Will the Veto Ever Be Restrained?

In Syria, we see the consequences of the unrestrained veto...

War and Peace





Over the last 16 years, the question of how to operationalize the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), bringing it “from theory to practice,” has been the focus of great debate among UN member states and human rights organizations. Created as a response to the devastating genocide in Rwanda, the international community has struggled to find a way to enforce this non-binding principle aimed at helping states to prevent and respond to mass atrocities around the world. 


Yet, the question remains, how do you make states act for the benefit of those outside their own borders without the force of international law? How do you convince states to stand up for those who need their help, even when the situation is complicated, difficult, and not necessarily directly beneficial to their own people?


Many R2P advocates have looked for ways to strengthen and improve the principle, such as Brazil's push for what they call the "Responsibility While Protecting," encouraging states to be careful not to discredit the norm with impromper use. Yet most prominently over the past decade, R2P advocates have focused on encouraging the Permanent Five (P5) members of the Security Council to refrain from using their veto power in cases of civilian protection. This, too, would be a non-binding agreement, but one that advocates hope member states would live up to in the face of genocide and other mass atrocities.


When the United Nations was established in 1945, its founders wanted to ensure it did not fall to the same fate as previous iterations, such as the League of Nations, so they established what is referred to as the P5, a group of five permanent members of the UN (France, U.K., China, U.S.A., and Russia). The purpose of this was to give a handful of powerful nations a larger stake in the organization. These member states have the ultimate decision making power in the Security Council, including the ability to veto resolutions that come before them. The goal was to hopefully reinforce the commitment of these states to the UN and in turn solidify the UN itself.


Most recently, two members of the P5 (Russia and China) have used the veto to block any sort of real intervention in Syria. What this has meant is a stalemate among the international community in its ability to protect the citizens of Syria. This has led to unchecked violence committed by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad against innocent civilians in his country. With Assad's crimes drawing the focus of the international community, it has become even more difficult to respond to the additional violence inflicted by rebel groups in the region, including ISIS. The Responsibility to Not Veto (R2NV) movement, an offshoot of the R2P movement, aims to minimize such situations, saving the lives of many whose leaders are either not protecting them or instigating the actual violence.



The R2NV Movement

In its inception, the veto was meant to be used as a tool to maintain international peace and security. Yet as Simon Adams, Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (GCR2P), explains, “it is an unfortunate reality that in the decades since 1945 the veto has sometimes been used, not to defend against ‘the scourge of war’ or to ‘reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights,’ to quote the UN Charter, but to shield perpetrators of mass atrocities from accountability.” This shift in the use of the veto has, in effect, blocked the UN’s ability to respond to atrocities, not just in Syria, but in Darfur, in South Sudan, and elsewhere.

Infographic via ICR2P

It was at a roundtable sponsored by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in Paris in 2001, that the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hubert Vedrine, first proposed a “code of conduct” for the P5. The goal of this was to establish a new set of guidelines for the use of the veto without stepping into the process of amending the UN Charter itself. In effect, the P5 would agree to a set of rules for use of the veto, including refraining from using it in cases of mass atrocities. This would serve as a powerful step in the move toward actualizing what was then the new principle of R2P, and more specifically, enabling the UN to do the necessary work of protecting innocent people from harm.


While this initial proposal was ultimately unsuccessful, France has remained a leader in the push toward what has now become known as the Responsibility Not to Veto (R2NV), a movement with a different name and tactics, but the same purpose. The push for some sort of restraint of the veto has evolved over the years. One particularly encouraging move was the creation of the Genocide Prevention Task Force in the U.S. in 2008. Here was a glimmer of hope for a major player in the P5 to join in the call to restrain the veto. The task force, headed by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, made inroads with the Obama Administration, looking for the U.S. to join France as a leader in calling for veto restraint in cases where atrocities are imminent. We will have to wait and see where this new administration stands on the issue.


Historically, the U.S. has been more than willing to use its veto power, having vetoed resolutions condemning the apartheid in South Africa, and most commonly, using the veto on resolutions related to Palestine. In the past decade, however, the U.S. has only used its veto power three times. This pales in comparison to Russia, which has vetoed 14 resolutions in the last decade, mostly in relation to Syria.


When President Hollande proposed the R2NV for adoption at the UN in 2013, there were supporters and detractors, some lacking confidence in the honor system approach to UN reform. In response to President Francois Hollande’s proposal, Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations noted, “The problem with such a proposed ‘gentleman’s agreement’—as Gareth Evans has noted in this context—is that there are often frankly ‘not enough bloody gentlemen.’”


