Why India Should Seek Abolition Of UN Veto Rather Than Permanent Membership

16/12/2015 8:06 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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The United Nations Security Council votes during a UN Security Council meeting on the Human Rights situation in the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea December 10, 2015 at the United Nations in New York. AFP PHOTO/DON EMMERT / AFP / DON EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

The just-concluded climate agreement at COP21 in Paris will require social peace for its effective implementation. Given that the world is facing a conflict scenario that has not been equalled since World War II, there is an urgent need to reform the main body responsible for international peace -- the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). To this end a historic decision was taken by the UN General Assembly in its 70th session to commence, for the first time ever, text-based intergovernmental negotiations on Council reform, which are to take place as per the framework outlined in decision A/69/L.92.

Permanent membership sans veto power

There are five questions regarding UNSC reform which will be negotiated over by Member States. These are:

i) Issues of categories of membership

ii) Question of the veto

iii) Regional representation

iv) Size of an enlarged Security Council and working methods of the Council \

v) Relationship between the Council and the General Assembly.

[I]f India becomes a permanent member of the UNSC without veto power, it will in reality have the status of a non-permanent member.

Of these, the most significant is the "question of the veto". In its written submission to the UN, India has made a tremendous diplomatic compromise by agreeing to abstain from using the veto till 15 years after the present reforms (if they happen at all) come into force. Thus it is effectively asking for permanent membership without veto power.

Even with such a compromise, it is uncertain whether the country will get a permanent seat on the UNSC. This is mainly due to lack of support from the permanent five members but also due to the difficulties in reaching a consensus on several aspects of the negotiating text such as the size of an expanded council and regional representation. Nevertheless, assuming that somehow India manages to "pull it off", the question necessarily arises: what is the point of being on the Council without having veto power?

Decision-making in the UNSC is governed by article 27 of the UN Charter which states that on non-procedural matters, which is where the main work of the Council takes place, all the permanent members must agree for a decision to be taken. This is where the veto comes into play as any member can simply refuse to concur, leading to the lapsing of the decision. However apart from this there is no major difference between permanent and non-permanent members.

Thus, if India becomes a permanent member of the UNSC without veto power, it will in reality have the status of a non-permanent member. In the words of Ambassador Asoke Kumar Mukerji, former Permanent Representative, this will amount to "second class citizenship" and besides will be an utterly insubstantial achievement.

The alternative of pursuing permanent membership with veto power is something that has already been tried and has failed, hence the current capitulation. This, therefore, leaves one final option -- examining whether the veto as a category itself must remain.

Abolishing the veto

At the heart of all that is wrong with the Security Council, of all that has been responsible for its umpteen and endless failures across the world, there is no factor more responsible than the mechanism of the veto. It is this, more than any other aspect of the UNSC, that has made it into an inert and incapable body that watches helplessly as war, genocide, cultural destruction, unauthorised invasions and intra-state civil wars continue.

It is [the veto mechanism], more than any other aspect of the UNSC, that has made it into an inert and incapable body...

Broadly speaking, there are two main arguments against the veto:

i) It is an anachronistic and undemocratic privilege.

ii) It paralyses action, even when absolutely necessary.

The undemocratic power of the veto has been opposed right since the UN's inception. There was outrage that any one of five nations would have the power to override the will of the majority of countries on earth. However despite such widespread opposition the veto was included as the choice for the member states was clear: either the Charter with the veto or no Charter at all. Senator Connally of the USA told the small states during the 1945 San Francisco conference, "You may, if you wish, 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 term "anachronistic" is also frequently used as an adjective because historically the veto (meaning "I forbid" in Latin) was used by the European monarchy to suppress emerging democratic institutions. King Charles I of England frequently used the veto to quash bills and even dissolve Parliament during the English Civil War. Closer to home, the Charter Act of 1786 as well as the Government of India Acts 1919 and 1935 gave the Governor General of India power to veto legislation.

The main flaw of the veto is its tendency to paralyse action even when it is desperately needed. In the case of Syria, between 2011 to 2015 Russia and China have jointly vetoed four proposals for sanctions against Bashar Al-Assad and a resolution that would have requested the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate crimes against humanity. Similarly from 2001 to 2006, the USA used the veto nine times to protect its ally Israel and block any action on Palestine. This has been part of a larger trend where conflicts involving the great powers have tended to be endlessly prolonged, resulting in unimaginable suffering for the people affected. During the Cold War (1947-1991), a staggering 68 and 61 vetoes were used by the USSR and USA respectively, leading to the worsening of then ongoing conflicts.

There is a very real danger that the expansion of the Security Council with the veto still in place will make it utterly dysfunctional.

