The Why and When of the UNSC Veto

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is, in both the popular mind and in practice, the most important arm of the United Nations. It is the stage where decisions regarding international peace and security are taken, which affect the lives of millions.

Unlike many other UN bodies, such as the General Assembly, decisions taken by the Security Council are binding on all nations under international law. This means that while a resolution that passes in the UNGA may or may not be enforced by the countries it concerns, one passed in the Security Council has to mandatorily take effect. While ignoring the former only brings about disapprovals and not legal action, ignoring the latter would threaten international sanctioning.

The nature of the UNSC makes it particularly important, yet delicate body.

The UN was formed in 1945, in the aftermath of the Second World War. The War was perhaps the most tumultuous era in human history and the world required stabilization. One of the key experiences after World War 1, with the League of Nations and the Treaty of Versailles was that having improper or unachievable mechanisms causes more turbulence.

Learning from these experiences, it was believed that in order to incentivize the great powers to join, and to maintain their interest in the organization, they needed to be given a sort of special privilege intended to protect their sovereignty, and as an assurance against invasion.

Thus, the then five most powerful countries, coincidentally also the winners of WW2, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union, and China-today known as P5-were given a special ‘veto’ privilege in the UNSC, alongside permanent membership.

The UNSC today consists of 15 countries of a time, 10 of which are voted in for a two-year non-repeatable term, and P5.

The veto power of the P5 allows the countries to vote negatively in a manner such that even if all the remaining 14 countries vote in favor of a resolution, the negative vote would mean the resolution fails.

The UNSC Hall

In other words, it allows a select number of countries to have the power to unilaterally decide the course of geopolitics around the world.

The veto power is highly controversial. Its critics argues that it undermines the democratic nature of the United Nations and establishes that various nations do not possess equal rights to protect their sovereignty. Supporters of the veto argue that the veto is required to maintain stability in the world, and to ensure that the strongest military and economic powers in the world remain interested in the UN and do not take action outside its bounds.

                                   P5 Countries

There has also been considerable talk about extending the veto power to other emerging powers, or to abolish it completely.

G4 has emerged as a group which supports each other’s bids for permanent membership in the UNSC. It consists of India, Japan, Germany and Brazil. Each of these countries has emerged as a politically and economically strong country, strengthening their bid for membership.

                                      G4 Meeting

However, they are opposed by another group, United for Consensus, also known as the Coffee Club. This group mostly consists of economic or political rivals to the G4 nations. It is led by Italy, but also consists of Canada, South Korea, Spain, Turkey, Mexico, Argentina, Pakistan, Malta, Colombia, Costa Rica, and San Marino. China and Indonesia are observers.

Now, let’s look at how the P5 countries have used their veto power in the United Nations Security Council.

  • The United States, with 85 vetoes, has frequently used this tool to protect its interests and those of its allies, particularly Israel. In 2024, the U.S. vetoed a resolution calling for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza, demonstrating its unwavering support for Israel despite international pressure. US vetoes have often been made with an aim to not contradict its own domestic laws and to protect its strategic position and partners.
  • Russia, with 128 vetoes, has been the most prolific user of the veto. It has often used this power to shield its allies and prevent decisions that could undermine its geopolitical interests. Since 2011, Russia has vetoed 14 resolutions related to the conflict in Syria, effectively shielding the Assad regime from international censure and intervention. Additionally, Russia has used its veto to block UN missions in countries that engage in diplomatic relations with Taiwan, due to the ongoing territorial dispute over the island’s status.
  • China, with 19 vetoes, has been more selective in its use of the veto power. However, it has not hesitated to use it to protect its core interests, such as blocking the admission of new members to the UN that it deems unacceptable. In 1955, China vetoed Mongolia’s admission, and in 1972, it vetoed Bangladesh’s membership, both instances reflecting its desire to maintain control over its sphere of influence.
  • The United Kingdom and France, with 29 and 16 vetoes respectively, have used their veto power less frequently than the U.S. and Russia. The UK’s most notable use of the veto was during the Suez crisis in 1956, when it sought to protect its interests in the region. Both the UK and France last used their veto power in 1989 to prevent condemnation of the US invasion of Panama, demonstrating their willingness to support their Western ally despite international criticism.

The veto, although controversial is here to stay. The P5 countries remain the strongest powers on Earth and are unlikely to agree to a resolution that seeks to get rid of an exclusive power that they have. The apt strategy, then, is to ensure consensus, as otherwise vetoes are likely to cause important resolutions to fail. The veto power, in a way, forces compromise between the great powers to ensure a careful balance.

Note: I have taken the photographs/illustrations from internet. They belong to the author/photographer/designer of the original article/s.

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