2016 has drawn to a close. It has been an eventful year in international affairs, to say the least. Stop Illegitimate Vetoes looks back at the year in the Security Council and some of the veto-related issues of the past twelve months.
2016 started with an announcement from North Korea that the country had successfully detonated a hydrogen bomb in an underground test site. The announcement was soon followed by a ballistic missile test, which constituted a breach of previous Security Council resolutions. The actions caused the Security Council to impose sanctions on the already isolated country. This is despite the fact that China, its only ally, is a veto-wielding state. It seems China has run out of patience with its smaller neighbour, and subsequent tests have resulted in heavier sanctions and unanimous condemnations from the Security Council.
China’s decision not to shield its ally may have been somewhat surprising, but it was nothing compared to a similar decision by the United States. On the 23rd of December, the Security Council adopted a resolution stating that Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territory constitute a violation of international law and pose an obstacle to a two-state solution and lasting peace. The United States, which traditionally has used its veto to block resolutions condemning Israeli actions, abstained from voting, allowing the resolution to be adopted – drawing heavy criticism from Israelis and Americans alike. The abstention came after months of speculation that Barack Obama would allow a resolution addressing the situation to pass before leaving office in mid-January.
South Sudan has also figured in the Security Council’s dealings. During the year there has been talk about an arms embargo to limit the prevalence of arms in the countries, amidst fears of an impending genocide. Both Russia and China had expressed scepticism of such a measure. But, as a draft resolution was voted on in December, both chose to abstain rather than to veto against it. Despite this, the resolution was not adopted as it did not receive enough votes in favour.
The main veto-related situation of the year was, of course, Syria. All three vetoes that were cast in 2016 blocked draft resolutions addressing Syria. On the 8th of October, Russia vetoed a resolution calling for a cessation of hostilities and the establishment of a no-fly zone over the city of Aleppo, as well as unhindered access for humanitarian aid and that perpetrators of atrocities be held accountable. This was the first Russian veto on a draft resolution on Syria that was not joined by a Chinese veto, as China instead abstained from voting. Two months later, however, things were back to normal as China joined Russia in vetoing another draft resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire. The two Russian vetoes mean that Russia has surpassed the United States as the most frequent user of the veto since 1991. Read more about how the veto has been used since 1991 in Stop Illegitimate Vetoes’ report “Legitimate Concerns”, which has been updated to include the most recent vetoes.
The deadlock in the Security Council over Syria led to increased criticism of the council and the veto. Stephen O’Brien, the humanitarian chief of the United Nations, was one of the most vocal critics, calling Syria “our generation’s shame”. The deadlock also increased calls for alternative ways to address the situation, without involving the Security Council. More than 200 civil society organizations signed an appeal calling on the General Assembly to act in accordance with the 1950’s “Uniting for Peace” mechanism. There also seems to be some support for such a course of action amongst member states as well: in October, Canada gained the support by over 60 states to convene an informal meeting on the situation in Syria, a way to gauge the support for going ahead with “Uniting for Peace”. In December, there were allegedly over 70 states supporting such a move. 2016 has also seen increased support for the French Initiative and the ACT-group’s Code of Conduct, aiming to restrain the use of the veto, with almost 120 member states now supporting at least one of the two initiatives.
Last, but not least, Antonio Guterres was elected as the new Secretary-General of the United Nations. The process in which he was elected has been hailed as historically transparent, with public hearings of candidates and more attention paid to their visions and agendas for the coming years. Still, the decision was the Security Council’s to be made, and the customary secret ballots were held to see if there was a candidate with enough support from Council members. In the end, Antonio Guterres emerged as the clear favourite, and when it was evident that there would be no veto against him, he was quickly nominated by the Security Council and confirmed by the General Assembly.
Guterres has a tough time ahead of him, as does the United Nations at large. Turning to 2017, there will be plenty of issues around the world to be dealt with, and the veto will surely remain an obstacle. Syria will continue to be the single most pressing issue for the Security Council, which is still divided over how to handle the situation. North Korea seems to enjoy its time in the spotlight, as it started off 2017 in much the same way as they did 2016 – with nuclear sabre rattling. How far China is ready to go in order to contain its unruly neighbour remains to be seen. Developing crises and humanitarian catastrophes in countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi and Yemen are increasingly demanding the Security Council’s attention, and it is not yet clear whether the Security Council can face these issues united, or if tensions and divisions will continue to obstruct the body’s work. As Donald Trump takes over as President of the United States, we are unlikely to see more action relating to Israel and Palestine; Trump was very critical of the United States’ recent abstention, and during his campaign he vowed to veto any draft resolution addressing the situation.
Trump’s presidency may also cause a larger upset of council dynamics, as he has advocated for closer ties between the U.S. and Russia and for more ruthless action in Syria. He has questioned the value of the United Nations, and has shown disregard for its humanitarian and legal underpinnings. This may strain the relation between the “P3” – The United States, the United Kingdom, and France – and shift alignments in the Security Council. The coming French elections, which may bring Marine Le Pen to power, brings further uncertainty, not least with respect to the future of the French initiative on veto reform.
In 2017, the world will need to intensify the demands for veto reform. Join us in taking action against the use of the veto in the Security Council. If you want to contribute to VetoWatch, or engage with the Stop Illegitimate Vetoes campaign in some other way, do not hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.