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War in Ukraine Spurs Bid to Take a Closer Look at UN Vetoes


FILE - Russia's U.N. Ambassador Russia Vasily Nebenzya casts the lone dissenting vote in the United Nations Security Council on Feb. 25, 2022, two days into Russia's attack on Ukraine.

Two days into Russia's attack on Ukraine, a majority of U.N. Security Council members voted to demand that Moscow withdraw. One thing stood in their way: a veto by Russia itself.

It was the latest in decades of vetoes — on issues ranging from the Korean War to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to climate change — that at least temporarily stymied the council that was designed to be the U.N.'s most potent component. A round of venting followed over the veto power afforded to just five of its 15 members: China, the United States, Russia, France, and Britain. Each has used that power over the years.

Proposals to change the council's structure or rein in vetoes have sputtered for more than half a century. But now, a new approach — simply subjecting vetoed matters to scrutiny by the full U.N. membership — appears to be gaining traction.

Spearheaded by Liechtenstein, the measure has more than 55 co-sponsors, including the U.S. The 193-member General Assembly is due to consider the measure Tuesday.

"This is really an important initiative," said Thomas Weiss, a City University of New York Graduate Center political science professor and Chicago Council on Global Affairs distinguished fellow who specializes in U.N. politics. To him, the proposal promotes transparency and challenges the idea that a few powerful countries can tank Security Council initiatives without so much as an explanation.

"It does, in important ways, suggest that the veto is not sacrosanct," he said.

The proposal wouldn't limit vetoes, but they would trigger public debates in the General Assembly. Whichever country or countries had cast a veto would be invited to say why.

The assembly wouldn't have to take or even consider any action. Regardless, the discussion could put veto-wielders on the spot and let a raft of other countries be heard.

It aims "to promote the voice of all of us who are not veto-holders, and who are not on the Security Council, on matters of international peace and security because they affect all of us," said Liechtenstein's U.N. ambassador, Christian Wenaweser.

From the U.N.'s 1945 start, World War II allies Britain, France, China, the Soviet Union (succeeded by Russia), and the U.S. have been the only countries with permanent seats and veto power in the Security Council. Other members are elected to two-year terms.

While the General Assembly got a broad membership and agenda, the council got more power. Its resolutions are legally binding, if sometimes ignored nonetheless, and can entail military action (i.e., assembling peacekeeping forces with troops contributed by various countries.)

Vetoes arose quickly. So did frustration. By the end of 1946, the assembly asked the council "to make every effort" not to let vetoes hinder prompt decision-making.

By now, more than 200 different Security Council proposals have been vetoed, some by multiple countries, according to U.N. records. The subjects were as sweeping as reporting on weapons stockpiles and as specific as the governance of a part of the Indian Ocean nation Comoros.

The Soviet Union/Russia has cast the most vetoes by far, followed by the United States. Fewer still have been cast by Britain, China and France.

Countless other ideas were never brought to a vote because of an expected veto.

All that has engendered laments that the council's sometime paralysis undermines its legitimacy and public faith in the the U.N. And Russia's invasion of Ukraine has only brought those grievances more into focus.

"We are dealing with a state that is turning the veto in the United Nations Security Council into the right to die," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told the council via video April 5. Saying the council "simply cannot work effectively," he called on members to remove Russia, reform or "dissolve yourself and work for peace."

Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia, in turn, bristled that his country had been thwarted in its efforts to hold a separate council meeting on Ukraine the day before. (Current council president Britain said it was just a scheduling disagreement).

With the council at an impasse, the no-veto General Assembly has voted to demand that Russia stop the war, to blame Russia for the humanitarian crisis that has ensued, to urge an immediate cease-fire, and to suspend Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council. Russia subsequently said it withdrew from the rights group before the vote.

Liechtenstein initially planned to introduce its proposal in March 2020 but held off because of the coronavirus pandemic, Wenaweser said. He said the Ukraine stalemate has now built support for the idea.

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield cited what she called Russia's "shameful pattern of abusing its veto privilege" when she announced last week that Washington was backing Liechtenstein's proposal. She called it innovative and "a significant step toward the accountability, transparency and responsibility" of countries with veto power.

The United States last used it to kill an August 2020 proposal about prosecuting and rehabilitating people involved in terrorism. Washington objected that the measure didn't call for repatriating foreign fighters for the Islamic State extremist group in Iraq and Syria.

The other veto-wielding countries haven't responded to requests for comment on Liechtenstein's proposal. Wenaweser said Russia had raised objections, centered on views about the General Assembly's proper role in international peace and security issues.

Wenaweser said his country is "pragmatic" about the future of veto power, but "we want to help initiate a change in mindset as to the way in which the veto is cast."

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