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The United Nations Security Council "veto power" refers to the power of the permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and United States) to veto any "substantive" resolution. A permanent member's abstention or absence does not prevent a draft resolution from being adopted. This veto power does not apply to "procedural" votes, as determined by the permanent members themselves. A permanent member can also block the selection of a Secretary-General, although a formal veto is unnecessary since the vote is taken behind closed doors.
The unconditional veto possessed by the five governments has been seen by critics as the most undemocratic character of the UN. Critics also claim that veto power is the main cause for international inaction on war crimes and crimes against humanity. However, the United States refused to join the United Nations in 1945 unless it was given a veto. The absence of the United States from the League of Nations contributed to its ineffectiveness. Supporters of the veto power regard it as a promoter of international stability, a check against military interventions, and a critical safeguard against U.S. domination.
Article 27 of the United Nations Charter states:
Although the "power of veto" is not explicitly mentioned in the UN Charter, the fact that "substantive" decisions by the UNSC require "the concurring votes of the permanent members", means that any of those permanent members can prevent the adoption, by the Council, of any draft resolutions on "substantive" matters. For this reason, the "power of veto" is also referred to as the principle of "great power unanimity" and the veto itself is sometimes referred to as the "great power veto".
The idea of states having a veto over the actions of international organisations was not new in 1945. From the foundation of the League of Nations in 1920, each member of the League Council, whether permanent or non-permanent, had a veto on any non-procedural issue. From 1920 there were 4 permanent and 4 non-permanent members, but by 1936 the number of non-permanent members had increased to 11. Thus there were in effect 15 vetoes. This was one of several defects of the League that made action on many issues impossible.
The UN Charter provides for unanimity among the Permanent Members of the Security Council (the veto) was the result of extensive discussion, including at Dumbarton Oaks (August–October 1944) and Yalta (February 1945). The evidence is that the UK, US, USSR, and France all favoured the principle of unanimity and that they were motivated in this not only by a belief in the desirability of the major powers acting together but also by a concern to protect their own sovereign rights and national interest. Truman, who became President of the US in April 1945, went so far as to write in his memoirs: "All our experts, civil and military, favored it, and without such a veto no arrangement would have passed the Senate."
The veto was forced on all other governments by the (soon to be) five veto holders. In the negotiations building up to the creation of the UN, the veto power was resented by many small countries, and in fact was forced on them by the veto nations – US, UK, China, France and the Soviet Union – through a threat that without the veto there would be no UN. Francis O. Wilcox, an adviser to US delegation to the 1945 conference described it: "At San Francisco, the issue was made crystal clear by the leaders of the Big Five: it was either the Charter with the veto or no Charter at all. Senator Connally [from the US delegation] dramatically tore up a copy of the Charter during one of his speeches and reminded the small states that they would be guilty of that same if they opposed the unanimity principle. "You may, if you wish," he said, "go home from this Conference and say that you have defeated the veto. But what will be your answer when you are asked: 'Where is the Charter'?"
The United Nations Security Council veto system was established in order to prohibit the UN from taking any future action directly against its principal founding members. One of the lessons of the League of Nations (1919–46) had been that an international organisation cannot work if all the major powers are not members. The expulsion of the Soviet Union from the League of Nations in December 1939, following its November 1939 attack on Finland soon after the outbreak of World War II, was just one of many events in the League's long history of incomplete membership.
It had already been decided at the UN's founding conference in 1944, that United Kingdom, China, the Soviet Union, the United States and, "in due course" France, should be the permanent members of any newly formed Council. France had been defeated and occupied by Germany (1940–44), but its role as a permanent member of the League of Nations, its status as a colonial power and the activities of the Free French forces on the allied side allowed it a place at the table with the other four.
The actual use of the veto, and the constant possibility of its use, have been central features of the functioning of the Security Council throughout the UN's history. In the period from 1945 to the end of 2009, 215 resolutions on substantive issues were vetoed, sometimes by more than one of the P5. The average number of vetoes cast each year to 1989 was over five: since then the average annual number has been just above one.
