2020 was an exceptional year in many ways, including what transpired at the UN Security Council. Due to the Covid19 pandemic, meetings were moved online and procedures had to be adapted. The digital format has certainly not helped the negotiations in the council, and we have seen a total of five vetoes this year on three draft-resolutions. Although this is one veto less than the year before, it is the same number of vetoed draft-resolutions and the overall trend remains clear; we still have a highly divided Security Council that does not step up to its task to maintain international peace and security.
As in previous years, the most controversial issue was the situation in Syria. Four of the five vetoes were cast regarding humanitarian aid delivery mechanisms in the country, which has also been vetoed previously, including at the end of 2019. The vetoes regarding Syria are more closely described in a previous analysis, but they are revealing in several ways. The back and forth of draft resolutions that have either been vetoed or not adopted made a process visible that usually stays hidden in negotiation rooms; It illustrates that fair negotiations are simply not possible as long as the veto is ruthlessly used. Russia and China had taken the decision to cut down the number of border crossings to one and there was nothing the other members of the Security Council could do about it, even though the clear majority wanted to keep at least the two existing border crossings open. In the end it is again the Syrian people that have to bear the consequences in this desperate situation that has been made even worse by the pandemic.
Only a short time after the four Syria-related vetoes, the next veto came along which would have given guidelines on the treatment of foreign terrorist fighters. This case was also remarkable in several ways. It was the first US veto unrelated to Israel since 2002 and it is the first time that a draft resolution not pertaining to a specific geographic area is vetoed. Instead, the draft resolution mainly contained non-binding language regarding the treatment of terrorists independent of a specific situation. The stated reasons which made the USA veto are also highly unusual. The main critique was that the measures did not go as far as the USA would have liked, since it did not call upon states to repatriate terrorists and their families. This veto led to interesting discussions in our group, on whether the absence of a measure in a draft resolution can pose a threat to sovereignty or security – we think not.
Although these are all the visible vetoes of the year, there is one more situation that should be mentioned. It is not only when a veto is actually cast that P5 countries are misusing their veto power; threatening to veto a resolution can have the exact same effect. Those veto threats are however a lot harder for us to discover, since there often is no paper trail for us to follow, which is why we and many others like to call these instances for “hidden” vetoes. We cannot measure how common those hidden vetoes are, but this year there was one example prominent enough to reach our attention. In this specific case, the USA blocked draft resolutions calling for a global cease-fire in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, because the discussed resolution would mention the World Health Organization (WHO), and in a revised version indirectly referenced “specialized health agencies”. Because of this, it took until July for the Security Council to finally agree on a resolution, which can be summarized as too little too late.
The situation in Syria is one of the most striking examples of a blocked Security Council, where the veto is regularly misused. Here is a timeline of the most recent showdown in July:
June 29th: The Security Council gets a briefing by Under-Secretary-General Lowcock, who describes the humanitarian situation in Syria. The economy is deteriorating, the number of people who are food insecure has reached a record high of 9.3 million and Covid-19 is on the rise and poses an enormous threat to the war-ridden health care system. The Secretary-General’s recent reports emphasize the necessity of the Bab al-Salaam and Bab al-Hawa border crossings which need reauthorization by June 10th. These border crossings have facilitated 1,781 trucks with humanitarian aid from Turkey into Syria in May. However, this is still not enough to meet the need of the people and while calling for a scale-up of the cross-border operation, Lowcock also warned that any efforts to further cut it would only cause more suffering and death.
Regarding the situation in the north-east of the country, some shipments have been sent by the WHO both overland and by air. However, since the Al‑Yarubiya crossing along the Iraq border was closed in January, most facilities that previously relied on it have not been able to receive any medical items. Lowcock says that a combination of both cross-border and cross-line aid is needed and that the Security Council will also need to authorize additional crossings if adequate steps to ensure deliveries from within Syria are not taken.
July 7th: The Security Council votes on draft resolution S/2020/654, submitted by Belgium and Germany, which would renew the cross-border mechanism for Bab al-Salaam and Bab al-Hawa for 12 months. This draft already does not meet the need as described by the Secretary-General, since it does not re-authorize the Al‑Yarubiya crossing, but it would keep the status quo.
This draft resolution receives 13 votes in favor but is not adopted because of the vetoes cast by both Russia and China.
