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How (Not) to Approach UNSC Veto Reform

By Jonathan Cristol

The Intergovernmental Negotiations (IGN) on U.N. Security Council (UNSC) reform have lasted for more than ten years and will achieve nothing. Though UNSC reform is not actually necessary, the main reasons for the IGN’s inevitable failure are its focus on the structure of the UNSC and its explicit and implicit attempts to dilute the power of the permanent members (P5) of the UNSC. If you believe that the UNSC should be reformed, a better approach is to reform within the existing structure. Recently, two nearly identical proposals have been made to do just that— one by Liechtenstein, on behalf of the Accountability, Coherence, and Transparency Group (ACT), and the other a joint proposal from France and Mexico. Though the proposals are very similar, the subtle differences give them radically different chances of achieving anything—and together form a case study in how UNSC reform should and should not be approached.

ACT’s “Code of Conduct regarding Security Council action against genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes” is narrowly targeted, reasonably specific, and completely voluntary. It is a pledge states take affirming that, when seated on the Security Council, they will not veto a “credible draft resolution … on timely and decisive action to end the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes.” The text is short and the only other main provision is for states to “fully and promptly take into account” the Secretary-General’s assessment of situations that might lead to those crimes. 

Most importantly, This is not an initiative on the veto. It is a political commitment … for which states will be held politically accountable,” as Christian Wenaweser, Permanent Representative of Liechtenstein to the United Nations said recently. Thus, the Code of Conduct could have an impact even if the rest of the P5 never take the pledge, as the purpose is to shame into action any state seen as dithering in the face of massive human rights violations. As of Oct. 27, 105 member-states have pledged their support, including France and the U.K.  

The Code of Conduct’s success is not at all certain. Non-pledgers will no doubt have the same reservation about the Code of Conduct as they do about the Rome Statute—that it will be used for political purposes. The authors of the pledge attempt to allay that fear by the use of the word ‘credible,’ but a lot hinges on how ‘credible’ is defined. The United States, China, and Russia will worry that, credibility aside, if a state wants to prevent a veto, it will just use the words ‘war crime.’ But because the consequence for threatening to veto U.N. action in the face of massive human rights violations is only political pressure, a non-pledger can decide not to change its action if it calculates that the political pressure is worth non-action.  

France and Mexico are hoping to accomplish the exact same thing as the ACT, but their document and their methods make their proposal a non-starter. The two states’ “Political statement on the suspension of the veto in case of mass atrocities” calls for “a collective and voluntary agreement among the permanent members of the Security Council to the effect that the permanent members would refrain from using the veto in case of mass atrocities.” If you think that this proposal sounds similar to the Code of Conduct, you’re not alone. In the Oct. 30 UNGA open debate on UNSC reform, no speech mentioned one without the other in the same sentence or paragraph. And at the specific meetings held on each proposal, “complementary” was a constant refrain.

The Franco-Mexican approach, however, is less savvy, more splashy, and has less support (80 member-states as of Oct. 24). It goes too far in what the P5 is asked to do and to accept. Rather than rely on political pressure to prevent the use of the veto in these types of cases, it asks the P5 not to use the veto in the case of “mass atrocities,” which is a more amorphous term than the specific crimes enumerated by the Code of Conduct. So for the initiative to be successful the P5 will have to agree to sign on to the proposal itself—and there is no chance that they will do so. Additionally, by calling for the Secretary-General to “seize the Security Council in cases of genocide, crimes against humanity, or large-scale war crimes,” the proposal takes agency away from the P5, and that is also something to which the P5 will never agree.  

The differences in approach go beyond the text. In its implementation, the Franco-Mexican approach is flashy and self-congratulatory. The ministerial meeting on “framing the veto in the event of mass atrocities” was heavily attended by foreign ministers, U.N. delegations, NGOs, and the international press (and Amal Clooney), but lasted less than 40 minutes—just enough time for brief statements and a photo op. Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth spoke, and while he can make headlines and bring attention to an issue, his public presence and pronouncements are not a smart way to get the P5 to unanimous agreement about anything, as China and Russia reflexively oppose Human Rights Watch positions. Liechtenstein and the ACT are more deliberate. Its meeting on the subject was entirely substantive and lasted more than 90 minutes. There were no celebrities, and virtually no press. Even the associated press conference was attended by no more than 12 people.  

Supporters of both proposals, however, are overconfident in their effects. The Code of Conduct is a good, smart approach to reform—but nobody should have any illusion that it will make any difference when a P5 state perceives its vital interests to be threatened. What it can do is make a P5 state think twice before playing the (often valid) ‘vital interests’ card. One refrain at both of these meetings was that if these proposals were in place, China and Russia would not have vetoed U.N. action on Syria. However, even if UNSC action on Syria was not vetoed, that action would remain rhetorical so long as member-states did not contribute peacekeepers, money, or materiel. If the UNSC starts passing resolutions that have no hope of being translated into action, both of these proposals would succeed only in transforming the UNSC into the UNGA, and that benefits nobody.

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Dr. Jonathan Cristol is a fellow at the World Policy Institute and a senior fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College. Follow him on Twitter @jonathancristol. He reports from the United Nations on international security and UN reform.

[Photos courtesy of Jonathan Cristol]

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