The figures reflect the fact that a Permanent Member of the Security Council can avoid casting a veto if the proposal in question does not in any event obtain the requisite majority. In the first two decades of the UN, the Western states were frequently able to defeat resolutions without actually using the veto; and the Soviet Union was in this position in the 1970s and 1980s. Use of the veto has reflected a degree of diplomatic isolation of the vetoing state(s) on the particular issue. Because of the use or threat of the veto, the Security Council could at best have a limited role in certain wars and interventions in which its Permanent Members were involved – for example in Algeria (1954–62); Suez (1956), Hungary (1956), Vietnam (1946–75), the Sino-Vietnamese war (1979), Afghanistan (1979–88), Panama (1989), Iraq (2003), and Georgia (2008).
Not all cases of UN inaction in crises have been due to the actual use of the veto. For example, re the Iran–Iraq war of 1980–88 there was no use of the veto, but the UN role was minimal except in its concluding phase. Likewise, the limited involvement of the UN in the crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan from 2003 onwards was not due to any actual use of the veto.
Since 1990 the veto has been used sparingly. The period from 31 May 1990 to 11 May 1993 was the longest without the use of the veto in the history of the UN. Up until the end of 1989, the number of resolutions passed by the Security Council had been 646 – an average of about 15 per annum. The figures for the years since then show a peak of Security Council activism in 1993, followed by a modest degree of retrenchment.
In 1950 the Soviet Union missed one important opportunity to exercise its veto power. The Soviet government had adopted an "empty chair" policy at the Security Council from January 1950, owing to its discontent over the UN's refusal to recognise the People's Republic of China's representatives as the legitimate representatives of China, and with the hope of preventing any future decisions by the Council on substantive matters. Despite the wording of the Charter (which makes no provisions for passing resolutions with the abstention or absence of a veto-bearing member), this was treated as a non-blocking abstention. This had in fact already become Council practice by that time, the Council has already adopted numerous draft resolutions despite the lack of an affirmative vote by each of its permanent members. The result of the Soviet Union's absence from the Security Council was that it was not in a position to veto the UN Security Council resolutions 83 (27 June 1950) and 84 (7 July 1950) authorising the US-led military coalition in Korea that assisted South Korea in repelling the North Korean attack.
The veto power can also be used to block the selection of a Secretary-General. However, this is not counted as a veto of a Security Council Resolution, because the Security Council is only issuing a "recommendation" to the General Assembly. Since 1981, no Secretary-General has been formally vetoed, because the Security Council does not vote until they have already agreed on a Secretary-General in a series of straw polls. A vote by a permanent member to "discourage" a candidate is considered equivalent to a veto, and the candidate will withdraw from the race without forcing a formal veto. The formal recommendation of a Secretary-General is approved unanimously by acclamation.
Every permanent member has vetoed at least one candidate for Secretary-General. The United States circumvented the Soviet veto in 1950 by asking the General Assembly to vote on Trygve Lie's reappointment without a recommendation from the Security Council. However, every Secretary-General since 1953 has been recommended by a unanimous vote of the permanent members of the Security Council. Vetoes have not been recorded publicly since 1981, because the straw poll is taken by secret ballot. However, countries may announce their votes to encourage the rotating members to vote for another candidate.
From 1946 to 2016, vetoes were issued on 258 occasions. For that period, usage breaks down as follows:
The following list describes the most recent veto from each of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. France and the United Kingdom have not vetoed any resolutions since 1989. China last used the veto power in 2017, while Russia and the United States have both exercised their veto power in 2018.
Between 1946 and 1971, the Chinese seat on the Security Council was the government of the Republic of China (that retreated to Taiwan in 1949) during which time its representative used the veto only once, to block Mongolia's application for membership in 1955, because the ROC considered the country to be a part of China. This postponed the admission of Mongolia until 1961, when the Soviet Union announced that unless Mongolia was admitted, it would block the admission of all of the newly independent African states. Faced with this pressure, the ROC relented under protest.
After the Republic of China's expulsion from the United Nations in 1971, the first veto cast by the present occupant, the People's Republic of China, was issued on 25 August 1972 over Bangladesh's admission to the United Nations. As of February 2017, the People's Republic of China has used its veto eleven times. Observers have noted a preference for China to abstain rather than the veto on resolutions not directly related to Chinese interests.
In the early days of the United Nations, the Soviet Union commissar and later minister for foreign affairs, Vyacheslav Molotov, vetoed resolutions so many times that he was known as "Mr. Veto". In fact, the Soviet Union was responsible for nearly half of all vetoes ever cast—79 vetoes were used in the first 10 years. Molotov regularly rejected bids for new membership because of the US's refusal to admit all of the Soviet republics. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia used its veto power sparingly. However, its use of the veto increased in the late 2000s and 2010s, due to a number of resolutions on conflicts that it was involved militarily in, including Georgia, Syria and Ukraine.
