invoked to authorize coercive measures, including sanctions and the use of force. But the U.S. spokesperson noted that the resolution’s inclusion of mandatory words like “decides” and “shall” carries the force of a Chapter 7 resolution.

“The Security Council can impose binding measures under Chapter VII without expressly invoking Chapter VII,” the spokesperson said.

Following the Friday vote, Norway’s U.N. Ambassador Mona Juul hinted at the potential illegality of Russia’s veto. “A veto cast on a resolution addressing this—and that by the aggressor itself—undermines the purpose of the Security Council. It is a violation of the very foundation of the U.N. Charter,” Juul told the council. “Furthermore, in the spirit of the charter, Russia as a party should have abstained from voting on this draft resolution.”

The flurry of diplomatic activity in the General Assembly comes against a backdrop of rising resentment over veto power held by the U.N.’s five permanent members, particularly Russia, but also the United States and China, which have frequently used their veto power to block initiatives with broad international support.

The United States, meanwhile, has decided to pursue a different path to confronting Russia at the U.N. In the 1950s, the United States and its allies, frustrated with a rash of Soviet vetoes, passed the “Uniting for Peace” resolution, which allowed the U.N. General Assembly to take action on matters of international security if the council was prevented by a U.N. member from doing so.

Following the Russian veto, the United States, along with Albania, led the effort to convene a rare special session of the U.N. General Assembly—only the 11th in the organization’s history—to consider a resolution condemning Russia and demanding it withdraw from Ukraine. Traditionally, peace and security are the remit of the Security Council. But when that breaks down, as it did last week, countries have sought to revive the 1950s-era workaround.

The three-day session of the 193-member assembly—which is expected to conclude Wednesday with a vote on the U.S.-sponsored resolution—has underscored the deep bitterness over Russia’s use of the veto.

“We were very disappointed with the use of the veto which we entrusted and enshrined in the” permanent members, said Aubrey Webson, the ambassador to the U.N. of Antigua and Barbuda. “This General Assembly must stand up to show that the use of the veto must not be used selfishly, that agreeing and supporting this resolution calls for a change in the way the veto is used.”

“The veto is an anachronism,” Spain’s envoy to the U.N. Agustín Santos Maraver said in the General Assembly debate. “We must get rid of it.”

Mar. 2: This article has been updated to include the U.S. position on the veto.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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