While Patrick has a reasonable argument about the pitfalls of an honor system when it comes to R2NV, advocates continue to push forward, introducing new initiatives with the hope of protecting civilians. A 2015 paper from the GCR2P calls for a “Statement of Principles” from the P5, which would give these votes presented to the Security Council a chance to succeed or fail on their own merits.


Ultimately, whether it's called a "code of conduct," or a "statement of principles," to have Russia, China, and the other P5 members come to an agreement as to how and when the veto—or even the threat of a veto—ought to be used, would fundamentally change the international communities ability to respond to mass atrocity situations.



Syria and the Veto

The case of Syria serves as a prime example for R2NV advocates as to why it is critical we place limits on veto use among the P5. Nearly every resolution on Syria introduced to the P5 has been vetoed by two member states—China and Russia—essentially freezing the UN, halting its ability to protect civilians. The February draft resolution, which would have sanctioned Syria for chemical weapons use, was, as expected, vetoed by China and Russia. Just weeks later, we saw Assad use chemical weapons on innocent civilians in Khan Shaykhun. A second resolution was proposed after the chemical attack, and was also subsequently vetoed by the same two countries.


At the time of the February resolution, the U.S. response was encouraging, as the new Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, voted in favor of the sanctions, calling out Russia in the process. It’s a “sad day…when member states make excuses for other members killing their own people,” she said when the resolution failed. Prior to the vote, Haley had asked the Council, “How much longer is Russia going to babysit, and make excuses for the Syrian regime? You are either for chemical weapons or you’re against it. People died because of this, and the U.S. is not going to be quiet about it.”


Haley already seems more outspoken on human rights issues than the administration that appointed her. She has come out strong against the chemical attacks in Syria, and just recently spoke out against reports of human rights violations against the gay community in Chechnya. Her statement was bold, reminding the Council, "if true, this violation of human rights cannot be ignored – Chechen authorities must immediately investigate these allegations, hold anyone involved accountable, and take steps to prevent future abuses."


Her comments on Syria initially inspired some hope for those wary of the new Administration's stance on matters of civilian protection. She offered strong a condemnation of Assad and his crimes, called out Russia for being complicit in these atrocities, and seemed to be following the foreign policy established by the Obama Administration. It was almost as though she was working outside the Trump Administration, pushing for the responsibility of states to protect the innocent.


In the days after the April 6th military assault on a Syrian airbase—where the U.S. launched 59 tomahawk missiles in response to Assad's chemical attack—it began to feel as though her statements actually foreshowed the subsequent U.S. military action. Whether or not she was in the loop on the military action, perhaps this gives a glimpse of an Administration more focused on the proliferation of chemical weapons than on the protection of civilians.


Ultimately, the R2NV movement, this strategy aimed at helping actualize the R2P principle, finds itself in the same predicament as R2P—a great idea, but still struggling to gain traction. As R2P advocates continue to look for ways to protect civilians from mass atrocity crimes, the need for evermore creative strategies grows. Will members of the P5 ever agree to refrain from using the veto in mass atrocity situations? Too early yet to tell, but the fight for an effective way to protect civilians must continue.


Why Does Any of This Matter?




This last year, I—along with many around the world—followed seven-year-old Bana Alabed on Twitter. The young girl and her mother were live-tweeting from Aleppo, where Assad, with the help of Russia, was directing a horrific military campaign to re-take the city. Many initially questioned the legitimacy of her account, but it soon became clear this family was real, and their plight was that of a multitude of families just like theirs in the city of Aleppo and beyond. Bana has since become known as “Syria’s Anne Frank.”


Each time Bana’s Twitter account went silent, people around the world held their breath, hoping beyond hope that Bana and her family had simply lost power or access to the internet.


Bana has now made it to Turkey, and thanks to her internet fame, is quite safe and sure to find access to the resources she needs. Other children have not been as lucky. We all remember the famous picture of Alan Kurdi, the young boy whose body washed up on the beach in Greece. The quiet fear in the eyes of Omran Daqneesh as he sat in the ambulance in a state of shock.

As Assad’s most recent chemical attacks make clear, the violence has not slowed. Photos and videos of the attack showed more children, just like Bana, just like Omran, just like Alan, struggling to breathe, screaming in pain, lying lifeless in the rubble. This will continue to be the reality for Syrian children, and sadly likely many others (including the children of Darfur) if the international community cannot find a realistic way to respond to these atrocities—to not simply condemn them, but take real action to stop the violence, giving these children a chance at life.


Will we ever convince the P5 to refrain from using the veto in cases of civilian protection? I honestly can’t say. What I can say is that we have to keep pushing to actualize the Responsibility to Protect. We have to find new ways, new strategies, new tactics to move our leaders to action. For us to continue to stand on the sidelines as innocent civilians are slaughtered is simply unconscionable.





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Syria, R2P, United Nations, Russia