France uses its veto power sparingly. The last time it unilaterally vetoed a draft was in 1976 to block a resolution on the question of the independence of the Comoros, which was done to keep the island of Mayotte as a French overseas community. It also vetoed, along with U.K, a resolution calling on the immediate cessation of military action by the Israeli army against Egypt in 1956 during the Suez Crisis. The last time France used its veto power was in December 1989 concerning the situation in Panama. In 2003, the threat of a French veto of resolution on the impending invasion of Iraq caused friction between France and the United States.
The United Kingdom has used its Security Council veto power on 32 occasions. The first occurrence was in October 1956 when the United Kingdom and France vetoed a letter from the USA to the President of the Security Council concerning Palestine. The most recent was in December 1989 when the United Kingdom, France and the United States vetoed a draft resolution condemning the United States invasion of Panama.
The United Kingdom used its veto power, along with France, to veto a draft resolution aimed at resolving the Suez Canal crisis (in which France and UK were militarily involved) in 1956. The UK and France eventually withdrew from Egypt after the U.S. instigated an 'emergency special session' of the General Assembly, under the terms of the "Uniting for Peace" resolution, which led to the establishment of the United Nations Emergency Force I (UNEF I), by the adoption of Assembly resolution 1001. The UK also used its veto seven times in relation to Rhodesia from 1963 to 1973, five of these occasions were unilateral; the only occasions on which the UK has used its veto power unilaterally.
Ambassador Charles W. Yost cast the first U.S. veto in 1970, regarding a crisis in Rhodesia, and the U.S. cast a lone veto in 1972 to block a resolution that condemned Israel for war against Syria and Lebanon. Since that time it has become the most frequent user of veto power, mainly on resolutions criticising and condemning Israel and almost always unilaterally for war and human rights violations; since 2002, the Negroponte doctrine has been applied for the use of a veto on resolutions relating to the ongoing Israel-Palestinian conflict. This has been a constant cause of friction between the General Assembly and the Security Council. On 18 February 2011, the Obama administration vetoed resolutions condemning Israeli settlements. On 23 December 2016, the Obama administration allowed a resolution calling for an end to Israeli settlements to pass.
The veto power has brought criticism to the Security Council. As it stands, a veto from any of the permanent members can halt any possible action the Council may take. One country's objection, rather than the opinions of a majority of countries, may cripple any possible UN armed or diplomatic response to a crisis. For instance, John J. Mearsheimer claimed that "since 1982, the US has vetoed 32 Security Council resolutions critical of Israel, more than the total number of vetoes cast by all the other Security Council members." Since candidates for the Security Council are proposed by regional blocs, the Arab League and its allies are usually included but Israel, which joined the UN in 1949, has never been elected to the Security Council. The Council has repeatedly condemned Israel. On the other hand, critics contend that, while Israel has the United States to rely on to veto any pertinent legislation against it, the Palestinians lack any such power.
Apart from the US, several resolutions have been vetoed by Russia, notably attempts to impose sanctions on Syria during the Syrian Civil War and to condemn Russia's own annexation of Crimea in 2014. In the case of the latter, Russia's lone veto over-ruled the thirteen other votes in favour of the condemnation. As part of the Soviet Union, Russia also vetoed a UN resolution condemning the USSR's shooting down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 in 1983. The veto has been singled out as a threat to human rights, with Amnesty International claiming that the five permanent members had used their veto to "promote their political self interest or geopolitical interest above the interest of protecting civilians." As of 2015, Amnesty International has suggested that a solution would involve the five permanent members surrendering their veto on issues of genocide.
Some see the fact that veto power exclusive to the permanent five as being anachronistic, unjust, or counterproductive. Peter Nadin writes that "The veto is an anachronism ... In the twenty-first century, the veto has come to be almost universally seen as a disproportionate power and an impediment to credible international action to crises." The "enormous influence of the veto power" has been cited as a cause of the UN's ineffectiveness in preventing and responding to genocide, violence, and human rights violations. Various countries outside the P5, such as the Non-Aligned Movement and African Union have proposed limitations on the veto power.
