Illustration by Naeema Mohammed Sageer.

The Veto Must Go

With the recent Russian veto in the resolution condemning Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, the veto has once again proved to be an anachronism. We must get rid of it.

Mar 7, 2022

The United Nations was formed at the San Francisco Conference as a global commitment to avoid repeating the mistakes of 1939. The League of Nations, a previous attempt at an international peacekeeping organization, had proven incapable of preventing World War II. Treading the same dangerous path, the United Nations has been a dysfunctional organization since its inception, largely unable to put a cork on war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. Critics attribute this debilitation to several structural problems that have beleaguered this institution. These range from a general lack of an enforcement mechanism under the framework of the United Nations Charter to excessive power granted to a few members within the organization rendering it merely an imperialist extension under the masquerade of a formalized and acceptable form.
The most powerful organ of the United Nations, the United Nations Security Council, is the primary organ responsible for the maintenance of international peace and security. The council consists of 15 members, each with one vote. Out of the 15, five members are permanent members: the United States of America, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain, the Republic of France, the People’s Republic of China and 10 are non-permanent members rotating on a biannual basis. The “veto power” allows the permanent members to unilaterally stop the passage of resolutions. The United Nations Charter does not use the word “veto”; however, it is a colloquial term used to capture the crux of the voting procedure of the United Nations. Article 27 of the United Nations Charter requires the concurring or abstaining votes of all five members of the United Nations Security Council. The power of veto is also referred to as the principle of great power unanimity. However, this “great power unanimity” has rarely been able to live up to its reputation.
The veto was developed in 1945 to bring the United States of America and the USSR, the two “upcoming superpowers” to the negotiating table. A privileged position of power relative to other nations gave them an incentive to join the organization. The fact that Washington never joined the League of Nations, coupled with Moscow’s withdrawal from it made their active involvement in the second generation of universal intergovernmental organizations imperative. The veto seemed like a reasonable carrot at the time.
However, the costs of veto outweigh its benefits. It is undemocratic, handing over the baton of power to the already powerful and thus merely acting as a tool for a hegemonic extension. The trajectory of the misuse of the veto since 1945 is revealing. In many ways, this power has become a theatrical spectacle undermining the foundations of diplomacy on which the organization was constructed. Since its first meeting in 1946, a total of 190 resolutions have been vetoed. At the peak of the Cold War, both blocs of power exercised the veto to expand their ideological influence instead of the UN Charter.
The reason that the veto has proven to be a hindrance to the functioning of the Security Council is twofold. The first is the use of the veto for vested political interests, which in turn makes the Council lose its credibility on the international forum. The Security Council’s permanent five members have rarely voted in a manner that prevented humanitarian crises and mass atrocities on a global scale.
This paralysis stemmed from countries using their vote to promote their foreign policy with a complete disregard for the lives of individuals in conflict areas. The epitome of this is the deadlock the Council reached during the unrest in Syria. Even after proven use of chemicals weapons by the Assad government, the Russian Federation vetoed 16 resolutions condemning Assad and authorizing countermeasures through Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Similarly on the other end of the spectrum, the United States of America has repeatedly used the veto to block resolutions banning the construction of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory, even after the International Court of Justice found that the settlements were in blatant violation of international law.
The second issue that exacerbates the organization’s inaction is the concept of the “hidden veto”. The hidden veto is a situation where a resolution is never tabled because of prior knowledge that a country is going to veto it. A pertinent example of this are the repeated threats made by France to veto any resolution concerning the war in Iraq 2003. Thus, the use of the hidden veto disincentivizes many countries from even proposing a resolution. It also enabled the horrific genocide that unfolded in Rwanda in 1994 after the hidden vetoes of the United States of America and the French government. The countless conflicts in Yemen, Iraq, East Timor, Syria and Palestine add to the litany of failures of the Security Council.
The world cannot take another 77 years of unaccountability and inequality. A reimagined, stronger structure has a chance of creating a more fit for purpose and adaptive U.N., ready to face the challenges of the future. The veto power of the United Nations needs to be scrapped. The inequalities of the past can’t be the rules of the present.
Aarushi Prasad is Deputy Opinion Editor. Email her at
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