Consequences of the veto

  • Consequences that result from vetoed Security Council resolutions depend on the topic of the draft resolution.

  • While consequences cannot be predicted accurately, historical examples show the dangers of a habitual use of the veto.

  • Recent examples of such consequences include draft resolutions concerning Macedonia, Syria and Israel-Palestine.

All vetoes have consequences 

Whenever one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council uses their veto it leads to a paralysis of the United Nations as a whole. When a resolution could provide the UN with an opportunity to act in an event to maintain international peace and security, a veto binds the UN to observe an event from the outside. The consequences this has depend on what kind of action the vetoed draft resolution was meant to mandate. The effect on individual lives vary widely, since the vetoed draft resolutions concern many different types of actions – sanctions, humanitarian aid, threat of military interventions, extensions and deployment of peacekeeping forces and observers, and resumption of peace processes.


Picture Credit:
“Helmet and Flack jackets of MONUC Peacekeepers” by UN Photo/Marie Frechon 2008. Unique Identifier UN7665395.

China vetoes UNPREDEP

A Chinese veto in 1999 lead to the end of the mandate for the UN troops in UNPREDEP, stationed in Macedonia. The UNPREDEP mission is praised as one of the most successful examples of how a UN presence can stabilize a state and help it on its way toward peace. The motivation China gave to the veto was that the mission had fulfilled its tasks and that there was no longer any need for a peacekeeping force in Macedonia. The situation on the Balkans at this time was still, however, very unstable and several states expressed a concern that a dismantling of the mission could further destabilize the region, as well as jeopardize the progress already made. As predicted, the years following UNPREDEP was marked by increased tensions and in 2001 a minor armed conflict broke out between the ethnic groups in Macedonia. NATO troops were deployed in response to ensure that the situation did not escalate into war, but the consequence of the Chinese veto was that the Macedonians had to experience another period of instability, suffering, and insecurity.

Russia and China vetoes action on Syria

The conflict in Syria is probably the most devastating example of the consequences of the veto. Since the conflict started in 2011, through the escalation of the initially peaceful Arab Spring protests, Russia, often together with China, vetoed 16 draft resolutions related to that conflict. In part, these vetoes blocked the condemnation of crimes, such as during the beginning of the conflict. Some other blocked the referral to the International Criminal Court, thereby preventing the various parties, including the Syrian government and terrorist groups such as the so-called Islamic State from being held accountable for their crimes. Several vetoes also prevented the condemnation of the use of chemical weapons and blocking the formation and later the continuation of a chemical weapons inspection mechanism, with the authority to attribute responsibility of chemical weapons use to the parties of the conflict. Furthermore, vetoes have been used to stop cease-fires for humanitarian relief or to hinder UN agencies from easy access to people in need of humanitarian aid.

While the Syrian conflict is of course too complicated to claim that any of these vetoed draft resolutions would have put an end to it, there is no denying that if the Security Council had spoken up with a united voice from the beginning of the conflict, making clear that war crimes were not acceptable, that all parties had to follow international law and that there would be consequences if they failed to do so, the situation would likely look very different today and fewer lives would have been lost

Read more: 
Trahan, J. (2020). Existing Legal Limits to Security Council Veto Power in the Face of Atrocity Crimes.

Numerous US regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict 

Perhaps the most obvious example of the consequences of the veto is the situation in Israel and Palestine. Through the years, a number of draft resolutions concerning a vast number of aspects of the conflict have been put before the Security Council. These have included attempts to force Israel to cease its building of settlements in Gaza, to force the parties to negotiations, to encourage a commitment to international obligations, to the condemnation of violent acts and terrorism, and to protect civilian populations. These draft resolutions have consistently been vetoed by the United States. The US has claimed that the draft resolutions do not reflect the situation accurately, that too much blame is put on Israel and that the resolutions would obstruct the peace process. The vetoes have stopped the UN from influencing the conflict in an efficient way and have contributed to more than 70 years of unsolved disputes, hurting both Israelis and Palestinians.

Consequences of the hidden veto 

Every time a country choses to use its veto power, the SC is prevented from acting with direct consequences on the ground. However, the consequences of the veto power go even further than that. Often the P5 use the threat of a veto, what is frequently called a hidden veto, to block or water down resolutions. It is a lot harder to shed light on the impact of hidden vetoes, because they often don’t show up in public records and they rarely get picked up by the media. The hidden veto can come in various forms. It can consist of explicit statements that a country will veto a draft resolution if a certain provision is included, or it can be more subtle, by raising concerns during negotiations without ever referring to the veto at all. This leaves the other members of the Security Council to try to come up with a draft resolution that is acceptable to the P5 or risking that all the work will be for nothing and that no resolution gets passed at all.

While it is impossible to say how common hidden vetoes are, there are a few instances that have reached our attention. At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Security Council was working on a draft resolution that was supposed to call for a global seize-fire and international cooperation to combat the pandemic. The United States blocked the draft resolution by threatening to veto it, because it referenced the World Health Organization. Although the Council eventually passed a text, the resolution lost a lot of its impact because of the significantly delayed response in a time of crisis, and the due to the watered-down compromise that eventually got agreed upon.

The current veto tradition needs to change

These are just three examples of what kind of consequences the veto has. Other examples include the continued violations of Human Rights in Zimbabwe and the lack of humanitarian aid to Bosnia and Herzegovina during the 1990’s. The veto can also have less dramatic, but still serious, consequences as was seen in Guatemala where a veto led to the Council not adopting a resolution in support of the peace process of the 1990’s. It is, however, clear that in many cases the veto has serious and costly consequences in the form of prolonged conflicts and the loss of human lives. It is not certain that the vetoed draft resolutions would have prevented the situations in Macedonia, Syria or Israel and Palestine, but from what we know about the background of these crises we can see that the consequences of the inability of the UN to act has been severe. When the UN is repeatedly prevented from taking action, millions of people suffer the consequences. That is the reason to why we must change the way we view the responsibility of the international community and the use of the UN Security Council veto.