Because of this situation, it has been denounced that the Security Council is only effective when it comes to safeguarding the interests of its permanent members, and is unable to act against them. Consequently, resolutions authorising intervention in the internal affairs of other countries have been few. The interests of the permanent members have come to rest on the concept of non-interference, at the expense of the "keep the peace and security" mandate with which the Security Council was created. Perhaps because, while the "responsibility to protect" is not binding, state sovereignty remains a priority and, as the specialist in international relations Philippe Moreau-Desfarges points out, "even if the rights of their populations are violated, only the Security Council can decide whether peace is threatened and take measures to protect that peace". Thus, the Security Council has not taken forceful measures to punish governments considered as authoritarian, neglecting the "responsibility to defend civilian populations", recognised by the UN General Assembly in 2005.
Various discussions have taken place in recent years over the suitability of the Security Council veto power in today's world. Key arguments include that the five permanent members no longer represent the most stable and responsible member states in the United Nations, and that their veto power slows down and even prevents important decisions being made on matters of international peace and security. Due to the global changes that have taken place politically and economically since the formation of the UN in 1945, widespread debate has been apparent over whether the five permanent members of the UN Security Council remain the best member states to hold veto power. While some of the permanent members are still typically regarded as great powers, there is debate over their suitability to retain exclusive veto power.
A second argument against retaining the UNSC veto power is that it is detrimental to balanced political decisions, as any draft text needs to be approved of by each permanent member before any draft resolution can possibly be adopted. Indeed, several proposed draft resolutions are never formally presented to the Council for a vote owing to the knowledge that a permanent member would vote against their adoption (the so-called "pocket veto"). Debate also exists over the potential use of the veto power to provide "diplomatic cover" to a permanent member's allies. The United States has used its veto power more than any other permanent member since 1972, particularly on resolutions condemning the actions or policies of Israel.
Advocates of the veto power believe that it is just as necessary in the current geo-political landscape, and that without the veto power, the Security Council would be open to making democratic "majority rules" decisions on matters that have implications at a global level—decisions that may well go directly against the interests of a permanent member.
Discussions on improving the UN's effectiveness and responsiveness to international security threats often include reform of the UNSC veto. Proposals include: limiting the use of the veto to vital national security issues; requiring agreement from multiple states before exercising the veto; and abolishing the veto entirely. However, any reform of the veto will be very difficult, if not impossible. In fact, Articles 108 and 109 of the United Nations Charter grant the P5 veto over any amendments to the Charter, requiring them to approve of any modifications to the UNSC veto power that they themselves hold: it is highly unlikely that any of the P5 would accept a reform of the UN Charter that would be detrimental to their own national interests.
Nonetheless, it has been argued that with the adoption of the "Uniting for Peace" resolution by the General Assembly, and given the interpretations of the Assembly's powers that became customary international law as a result, that the Security Council "power of veto" problem could be surmounted. By adopting A/RES/377 A, on 3 November 1950, over two-thirds of UN Member states declared that, according to the UN Charter, the permanent members of the UNSC cannot and should not prevent the UNGA from taking any and all action necessary to restore international peace and security, in cases where the UNSC has failed to exercise its "primary responsibility" for maintaining peace. Such an interpretation sees the UNGA as being awarded "final responsibility"—rather than "secondary responsibility"—for matters of international peace and security, by the UN Charter. Various official and semi-official UN reports make explicit reference to the Uniting for Peace resolution as providing a mechanism for the UNGA to overrule any UNSC vetoes; thus rendering them little more than delays in UN action, should two-thirds of the Assembly subsequently agree that action is necessary.
The threat of the use of the veto by the P5 has led the UN Security Council to adopt what some commentators have described as unlawful resolutions that violated the UN Charter. For example, UNSC resolution 1422 of 2002, renewed once through resolution 1487 of 2003, aimed at exempting peace-keepers and other military personnel conducting operations authorised by the Security Council from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC) for a period of 12 months. Resolution 1422 was adopted as a consequence to the US veto on 30 June 2002 to the renewal of the Peace-keeping operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a State Party to the Rome Statute of the ICC.
The United Nations’ founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus, and with America's consent the veto by Security Council permanent members was enshrined in the United Nations Charter. The profound wisdom of this has underpinned the stability of international relations for decades.
China's veto at the Security Council has always played an important role in checking the instinct of war and resisting power politics.