By Nelly Kapurdova
“The world has changed and the UN must change and adapt. If we do not change the [Security] Council, we risk the situation where the primacy of the Council may be challenged by some of the new emerging countries,” warned Kofi Annan, a man with worried dark eyes and a deeply wrinkled forehead, looking as if he had lived to see thousands of tragedies. His career in the United Nations has been marked by his undeniable influential leadership forthe recognition of human rights by corporations, but also by his profound mistakes, like the failure to avoid the genocide in Srebrenica in 1995. Kofi Annan’s career in the UN is, of course, an analogy of what the UN’s Security Council (SC) achieved and failed to achieve. He leaves behind a utopian idea to protect the world from atrocities, but with a decision-making process that has the potential to undermine the main pillars of democracy – equality and inclusivity – through the mechanism of veto power. This immense power has been vested in the hands of only five countries in the SC who can choose to reject peace resolutions supported by a vast majority of UN members, possibly failing to prevent global crises.
The idea of unifying the world’s nations was materialized in the League of Nations in 1919 following the devastation of the First World War. The purpose was to create a community of nations that could counterbalance the threat of another potential world war. The League did not deliver due to stalemate-situations among all the holders of veto power and the withdrawal of the US from the union. In the years after the brutal Second World War, the initiative’s importance became evident and the idea was revived from the ashes. To lure the war winners with the highest military expenditure into a peace union, France, Great Britain, the US, the Republic of China and the Soviet Union were offered the exclusive right to impose a veto blocking a resolution on matters that concern their sovereignty and security and a permanent seat in the Security Council. The smaller countries faced the dilemma of either agreeing to the superiority of the five countries with veto power (P5) or rejecting the whole idea of the UN and hence staying more vulnerable to threats.
Contrary to general belief, not all resolutions can be blocked by the P5; they are not able to block procedural matters (discussions of a problem), but only the substantial questions which embody bigger-scale crises. An example is the Russian veto on the resolution that aimed to condemn the ethnic cleansing and internal displacement of Bosnian Muslims in the early and mid-90s that later resulted in the massacre in Srebrenica. A tool of seizing the veto power used already ten times is the Uniting for Peace resolution where the General Assembly can override the veto when the SC “fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security”.
The Swedish campaign Stop Illegitimate Vetoes takes the role of a watchdog during the veto acts. In their definition, the P5 can only use their veto legitimately when the sovereignty and security of one veto-holding state are threatened. The campaign has reported that 46 out of 48 vetoes made since the end of the Cold War have been illegitimate, as they do not concern any of the veto-holding countries’ sovereignty or security. Sweden’s official statement at the UNSC open debate aligns with the campaign’s conclusions and condemns the P5 of “serious violations of international law”. 96 UN-members signed the French Declaration on limiting the veto in cases of mass atrocities signalling the increasing pressure for change by a big part of the UN. This brilliant diplomatic act does not affect the Charter of UN, which has never been subjected to changes, gaining bigger chances to influence the SC.
In an intergovernmental institution like the UN, the inclusiveness of different actors in the decision-making is obligatory since the geopolitical scenery of the 21st century has been painted by emerging actors and new unions. They will sooner rather than later have enough military or economic power to challenge the legitimacy of today’s veto holders. If we follow the post-Second World War logic of including only the strongest in the decision-making, then India, for example, could join the SC as a permanent member with its second highest military capacity.
To conclude, the veto power is a manifestation of the assumed superiority of five countries over the rest of the world. Therefore, the veto system represents a time immediately after the Second World War that in today’s geopolitical context is harming the credibility of the UN as a community of states which preaches democracy and equality. New global players question that superiority with their economic, military and technological strength thereby challenging the “right” of veto. Nevertheless, when analysing the UN, political scholars should not forget that this is a union of nearly 200 countries with different foreign policies and views of how the world should be governed. The UNSC’s ability to legally bind the members to follow the resolutions and being the place where rival countries can discuss sensitive topics freely and work on resolving issues as a community proves the uniqueness and necessity of the body.
Nelly Kapurdova did her studies in political sciences at New Bulgarian University, Sciences Po in Grenoble and University of Konstanz. During that period she took interest in youth policies as she wanted to be a part of the civil society in Bulgaria so she became involved in youth work for multiple youth organizations as a volunteer and as an analyst.