Right to veto: a stumbling block to averting atrocities

Veto restraint is vital when atrocities are occurring

Syed Mohammad Ali March 15, 2024
The writer is an academic and researcher. He is also the author of Development, Poverty, and Power in Pakistan, available from Routledge


Despite the ongoing Israeli atrocities in Gaza, two attempts to pass a ceasefire resolution within the UN Security Council have failed due to the US veto.

A UN Security Council resolution can only come into effect if it gets nine votes, and none of the five permanent members — China, France, Russia, the US and UK — use their veto power. The last UN draft resolution on Gaza, moved by Algeria in February, was endorsed by all ten non-permanent members, as well as by China, Russia and France. The UK abstained from voting, but the US rejected the call for an immediate ceasefire.

While the US has itself been very vocal in its criticism of Russian and Chinese use of the veto to block actions to end atrocities in Syria and Myanmar, the US has itself vetoed resolutions critical of Israel at least 45 times.

It is a travesty that powerful countries in the world, which have the power to prevent atrocities, not only fail to do so, but in fact enable them to occur in the pursuit of their own strategic interests. 

After the Rwandan genocide, the UN system had formulated the notion of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) which obligates nation-states, as well as the international community at large, to protect ordinary citizens from genocide, ethnic cleansing, serious war crimes or other crimes against humanity. In 2005, R2P was also unanimously endorsed by all UN member states.

South Africa evoked underlying principles of R2P when it recently filed a case against Israel at the International Court of Justice. The UN General Assembly also passed a resolution demanding a ceasefire in Gaza this past December. However, it is only the UN Security Council which has the power to sanction R2P based interventions.

Given the current scenario, it is impossible to not only use R2P against the Security Council’s permanent members, but also against other nations which any permanent member at the Security Council wants to protect.

There have been repeated calls for the permanent members of the Security Council to abstain from use of their veto power in situations where atrocities are being committed.   

Back in 2016, a group known as ‘The Elders’ backed a widely endorsed call for the Security Council to exercise veto restraint to prevent atrocities. The Elders is a grouping formed by the late Nelson Mandela in 2007, and it includes former Presidents, UN General Secretaries, and Nobel laureates. However, the permanent five members of the Security Council did not pay much heed to this demand. As a result, China and Russia were able to shield Bashar-al-Assad’s regime and enable him to make a comeback despite the brutalities he has committed against his own citizens. Now Israel is being similarly allowed to continue wreaking havoc in Gaza, in the name of eliminating Hamas. 

A few days ago, Malaysia’s Permanent Representative to the UN renewed calls for regulating use of the veto when mass atrocities are taking place. He suggested that a veto should only be allowed if two of the permanent Security Council members jointly agree to its use, and if it is also supported by three non-permanent members. This is a very reasonable suggestion, and it is much more conciliatory than the justifiable demand for abolition of the veto power altogether.

Most nations in the world would prefer the UN system to become a genuinely democratic multinational organisation. Whether the permanent five members will relinquish their power, or at least invite other emergent powers to join their exclusive grouping, remains to be seen. In the meanwhile, however, the proposal articulated by Malaysia can at least contend with grave atrocities resulting from state predation, gross negligence, or intentional acts of repression.

More countries should back Malaysia’s call, to help put an end to the horror stories which keep emerging from Gaza, and from other corners of the world, where multitudes of people are willfully being subjected to unspeakable amounts of suffering.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 15th, 2024.

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