United Nations Security Council veto power

The United Nations Security Council "power of veto" refers to the veto power wielded solely by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and United States), enabling them to prevent the adoption of any "substantive" resolution, as well as decide which issues fall under "substantive" title. This de facto control over the UN Council by the five plus 1 governments is seen by critics, since its creation in 1945, as the most undemocratic character of the UN.[1] Critics also note the veto power as a main cause for most international inaction on war crimes and crimes against humanity. The veto does not apply to procedural votes, which is significant in that the Security Council's permanent membership can vote against a "procedural" draft resolution, without necessarily blocking its adoption by the Council.

The veto is exercised when any permanent member—the so-called "P5"—casts a "negative" vote on a "substantive" draft resolution. Abstention or absence from the vote by a permanent member does not prevent a draft resolution from being adopted.

Origins of the veto provision

The idea of states having a veto over the actions of international organizations 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.[2] 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 provision 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).[3] 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.[4] 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."[5]

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. Here is a description by Francis O. Wilcox, an adviser to US delegation to the 1945 conference: "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 act 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'?"[1]

The UNSC 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 organization 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 Britain, 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.

Article 27

Article 27 of the United Nations Charter states:

  1. Each member of the Security Council shall have a vote.
  2. Decisions of the Security Council on procedural matters shall be made by an affirmative vote of nine members.
  3. Decisions of the Security Council on all other matters shall be made by an affirmative vote of nine members including the concurring votes of the permanent members; provided that, in decisions under Chapter VI, and under paragraph 3 of Article 52, a party to a dispute shall abstain from voting.[6]

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"[7] and the veto itself is sometimes referred to as the "great power veto".

The experience of the veto power

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 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. A general lack of willingness to act was the main problem.

Since 1990 the veto has been used sparingly. The period from 31 May 1990 to 11 May 1993 was the longest without 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.[8]

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 recognize the People's Republic of China's representatives as the legitimate representatives of China,[9] 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 having 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 which assisted South Korea in repelling the North Korean attack.[10]

Most common users

Number of resolutions vetoed by each of the five permanent members of the Security Council between 1946 and 2016.[11]

In the history of the Security Council, almost half the vetoes were cast by the Soviet Union, with the vast majority of those being before 1965.[12]

Since 1966, out of the total 153 vetoes cast, 119 were issued by one of the council's three NATO members: the US, the UK and France.[13]

From 1946 to 2016, vetoes were issued on 236 occasions. For that period, usage breaks down as follows:

Most recent veto per country

While China, Russia and the United States have exercised their veto power in the twenty-first century, neither France nor the United Kingdom has. The following list contains the most recent event any of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council exercised their veto power:

Analysis by country

Russia/Soviet Union

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. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia used its veto power sparingly until the 2014 conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.

United States

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 which condemned Israel for war with Syria and Lebanon. Since that time it has become the most frequent user of veto power, mainly on resolutions criticizing and condemn 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.

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom has used its Security Council veto power on 32 occasions.[20] 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.[21]

The United Kingdom used its veto power, along with France, to veto a draft resolution aimed at resolving the Suez Canal crisis in 1956. The UK and France eventually withdrew 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.[22] The UK also used its veto seven times in relation to Rhodesia from 1963 to 1973, five of these occasions were unilateral which are the only occasions on which the UK has used its veto power unilaterally.[21]


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 Comoros independence, which was done to keep the island of Mayotte as a French overseas territory.[23] 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.[23] The last time France used its veto power was in December 1989 concerning the situation in Panama.[23] In 2003, the threat of a French veto of resolution on the impending invasion of Iraq caused friction between France and the United States.

China (ROC/PRC)

Between 1946 and 1971, the Chinese seat on the Security Council was the government of the Republic of China (which retreated to Taiwan in 1949) during which 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 1960, 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 May 2014, the People's Republic of China has used its veto nine times.[16] Observers have noted a preference for China to abstain rather than veto on resolutions not directly related to Chinese interests.[11]

Veto power reform

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 the permanent members are still typically regarded as great powers, there is debate over their suitability to retain exclusive veto power.[24]

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[25]—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.[26] 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;[27][28][29][30] 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 authorized 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.[31]

There has been discussion of increasing the number of permanent members. The countries who have made the strongest demands for permanent seats are Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan. Japan and Germany are the UN's second and third largest funders respectively, while Brazil, the largest Latin American nation, and India, the world's largest democracy and second most populous country, are two of the largest contributors of troops to UN-mandated peace-keeping missions. This proposal has found opposition in a group of countries called Uniting for Consensus. On 21 September 2004, the G4 nations issued a joint statement mutually backing each other's claim to permanent status, together with two African countries. Any such proposal would involve amendment of the UN Charter, and as such would need to be accepted by two-thirds of the General Assembly (128 votes), and also by all the permanent members of the Security Council.[32]



