The permanent members of the UN Security Council and their use of the veto – will Russia get away with the MH17 crash?

WrittenBy:Kunal Singh
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Never let a serious crisis go to waste, and so we should utilise the “opportunity” provided by the MH17 tragedy to raise some bigger questions. It is amply clear that Russia cannot wash its hands off the blunder committed by rebel forces operating in Eastern Ukraine. However, few will disagree that Russia will get away with blood of 298 innocent civilians on its hands. Consider this: Russia is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, a body whose primary responsibility – according to Article 24 of the United Nations Charter – is the maintenance of international peace and security. How fit is Russia to dispense its duties in this role while itself standing as a threat to world peace?

Sanctions have done little to curb the adventurous instincts of President Putin. The West, including the United States, is not overtly interested in soiling its hands to teach recalcitrant Russia a lesson. The only institution one can look to for fixing accountability is the United Nations Security Council. Alas, the way the Security Council is designed to function comes in the way. The Security Council fails magnificently if one of the permanent members of the body, possessing the highly coveted veto, turns rogue. Most of the conversations about reforming the Security Council have revolved around recruiting more permanent members in order to better represent the power structure of the world as of today. The issue that also needs consideration in the international community is this – can a permanent member be expelled from its esteemed position in the Council if it indulges in repeated actions which threaten international peace and security? Surely, Russia as an accused cannot act as an arbiter with a veto on its own fate.

We have had no such precedent because the five permanent members of the Security Council are essentially a cosy club – probably on account of their privileged positions in the international order. The entire formation of the Security Council was hinged on the possession of veto by the states that played a crucial role in the birth of the United Nations. The closest precedent we have had is an ambiguous and unsettled one. The Republic of China was expelled from the Security Council on October 25, 1971 by the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2758. The People’s Republic of China, recognised as a legitimate representative of China, took its place. This change was largely inevitable as the Communist Party had chased away the Nationalist Government of the Republic of China from mainland China to the island of Taiwan way back in 1949.

The ultimate lever of international influence is power. The strategic use of power is good enough to undermine the legitimacy of those rules which govern an international institution. In a way, United Nations has never shied away from the fact that power trumps principles in arbitrating international equations. The granting of veto to five select members is an example. The use of veto distorts the “social contract” that would be essential to build a truly global institution. The concept of social contract, as proposed by John Locke, has been much better used by individual states to build a legitimate model of governing apparatus. The replication of such a social contract is not pragmatic vis-à-vis a global institution like United Nations. Any such attempt disincentives the very existence of such an institution because the primary protagonists would be dissuaded. However, within the limited scope, we can think of certain changes that will make the functioning of the United Nations more democratic and better-oriented to achieve the stated objectives of the institution.

Article 27 of the Charter of the United Nations (the one which effectively grants the veto without saying so) states: “Decisions of the Security Council on all other matters (other than procedural) shall be made by an affirmative vote of nine members including the concurring votes of the permanent members.” The provision could be tweaked to something like: “Decisions of the Security Council on all other matters shall be made by an affirmative vote of nine members including the concurring votes of the permanent members or an affirmative vote of at least a total of thirteen members.” Many suggestions to this effect were made by delegations to the Open-ended Working Group established by the General Assembly to “consider all aspects of the question of increase in the membership of the Security Council and other matters related to the Security Council”.

Do not provide Russia or for that matter anyone else with an effective veto when it does not deserve it. Precedents also have to be established about discussing more frequently – and exercising infrequently – the expulsion of a permanent member from the Council if it turns rogue, and if two-thirds of the General Assembly and a majority of say, twelve members of the Security Council think so.

The preceding arguments receive a substantial boost if we study how the veto has been sustainably and systematically abused for all these years. Since 1946, 234 vetoes have been exercised. 101 of these have been exercised by USSR (1946-1991) and Russian Federation (1992-2014). Of the remaining 133, 79 have been exercised by the United States. Most of these have been used not for preserving international peace and security but for securing the interests of their allies and themselves. A cursory look at the “Agenda Items” which suffered vetoes will validate my arguments.

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Veto Distribution (1946-1991)

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Veto Distribution (1992-2014)

The Soviet Union systematically crippled the effectiveness of the Security Council by excessive use of veto. Such indiscriminate use of veto by Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet foreign minister between 1957 and 1985, earned him the sobriquet of “Mr Nyet”. Of late, United States has surged ahead of Russia in terms of using vetoes most of which have been used to defend the actions of the Israeli government.

No discussion on reformation of Security Council can end without talking about the urgent need to broaden the representation of the permanent membership. In doing so, however, one has to carefully select the axis of one’s argument. Is the reform a call for inducting G4 nations (India, Brazil, Germany and Japan) or is it an advocacy of better geographical distribution? Any compromise which will include a bit of both options will expand the Security Council to a level that will erode the efficacy of the institution. Also, it is doubtful that such a proposition will find favour with P5 (the current five permanent members) nations as it will substantially dilute their existing powers. The two options have to be seen as mutually exclusive and only one can be selected for now.

Russia and China, which are seen as more hostile than others when it comes to increasing the permanent members of the Council, cannot be allowed the luxury to veto both options – another reason to reform the veto provisions. If these two reforms – changes in veto powers and increasing the representation in permanent membership – are not carried out, the Security Council will be rendered irrelevant to the primary cause it espouses. Future victims, like the MH17 ones, will continue to be slighted.


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