July 8th: The Security Council votes on draft resolution S/2020/658 submitted by Russia. This draft would reauthorize only the border crossing Bab al-Hawa for 6 months. The draft would further request a report on the humanitarian impact of “unilateral coercive measures” imposed on Syria. This relates to the sanctions that several countries including the USA and European states have imposed on Syria, however these countries say that humanitarian assistance is exempted from the sanctions. Russian and Chinese want western countries to lift their sanctions on Syria in order to improve the humanitarian situation instead of continuing with the cross-border mechanism.
The draft resolution fails with only 4 positive votes, 7 votes against and 4 abstentions.
July 10th: The security Council votes on draft resolution S/2020/667 submitted by Belgium and Germany. This draft would renew the cross-border mechanism for both Bab al-Salaam and Bab al-Hawa, but only for 6 months. This would have bought some time to improve other routes of aid delivery before shutting down Bab al-Salaam.
This draft resolution receives 13 votes in favor but is not adopted because of the vetoes cast by both Russia and China.
Also July 10th: A second vote takes place on the same day on draft resolution S/2020/683 submitted by Russia. Russia continues to insist that only the border crossing in Bab al-Hawa can remain open, but this draft resolution offers the “compromise” that it could be authorized for 12 months, instead of the 6 months that was proposed in Russia’s draft from July 8th. This draft still includes the request for a report on the “unilateral coercive measures”.
The draft resolution fails with only 4 positive votes, 7 votes against and 4 abstentions.
July 11th: The security Council votes on draft resolution S/2020/684 submitted by Belgium and Germany. This draft resolution follows Russia’s draft and includes an authorization only for Bab al-Hawa for 12 months. The difference to the previous proposal from Russia is that this draft does include the request for a report on unilateral coercive measures.
This minimal draft resolution finally passes with 12 votes in favor and 3 abstentions, including Russia and China.
Conclusion: After this long process, the Security Council finally succeeds in reauthorizing the Bab al-Hawa border crossing for 12 months. But at the same time millions of people lose access to humanitarian aid through the other border crossings. Without the veto, the Security Council would have been able to pass the first draft from 7th of July, which would have met the need of the Syrian people to a much larger degree. Or maybe they would have gone even further to reauthorize the border-crossing Al‑Yarubiya, which would have better addressed the need as it was outlined in the June 29th briefing.
As long as permanent members still use the veto to advance their own agenda, the Security Council will continue to deliver inadequate and disappointing results.
During 2019, three draft resolutions have been vetoed by both the Russian and China, resulting in a total of six vetoes during the year.
The first draft resolution (S/2019/186) was vetoed in February by Russia and China and related to the Venezuelan presidential crisis, which left the world divided in support for either Nicolás Maduro or Juan Guaidó. The draft resolution put forward by the United States requested the Secretary-General to ensure free and fair elections in Venezuela. This was a controversial draft, which only just reached the 9 required votes in favor. At the same time, Russia brought forward a different draft resolution, which did not call for new elections, but rather supported initiatives to reach a political solution initiated from the Maduro government and pointed out that international assistance should only be provided with the consent and invitation from the Venezuelan government. This draft resolution did not pass because it did not reach the 9 required votes in favor. This situation is reminiscent of other instances, including the Syrian conflict, where the Security Council fails to act, because Russia and China support non-interference against a sitting government that fails to protect its own people, while the United States and its allies want to step in more directly.
It should also be noted that these were the first vetoes concerning a country in Central America since the Chinese veto regarding Guatemala in 1997. It remains to be seen if this is an indication that the deep divisions within the Security Council may be expanding to other geographical areas than the Middle East, which is the region that has seen the most vetoes in recent years.
The year continued with two vetoed draft resolutions in September (S/2019/756) and December (S/2019/961) regarding the situation in Syria. The failed draft resolutions called for a cease fire and for continued access for the delivery of humanitarian aid. This increases the tally of vetoed draft resolutions regarding the war in Syria to 14. All of those 14 have been vetoed by Russia, with the backing of a Chinese veto in 8 instances. The ongoing tragedy in Syria is a prime example of how the illegitimate veto prevents effective action of the Security Council.
Compared to 2018, we have the same number of vetoed draft resolutions, namely three, but we have twice as many vetoes, because Russia and China consistently voted together. The USA has not vetoed in 2019, however this may only be due to controversial draft resolutions by Russia not reaching the required majority regardless of the United States negative votes. The vetoes of 2019 illustrate the continued and possibly increasing rift between Russia and China on the one side, and the rest of the Council on the other side. It remains to be seen if this trend continues in the future.
Three illegitimate vetoes have been cast in the Security Council in 2018, all of these have regarded the Middle East, and have undermined the effectiveness of the Council in its own way.