  1. 1 2 II. The Yalta Voting Formula, Author(s): Francis O. Wilcox, Source: The American Political Science Review, Vol. 39, No. 5 (Oct., 1945), pp. 943-956, Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1950035, Accessed: 05-05-2015 17:13 UTC
  2. League of Nations Covenant, Article 5(1).
  3. Luck, Edward C. (2008). "Creation of the Council". In Lowe, Vaughan; Roberts, Adam; Welsh, Jennifer; et al. The United Nations Security Council and War: The Evolution of Thought and Practice since 1945. Oxford University Press. pp. 61–85.
  4. See e.g. Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, vol. 6: Triumph and Tragedy, Cassell, London, 1954, pp. 181-2 and 308-13; Harry S. Truman, Year of Decisions: 1945 (London, 1955), pp. 194-5, 201, and 206-7; Charles de Gaulle, War Memoirs: Salvation 1944-1946 – Documents, tr. Murchie and Erskine (London, 1960), pp. 94-5.
  5. Truman, Year of Decisions: 1945, p. 207. See also US Department of State: "The United States and the Founding of the United Nations". October 2005. Retrieved 1 March 2012.
  6. UN Charter, Article 27, as amended in 1965. Before that date, Articles 27(2) and (3) had specified the affirmative votes of seven members. The change was part of the process whereby the size of the Council was increased from 11 to 15 members.
  7. http://www.un.org/sc/members.asp
  8. Lowe, Vaughan; Roberts, Adam; Welsh, Jennifer; et al., eds. (2008). The United Nations Security Council and War: The Evolution of Thought and Practice since 1945. Oxford University Press. pp. 78–82, 135–7, 155–65, 688–705.
  9. Malanczuk, P. Akehurst's Modern Introduction to International Law, Ed. 7, page 375, Routledge, 1997
  10. Stueck, Wiliam (2008). "The United Nations, the Security Council, and the Korean War". In Lowe, Vaughan; Roberts, Adam; Welsh, Jennifer; et al. The United Nations Security Council and War: The Evolution of Thought and Practice since 1945. Oxford University Press. pp. 266–7, 277–8.
  11. 1 2 Global Policy Forum (2008): "Changing Patterns in the Use of the Veto in the Security Council". Retrieved 30 December 2008.
  12. Veto database and information at Global Policy Forum
  13. 1 2 Security Council - Veto List at Global Policy Forum
  14. United Nations Documentation at The United Nations
  15. "Russia vetoes U.N. demand for end to bombing of Syria's Aleppo". Reuters. 2016-10-08. Retrieved 2016-10-08.
  16. 1 2 Security Council - Veto List. Retrieved 8 September 2015.
  17. Security Council - Veto List. Retrieved 24 November 2014.
  18. List of Security Council meetings 2011. Retrieved 20 November 2011.
  19. List of vetoes in the United Nations Security Council. Retrieved 20 November 2011.
  20. "Changing Patterns in the Use of the Veto in The Security Council" (PDF). Global Policy Forum. Retrieved 29 October 2015.
  21. 1 2 "Security Council - Veto List". UN Dag Hammarskjöld Library. Retrieved 29 October 2015.
  22. "Emergency Special Sessions". United Nations. Retrieved 25 October 2015.
  23. 1 2 3 "Subjet of UN Security Council Vetoes". Retrieved 18 April 2013.
  24. UN's High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change: "A more secure world: our shared responsibility". p.68, 1 December 2004.
  25. "Can the United Nations Reform"
  26. Hunt, C. "The 'veto' charade", ZNet, 7 November 2006. Retrieved 1 March 2008
  27. United Nations General Assembly Session 52 Document 856. A/52/856 Retrieved 2008-03-01.
  28. International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. "The Responsibility to Protect", ICISS.ca, December 2001. Retrieved 1 March 2008.
  29. A/58/47 "Report of the Open-ended Working Group on the Question of Representation on and Increase in the Membership of the Security Council", UN.org, 21 July 2004. Retrieved 1 March 2008.
  30. Non-Aligned Movement. Ministerial Meeting of the Coordinating Bureau of the Non-Aligned Movement", UN.int, 2730 May 2006. Retrieved 1 March 2008.
  31. Writings of Flavia Lattanzi, Kai Ambos and Claus Kress, inter alia
  32. UN Charter, Articles 108 and 109.

Further reading

External links

See also

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