On Wednesday, the United States was the only country to vote “no” on a proposed U.N. Security Council resolution authored by Brazil that called for “humanitarian pauses” in Israel’s bombing of Gaza. Twelve countries voted for the resolution, including several surprising ones, such as France and the United Arab Emirates. Two more, Russia and the U.K., abstained. But according to the Security Council’s rules, America’s sole “no” vote meant that the resolution failed.
Human Rights Watch criticized America’s actions, saying, “Once again the U.S. cynically used their veto to prevent the U.N. Security Council from acting on Israel and Palestine at a time of unprecedented carnage.”
The Security Council has 15 countries. Ten are rotating members, elected by the U.N. General Assembly and serving on the council for a period of two years. Five are permanent members: the U.S., Russia, China, France, and the U.K. If any of the permanent members vetoes a resolution, it will not pass, no matter how many votes are in favor. This means that any of the permanent members can veto any action by the Security Council.
Since Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has made impassioned speeches several times decrying the injustice of the veto power, which Russia has used on four occasions regarding Ukraine.
Here’s some of what Zelenskyy said directly to the Security Council six weeks after Russia’s attack on Ukraine:
We are dealing with a state that is turning the veto in the U.N. Security Council into the right to die. This undermines the whole architecture of global security. It allows them to go unpunished, so that they’re destroying everything that they can. So, if this continues, the countries will rely only on the power of their own arms to ensure their security and not on international law, not rely on international institutions. The United Nations can be simply closed. … The U.N. system must be reformed immediately so that the veto is not the right to die, that there is a fair representation in the Security Council of all regions of the world.
Zelenskyy spoke again on this subject just last month in a long Twitter thread:
It is true Zelenskyy does not have any principled disagreement with the veto power. He has said nothing about the U.S. veto this week. Moreover, he also does not have any principled objection to a nation invading and occupying other people’s land, as illustrated by his unqualified support for Israel since the October 7 attacks by Hamas. Like most world leaders, he’s a hilarious, garden-variety hypocrite who wants different rules for himself and his allies of the moment.
Nonetheless, what Zelenskyy said about the Security Council veto power is accurate. It is a core flaw of the U.N. and must be rectified if the institution is ever to serve a useful purpose. It’s just difficult to see how that could happen.
To understand this situation, it’s necessary to go back and examine why the veto power was created in the first place.
The U.N.’s charter gives the Security Council “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security” — that is, anything involving war.
The structure of the Security Council was negotiated in San Francisco in 1945. The fights over it were so vociferous that the room where it took place was nicknamed “Madison Square Garden.”
The strife was straightforward. The five countries that would become the Security Council’s permanent members were essentially the victors in World War II. (China’s seat was held by Taiwan until 1971.) They all believed that their possession of exclusive veto power was a super idea, while other countries could not muster the same enthusiasm.
To the victors went the spoils. Democratic Sen. Thomas Connally of Texas was one of the main U.S. representatives in San Francisco. He straightforwardly explained that the U.S. would kill the U.N. completely rather than give up its own proposed veto power. “You may, if you wish, go home from this conference and say that you have defeated the veto,” said Connally, while tearing up a copy of a draft of the U.N. charter. “But what will be your answer when you are asked, ‘Where is the charter?’”
Francis Wilcox, a U.S. State Department official, later wrote an unusually honest academic article on what had happened. The veto was the issue “that raised the most controversy,” Wilcox explained, because it “reinforced the special position of the permanent members.” And not just that — they could also veto any attempts to amend the U.N. charter to take away their veto, thus guaranteeing that “their special position could not be changed.” For many Americans there, the veto was “defective because it would permit Russia, Great Britain, China, and France to block action in the Council,” yet “to many of those people its main virtue lies in the fact that it also gives the United States that same veto.”
The Security Council veto was used solely by the Soviet Union from the U.N.’s founding in 1945 until October 1956. Wonderfully enough, this streak was finally broken when the U.K. and France vetoed an American draft resolution calling on Israel to halt its attack on Egypt during the Suez Crisis.
Things have changed a great deal since then. The first U.S. veto to protect Israel occurred in 1972. Since then, the U.S. has vetoed about four dozen more resolutions criticizing Israel. In the decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has similarly vetoed numerous resolutions to protect its own client state, Syria, as well as itself concerning Ukraine.
In other words, since the U.N.’s founding, it has largely always been a debating society because the world’s most powerful countries, led by the U.S., want it that way.
There has recently been renewed energy at the U.N. to change things. However, given the fact that the five permanent members can block any changes, the best idea that anyone could come up with was to ask them nicely to change. France and Mexico proposed that the five powers “voluntarily and collectively suspend the use of the veto in cases of mass atrocities.” There has also been hopeful discussion about expanding the Security Council to 25 members, with Germany, Brazil, India, and Japan joining as permanent members.
The chances of any of this going anywhere are slim, however. Following the U.S. veto of Brazil’s resolution this week, Brazil’s U.N. representative observed, “Sadly, very sadly, the Council was yet again unable to adopt a resolution on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Again, silence and inaction prevailed. To no one’s true, long-term interest.”