On 26 February 2018, the draft resolution on the Yemen sanctions regime (S/2018/156) was vetoed by the Russian Federation.
The 10 April 2018, a resolution (S/2018/321) was proposed to launch an independent investigation on chemical weapons usage in Syria. This was vetoed, again, by the Russian Federation and is remembered as the sixth resolution of this kind which has been blocked by Russia.
Finally, on the 1 June 2018, a resolution was proposed to function as unitary statements by the Security council on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (S/2018/516). This resolution was blocked by the USA.
The year marks a clear decrease in the number of vetoes cast, compared to last year. Although, one should take note that 2017 had a larger amount (6) than the prior 2000s as a whole and with this in mind, the number of vetoes have not decreased dramatically in the longer period.
One should remember that the current situation in the UNSC has not been ignored by the General Assembly. Assembly President María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés (Ecuador), stated in November this year, that “the Council must adapt to new political realities, with increased representation boosting its legitimacy and the implementation of its decisions”. This was backed up by the representative of Sierra Leone, which speaks on behalf of the African Group that “most issues discussed in the 15‑member organ are related to this continent. Its 54 nations must be involved in decisions concerning not only international peace and security, but its own very continent” . Africa demands no more, and no less than two permanent seats in the UNSC, which includes the veto power. Some members of the assembly called for the abolishment of the veto power in the UNSC.
The call for regulation of the veto power is not something new for the UNSC, nor the General Assembly. But, whether or not these calls for change will translate into actual regulations‒only 2019 can tell.
Sources: United Nations, November 20th 2018. “Member States Call for Removing Veto Power, Expanding Security Council to Include New Permanent Seats, as General Assembly Debates Reform Plans for 15-Member Organ”. Available at: https://www.un.org/press/en/2018/ga12091.doc.htm
Syria constituted, last week, a source of great friction in the Security Council. Russia cast its veto on a resolution regarding action against Syria’s leader al-Assad following use of chemical weapons by the regime.
Last week, the UN Security Council once again met to vote on a resolution dealing with the civil war in Syria. The situation changed last week with yet another attack with chemical weapons by the Syrian regime against its population. Even American president Trump changed his administration’s stance on Syria’s al-Assad following the attack, from being unwilling to intervene in the conflict, to launching 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at an army airfield outside Damascus.
The resolution put forward by the United States, the United Kingdom and France based on observations of OPCW (Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons), was to punish al-Assad for breaching the resolution 2118 (from 2013) where al-Assad were to destroy all his stockpiles of chemical weapons. However, the resolution did not pass this time either. The Russian envoy to the UN argued that the resolution “failed to serve any useful purpose.” This decision attracted criticism from fellow UN members such as Ukraine.
This is the eighth time Russia has cast its veto to protect Syria’s leader al-Assad from UN action. The use of the veto and Russia’s desire to keep al-Assad in his place has paralyzed the UN from acting, and constitutes a tragedy for the Syrian people.
Reports from Amnesty and Human Rights Watch in the last weeks tell of crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by the Syrian government against oppositional rebels and civilians, but the government are unlikely to face repercussions, thanks to the protection of Russia’s veto.
On the 7th of February, Amnesty released a report detailing the extrajudicial executions by hanging carried out by the Syrian government at Saydnaya Prison. Between 2011 and 2015, groups of 50 people were hanged once or twice a week. As many as 13 000 people may have died at Saydnaya Prison in this manner, most of them civilians opposed to the government. The report also details the use of torture and systematic deprevation of food, water, medicine and medical care, creating inhuman conditions for the prisoners.
The following week, Human Rights Watch released a report showing that Syrian government forces used chemical weapons in the final weeks of the campaign to retake Aleppo from rebels. The report shows that helicopters dropped chlorine in residential areas on at least eight occasions in November and December 2016. The attacks took place in areas where government forces were planning to advance, indicated that they were part of the military strategy to retake Aleppo and not carried out by rogue elements. At least nine civilians, including four children, died from the attacks, and more than 200 were injured.
These reports clearly show that crimes against humanity and war crimes are being committed by the Syrian government. However, those responsible are unlikely to face repercussions. Syria is not a state party to the International Criminal Court. Therefore, a decision by the United Nations Security Council to refer the situation to the court is necessary for it to investigate the situation. On a number of occasions, Russia has used its veto to block such a referral, and that is likely to happen again if a draft resolution is put forward.
