At the end of World War II, the international community was tired of war – five powerful nations; France, China, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States; were declared the victors, and decided to take steps towards encouraging peace so another brutal conflict would be less likely to take place. Thus was the birth of the United Nations – a new international body with the aim of keeping the peace. Our five victorious nations were, naturally, given the prime spots: to this day, each holds a “veto power”: when the Security Council of the UN passes resolutions, the five permanent members all must agree on it in order for it to pass. There are, of course, varying opinions on the United Nations and its effectiveness (a friend of mine calls it “Useless Nations”), but one thing is certain: the veto power makes it more difficult for the United Nations to get things done. In response, many sources, including Al Jazeera have suggested getting rid of the veto power of the security council. Would that really be such a good idea?
First of all, we need to see the issue with the five countries on the council. Three of the five are European; all are nuclear states. The fact that so many are European promotes a sort of cultural dominance which is unrepresentative of the population of the world. When 60% of the nations with veto power and permanent positions are primarily white, liberal democracies, this means the UN’s decisions will likely reflect this value set, rather than other value sets. The fact that all are nuclear powers is also significant: it sends the message that in order to be recognized as a powerful nation, you must have nuclear weapons. Though this assumption is based on other factors, its symbolic significance within the United Nations furthers this belief, which has been detrimental in the cases of Iran and North Korea. Furthermore, the countries that originally joined the security council are quite unlike those that exist today; China, for example, had not yet come under Communist rule. Some argue that India should also be given a permanent spot, as it is rising in global power, but due to the volatile nature of international politics and the sudden changes that can happen to markets and power dynamics, it is difficult to award these permanent spots, or even justify some current permanent members’ spots. One assumption that is made regarding the permanent members is that they have earned this spot by being powerful, major players in the international arena, but we must realize there are errors in that assumption in order to correctly gauge whether or not the veto power is proper.
Second is effectiveness: in the debate about the security council veto, we see similar arguments to those about parliamentary and presidential systems. In America, as in the UN, when resolutions are voted on there can be quite a bit of gridlock and disagreement. There have been 199 vetoes in the UN between 1946 and 1989, and another 17 between 1990 and 2004. Recently, veto power has become an issue because China and Russia have opposed intervention in Syria (including ordering Bashar al-Assad to step down) and China especially has opposed sanctions on North Korea (though they eventually conceded). If other countries on the Security Council vote for something, and one country votes against it, it seems unfair that the resolution won’t pass due to the will of one member. Looking at this from a western perspective, given recent events with vetoes by China and Russia, it is easy to see this power as a flawed thing, but we must look at it with a more open mind. China and Russia do have entirely different beliefs and cultures, and their input could be valuable. A Security Council that ascribed completely to western ideals would fail as an international body as it would not reflect the will of the world. Having to persuade countries like China and Russia may encourage international cooperation and compromise, which is a good thing… but it can also serve to aggravate disputes. The argument about effectiveness of the UN, therefore, comes to what is essentially a draw.
One of the veto power’s more sinister capabilities is to further the interests of a permanent member, against the will of others. The United States, for example, has used a number of vetoes to protect Israel from UN admonishment; though the majority of the world is against the United States in this case, as it is a permanent member, it has veto power. Fifty-nine vetoes have been cast to block the admission of member states to the UN, an action that can be considered similar to not granting an individual the ability to vote. Many permanent members are already significantly more powerful than other states, and giving them more of a voice in the United Nations and allowing them to utilize its powers to their own benefit rather than to international benefit does seem unfair, especially when we consider the argument made in the second paragraph. This concept undermines the entire legitimacy of the UN as a place for international cooperation. Legitimacy is important, as the belief that a body is effective and legitimate by its constituents is key to its success. The UN has many affiliated groups, like the World Trade Organization and the International Crime Court that serve important functions; when people do not have faith in the UN itself, it hurts the efficacy of these groups as well. (It is also interesting to note that the permanent members, even if they commit a crime and another group wants to try them in international court, in many cases they can actually veto this decision and avoid the court.)
After weighing both sides, it does seem to show that the veto power of the Security Council is unfair and undermines the United Nations… but it does have some benefits to it as well, and it is impossible to know what would happen if the veto power was abolished (not to mention if there were no more permanent members). It does make sense to think that the United States and other powerful countries, like China, should be represented more heavily than some other countries, as not only do they have bigger populations but their actions affect more of the world. In order to satisfy both sides of this argument, there is a fairly simple solution that is implemented successfully in democracies around the world: the power to override a veto. If other Security Council members could still pass a resolution with 2/3 majority of the Security Council, for example, it would make the powers of the permanent members less tyrannical and allow for better decisionmaking that is more reflective of all members’ beliefs. It may be a long time before people stop seeing the United Nations as the “Useless Nations”, but evening out the playing field in this way would certainly be a good start.