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Nations agree to new scrutiny of U.N. vetos

Prompted by its own paralysis over Syria and Ukraine, the U.N. moved to prevent abuse of power by Russia and other permanent Security Council members.

iechtenstein's U.N. Ambassador Christian Wenaweser before the General Assembly
iechtenstein's U.N. Ambassador Christian Wenaweser, right, before the General Assembly led by President Abdulla Shahid, left (AN/U.N. GA President/Liechtenstein U.N.)

UNITED NATIONS (AN) — Prompted by its own paralysis over Syria and Ukraine, the United Nations adopted a General Assembly resolution by consensus on Tuesday aimed at preventing Russia and other veto-wielding Security Council members from abusing their power.

The resolution requires the General Assembly to sponsor a debate on any situation that has led to a Security Council veto. The debate must be held within 10 days of the veto being used.

Its passage represents a rare case of a tiny nation successfully taking on the U.N. power structure — and highlights the depth of frustration over the world body's inability to take forceful action. In this case, the protagonist was Liechtenstein, a nation with a population of just 38,000 people that has not had an army since the mid-19th century and relies on neighboring Switzerland for diplomatic and economic support.

The resolution is non-binding, so it lacks the power to compel any of the 15-nation council's five permanent members to explain their use of the veto power. Its proponents hope, nonetheless, that the prospect of being put on the defensive may hold some sway. At the least, other nations in the 193-nation assembly will be given the podium whenever council action is thwarted through use of a veto.

Liechtenstein began pushing the veto initiative two years ago "out of growing concern that the Security Council has found it increasingly difficult to carry out its work in accordance with its mandate under the U.N. Charter, of which the increase of the use of the veto is but the most obvious expression," Liechtenstein's U.N. Ambassador Christian Wenaweser told the assembly.

Under the U.N. Charter, the Security Council alone has the power of approving international non-military and military action if it seeks to "maintain or restore international peace and security."

But the council's permanent members — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — can veto any action. The other 10 non-permanent members are elected by the General Assembly to two-year terms that begin on New Year's Day; five are replaced each year.

Addressing 'acute failure'

Russia's Deputy U.N. Ambassador Gennady Kuzmin said his nation had "no desire to join the consensus" because the veto power is a "cornerstone of the U.N. architecture" built at the end of World War II.

Without the veto, the council "would have turned into a body churning out dubious decisions imposed by a conditional majority, the implementation of which would hardly be possible. In the history of multilateral mechanisms, there have already been attempts to do without the right of veto, and, as is known, this did not lead to anything good," Kuzmin said after the resolution was adopted.

"In this regard, we are convinced that it is not the veto that should be criticized," he said, "but the unwillingness of some members of the council to hear and take into account the opinions of others, to find compromise and balanced solutions, which often leads to the forced need to apply the veto."

However, Russia has made far greater use of the veto than other permanent members: 143 times, compared with the U.S., 86; Britain, 30; and France and China, 18 each, according to U.N. records.

The resolution's 80 co-sponsors included Britain and the United States. Richard Mills, the deputy U.S. ambassador to the U.N. in New York, noted after the resolution was adopted that the council's veto power has been controversial since the U.N. Charter was negotiated in San Francisco in 1945.

Mills singled out Russia for its "pattern of abusing its veto right over the past decade" that includes resolutions to push for accountability in Syria, set up a criminal tribunal on the downing of flight MH-17 over Ukraine, and deplore Russian aggression against Ukraine. He said the United States agrees that the five permanent members "should be prepared to explain why the resolution at issue would not have furthered the maintenance of international peace and security."

Amnesty International's Secretary General Agnès Callamard said the resolution sends an important message that nations should not be allowed to evade all accountability for abusing their veto power. "No longer can they simply hold up their hand and block measures that could have saved lives without expecting any recriminations," she said. "It is a way of addressing the acute failure of the Security Council to take effective action on various situations as result of the veto."