Before Christmas, the United Nations General Assembly established an investigative body to collect, consolidate, preserve, and analyze evidence of war crimes and human rights abuses in Syria, in preparation for future criminal proceedings. Such criminal proceedings are unlikely to be initiated in the near future, but may be possible at some time in the future. Until then, Syrian civilians continue to suffer the crimes their government is committing.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has allegedly, for the first time, been personally linked to the use of banned chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict. Despite this, Security Council member states have opted to not put forward a draft resolution on imposing sanctions due to expectations of a Russian veto.
The Joint Investigative Mechanism, a joint inquiry for the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons mandated by the Security Council to identify individuals and organizations responsible for chemical attacks in Syria, has identified Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his brother as linked to chemical attacks, Reuters reported in mid-January.
This has raised the question of imposing sanctions on al-Assad and other high-ranking individuals connected to chemical attacks. Already in December, the United Kingdom and France drafted a resolution to impose sanctions on key individuals, but the draft resolution was never put to a vote, as it was expected that Russia would veto any attempt to hold the Syrian regime accountable.
Those expectations do not seem to have changed. In the final days of the Obama administration, the United States pushed for the UK and France to put the draft resolution to a vote, but with no success. According to Security Council diplomats, the reluctance to introduce the draft resolution is due to issues of timing. There is fear that if the draft resolution was introduced and vetoed as expected, it could reverse the fragile positive trend that has allowed two resolutions to be unanimously adopted and peace talks in Astana to be arranged. Additionally, it is believed a vetoed resolution could essentially kill any chance of holding Syrian authorities accountable in the future. There is also uncertainty related to the change of administrations in the United States; it is still unknown how the Trump presidency may change council dynamics on the issue.
As a result of the lack of council action, the United States decided to move ahead with unilateral sanctions targeting 18 Syrian government officials. Those targets include several intelligence chiefs linked to the regime’s use of chlorine gas on civilians in 2014 and 2015.
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 email@example.com.
The United Nations Security Council was able to adopt a resolution emphasizing that Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory have no legal validity. The resolution was adopted as the United States abstained rather than use its veto, as it has frequently done in the past.
On Friday 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 resolution demands that Israel cease all settlement activities in the territory, including East Jerusalem, and stresses that these activities are a threat to the two-state solution. The resolution also calls for intensified diplomatic efforts to achieve a lasting peace in the region.
The resolution was adopted with 14 votes in favor. The United States, who has frequently vetoed draft resolutions addressing the situation, abstained from voting, allowing the resolution to be adopted. The most recent veto from the United States was in 2011, on a draft resolution bearing some similarities to the one passed on the 23rd, and it has long been suspected that President Obama would allow a resolution addressing the Israeli settlements, of which he has been critical, to pass before the inauguration of Donald Trump on the 20th of January. Donald Trump has been critical of the resolution.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the decision “shameful”, and has instructed the Foreign Ministry to re-assess the country’s ties with the United Nations. Already, the country has cancelled funding for five U.N. institutions it deems “especially hostile” to Israel.
The resolution was initially presented to the Security Council by Egypt, but was withdrawn before the vote after Israel had asked Donald Trump to intervene as it feared the United States would abstain. The resolution was re-introduced by Malaysia, New Zealand, Senegal, and Venezuela.
After two draft resolutions addressing the situation in the Syrian city of Aleppo have failed to be adopted this autumn due to Russian and Chinese vetoes, the Security Council has finally agreed on a resolution to send observers to the city to monitor the evacuation of civilians.
Monday the 19th of December, the Security Council unanimously voted for a draft resolution that would deploy UN observers to monitor the evacuation of civilians from Aleppo. The resolution is the result of three hours of private discussions, after France circulated a draft resolution suggesting UN observers on Friday, that Russia threatened to veto. Russia proceeded to table its own draft resolution, which allegedly did not mention observers specifically but called for arrangements to monitor the condition of civilians remaining in Aleppo.
The adopted resolution reportedly asks the Secretary-General “to take urgent steps to make arrangements, including security arrangements in consultation with interested parties, to allow the observation by the UN and other relevant institutions of the well-being of civilians… inside the eastern districts of Aleppo”. It also called for “adequate, neutral monitoring and direct observation on evacuations from eastern Aleppo and other districts of the city”.
Evacuations from Aleppo started on Thursday under a deal that allows Syrian government forces to take full control over the city, the eastern parts of which has long been controlled by rebel groups. Disagreements caused the evacuations to stall on Friday, and on Sunday some of the buses meant to carry out the evacuation were attacked and set on fire. Operations resumed on Monday, with 5 000 people leaving Aleppo in 75 buses.