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The leaders of the five countries with veto power on the UN Security Council
The leaders of the five countries with veto power on the UN Security Council

OPINIONPoliticsNovember 10, 2023

Five countries have veto power on the UN Security Council, to the detriment of us all

The leaders of the five countries with veto power on the UN Security Council
The leaders of the five countries with veto power on the UN Security Council

A UN Security Council resolution for a ‘humanitarian pause’ in Gaza was vetoed by the US last month. Mira Karunanidhi argues it’s yet another example of a broken system.

The United Nations was created during the post-World War II era to replace the  failed League of Nations and, in the opening words of the UN charter, to “save  succeeding generations from the scourge of war”. The charter established six main organs of the United Nations, including the Security Council, the most powerful organ. Its primary mandate is to maintain international peace and security.  

The Security Council is the most powerful UN body for the following reasons:  

(i) All UN member states are obligated to accept and carry out the decisions of  the Security Council;

(ii) Only the Security Council has the power to make binding decisions that member states are obligated to implement; and  

(iii) Each of the five permanent members (the P5) of the Security Council has veto power over any matter voted upon by the Security Council.  

The veto power held by the P5 is the most significant distinction between permanent and non-permanent members of the Security Council. The Security Council is comprised of representatives from 15 countries. The P5 are the United States, United Kingdom, China, Russia and France.  The 10 non-permanent  members are each elected by the General Assembly, which comprises all 193 UN member states, for a two-year term. The five regional groups within the UN – African, Asian, Eastern European, Latin American and Caribbean, and Western European and  Others Group (WEOG) – each have their allocation of seats. This process aims to  ensure equitable geographical representation and gives various regions a voice in the Council’s decision-making.  

But the P5 all must agree to endorse any resolution for it to pass and any one country can vote against or “veto” a resolution to prevent it from passing. Consequently, the power of the veto often prevents the council from being effective in the face of large international crises and mass atrocities. 

Israel and Palestine

On October 7, 2023, amid soaring Israeli-Palestinian tensions, Palestinian armed  group, Hamas, entered Israel and killed and captured hundreds of Israeli forces and civilians. Israel declared a state of war and began striking Gaza, including residential  buildings, schools and hospitals where Israel claimed Hamas militants were operating from. Since then, thousands of Palestinians have been killed, injured and displaced in airstrikes on the Gaza Strip. Millions of Palestinians have been cut off from food, water, medicine, electricity and fuel. All major UN agencies have called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and an unconditional release of hostages.  

The recent atrocities are the culmination of the enduring conflict between Israel and Palestine. However, the role the UN has played in this conflict dates back to 1947 when the UN voted for Palestine to be divided into two separate Jewish and Arab states. More recently, the UN has been actively involved in seeking a peaceful resolution to the conflict, however it has instead highlighted the limitations and challenges the United Nations Security Council faces, emphasising the need for reform. 

Fire and smoke rise above buildings in Gaza City during an Israeli air strike on October 8 (Photo: IBRAHIM HAMS/AFP via Getty Images)

On October 18, 2023, the United States vetoed a Security Council resolution calling for a “humanitarian pause” to deliver lifesaving aid to people in Gaza. Twelve of the council’s 15 members voted in favour of the resolution proposed by Brazil, the US voted against, and Russia and the UK abstained. Since a vote “against” from any of the P5 prevents any resolution from being passed, the Security Council’s response to the crisis was marred by the use of the veto power by the US. 

The US is one of Israel’s closest allies and has used its veto powers on several occasions to block any resolution that did not protect Israel’s interests. Most of these resolutions called for peace in the decades-long Israel-Palestine conflict.  

By failing to pass a resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire, the Security Council is failing unequivocally in its primary duty of maintaining international peace and security. The UN was created for the very purpose of saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war, but it has failed the thousands of Palestinian and Israeli  children who have lived through nothing but conflict their entire lives.  

The need for reform

Since its establishment in 1945, the composition of the Security Council has remained virtually unchanged. However, the council is arguably no longer fit for purpose and no longer reflects the drastic changes to the geopolitical landscape that have occurred since the post-World War era. The calls for reform from the international community have increased since the war in Ukraine, as draft resolutions calling for Moscow to stop its attack on Ukraine were barred by the Russian veto. These calls should similarly increase now in the face of the mass atrocities occurring in Israel and Palestine.  

The influence the P5 holds within the UN institution is disproportionate and the veto powers conferred upon them merely serve to benefit and protect the P5’s national interests. It is inherently counterproductive to maintaining international peace and security and has ultimately resulted in a decline in the Security Council’s legitimacy.  

Abolishing the veto entirely would be beneficial for the entire international community. However, the UN charter grants the P5 veto over any charter amendments, meaning they would have to approve of any amendments to their own veto power. Given the difficulty of implementing such reform, an alternative is that the P5 should not be entitled to utilise their veto powers in the face of mass atrocities and crimes against humanity. 

The supremacy of five nations should not be preserved above all other members of the General Assembly, as it fundamentally contradicts the rule of law and is undemocratic. Similarly, a single member state’s interests should not be entitled to override the collective will of the international community. The veto powers granted to the P5 contribute to the Council’s inability to take decisive action on critical international issues. The P5’s repeated use of the veto has led many member states to question the effectiveness and relevance of the Security Council in addressing the challenges of the 21st century. 

Reforming the United Nations Security Council is not a simple task. It involves complex negotiations and considerations of each member’s national interests. However, the necessity of such reform is clear. The current structure, marred by the persistent use of veto powers and an outdated composition, undermines the very principles of the United Nations – peace, security and equality among nations. The  Security Council must evolve to meet the demands of our rapidly changing world and regain the trust and confidence of the international community. The path to reform may be long and challenging, but it is a journey that must be undertaken for the sake of true global peace and security.

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