There is a very real danger that the expansion of the Security Council with the veto still in place will make it utterly dysfunctional. The proposal for increasing the number of seats along with regional representation will bring a far greater number of diverging interests to the table and if the veto is thrown into the mix it will be a lethal cocktail that will ensure the demise of the UN.

One only has to look at the experience of the League of Nations to realise this. Under article 5 (1) of the Covenant of the League of Nations, decisions of the Council required the agreement of all the Members present. This made it virtually impossible for the 15-member Council to function and as a result it was unable to prevent World War II. Extending the veto to new permanent members will ensure that the UN meets the same fate. As second-class citizenship (permanent membership without veto) is unacceptable, the only remaining option is to press for the veto's abolition.

The abolition of the veto will make the UNSC into a far more effective body. Decisions will be no longer hamstrung by the vested interests of a few countries. The thrust on negotiation and compromise will become far stronger, leading to easier and quicker resolution of disputes. Proxy wars will not drag on endlessly, extracting their terrible cost in human lives. The rest of the international community will have a powerful tool to bypass the great powers, especially when they are in collaboration. Finally, it will bring genuine democracy and sovereign equality into the UNSC.

It is for these reasons that there is overwhelming support for abolishing or at least limiting the use of the veto. Based on the submissions by member states, approximately 109 nations, including the African Group and L.69, have outrightly called for its abolition. Eighteen countries, including the Netherlands, Vietnam, Peru and Ukraine, have called for its limited use and restriction in the case of genocide and crimes against humanity. Even France, a permanent member, has seen the light and has called for its limited use. Adding together the countries who support the veto's abolition/limited use results in a total of at least 111 member states. This is 17 short of the 2/3rds majority of 128 countries required for amending the UN Charter.

It is here that India must put the bulk of its efforts. Abolishing the veto is a sine qua non for the efficacy, legitimacy and even survival of the UNSC. Rather than hankering after the humiliating goal of second-class citizenship among the permanent members, India can provide leadership to the rest of the world and focus on ensuring that the veto is abolished. With the right mobilisation, especially among the island states, the magic number of 128 can be reached. If accomplished, it would be an achievement whose ramifications cannot be fully imagined and India would have done the world a gargantuan favour.

The removal of the veto will have one additional effect... the distinction between permanent and non-permanent members will become largely irrelevant.

The P5 have made their opposition to any rollback on the veto clear. However in the face of a united demand from the rest of the world, it will be very difficult for them to maintain such opposition. Even in the case of the decision to begin text-based negotiations, the only reason why the P5 did not oppose it was due to the overwhelming support the move had from the rest of the member states. Therefore India must seize this historic opportunity and press for the veto's abolition.

Genuine democracy in the Security Council

The removal of the veto will have one additional effect, whose ramifications are also profound. It is that the distinction between permanent and non-permanent members will become largely irrelevant. Thus, a final consideration can be the abolition of the category of permanent members itself. The first reason for this is that it will be a logical complement to removing the veto, ushering in complete and genuine democracy that will immensely strengthen the body. The entire expanded membership can then consist only of non-permanent members and as all seats will be filled by elections it will be a built-in guarantee for ensuring that the UNSC always reflects the geopolitical realities of the day.

The second reason is that the number of permanent members cannot keep increasing indefinitely. It can be safely stated that France and the UK are no longer great powers in this day and age. However they will continue to remain on the Council even after its expansion. Similarly, after the next review, which may happen a century later, would the size be further increased while retaining existing membership? Logically speaking such a process would result in an ever-larger council that would be both absurd and ineffective. Therefore the saner alternative is to abolish the category of permanent members itself and fill all seats through elections only.

India has a historic opportunity to... pursue reforms that will make the UN into a body truly capable of dealing with the challenges of the 21st century.

This would make the UNSC conform to its sister organs such as the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the UNGA. The success of the UN in the socio-economic sphere can be largely attributed to the democratic structure of the ECOSOC, where all posts are filled through elections. Similarly, the failure of the UNSC has already been attributed to its undemocratic nature. Thus reason dictates that the permanent category of members be abolished.

This is unlikely to happen during this round of reforms owing to the lack of consensus on it. Only one member state --Panama --- has made this suggestion in the negotiating text. Nevertheless, it is a question that cannot be indefinitely evaded and the sooner it is addressed the better.

The abolition of the veto will thus have a thoroughly transformative effect on the functioning of the Security Council and accordingly on international peace and security. India has a historic opportunity to step up to the challenge, look past the gratuity of immediate self-interest and pursue reforms that will make the UN into a body truly capable of dealing with the challenges of the 21st century.

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