The UN Security Council operates as the global governor regarding threats to peace and security. However, since its foundation in 1945, its effectiveness and legitimacy have been questioned a number of times regarding a multitude of issues – regional representativeness, size, and the question of veto power. The Security Council underwent its last reform in 1965 when Articles 23 and 27 of the UN Charter were amended to enlarge the number of non-permanent seats from six to ten and the number of affirmative votes from seven to nine. Since then, every other reform proposal has been blocked by the veto of one of the five permanent member states, which include China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
However, the US, the UK, and especially France have shown a willingness to restrict their veto power. In 2015, France proposed the Political Declaration on Suspension of Veto Powers in Cases of Mass Atrocity, which included the voluntary restraint of the veto use if mass-atrocity crimes were concerned. Three key elements were determined that seemed essential to reach the agreement of all permanent member states. Firstly, after agreeing on a clear definition, the UN Secretary-General and his Office of Special Advisers on the Prevention of Genocide and R2P (Responsibility to Protect) would certify if the case matches the definition. Secondly, a minimum of 50 member states (at least 5 from each geographical group) would have to request a veto restraint. The third element would provide the incentive for the permanent member states to agree, allowing them to veto if “vital national interests” were jeopardized. So far, the declaration was signed by 104 UN member states, with France remaining the only permanent member state.
The latest reform proposal regarding the veto power was posed by Liechtenstein with the intention to hold the permanent member states accountable for their obligation to Article 24, Paragraph 1 of the UN Charter and was adopted by the General Assembly on April 26, 2022. This article states that the Security Council carries the responsibility of maintaining international peace on the behalf of all member states to ensure its effectiveness. Therefore, Liechtenstein proposed an automatically arranged General Assembly meeting within ten days after every veto use, where the country is invited to explain its veto at the beginning of the debate. General Assembly resolutions are non-binding. However, this resolution is viewed as a major development in terms of reforming the veto power. So far, three out of five permanent member states have decided to co-sponsor this resolution: France, the UK, and the US.
Despite this breakthrough, this initiative should not impede wider reform efforts, as an amendment to the UN Charter is essential to modernize the Security Council. Particularly, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has emphasized its ineffectiveness, with Russian vetoes paralyzing any collective action addressing the war. Dealing with this issue, a possible reform proposal would include removing the veto right if a permanent member state is “actively involved” in a dispute that is debated for a resolution. In this case, “actively involved” can be defined as “violating or contributing to the violation of a state’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, including the sole assisting of the invader through military or logistical aid”. The first two elements of the Political Declaration on Suspension of Veto Powers in Cases of Mass Atrocity can be used to determine if such a case arises. The term invader can refer to state and non-state actors. However, the assistance of the invaded state through military or logistical aid by a permanent member state would not lead to the veto right removal.
Historically, the veto power of the permanent member states ensured their acceptance of the UN Charter and their participation in the UN as a newly forming organization. Particularly, the Soviet Union insisted on the veto right, even if a permanent member was involved in a dispute. Stalin justified this stance by emphasizing the importance of full agreement between the Great Powers. This explains the difficulty of finding a consensus for reforming the Security Council regarding restricting the veto power. However, the demands of this reform proposal are already integrated into the UN Charter, art. 2, para. 4, which requires all member states to recognize the territorial integrity of any state.
This reform proposal generates a higher level of political pressure on the permanent member states due to their signature of the UN Charter, which ultimately highlights the question of the purpose of the UN. While the likelihood of this reform proposal’s implementation remains low, the emphasis on the dysfunctionality of the Security Council increases. Although the criticism has focused on Russia in the past months, it is important to recognize that the veto power can be exploited by all permanent member states. Consequently, the question arises of how long the current system of the Security Council can be justified if it merely serves to extend the political power of the permanent member states. However, it is difficult to create a global security body that does not translate the current power relations into its operation since the most powerful nations have higher stakes. Nevertheless, a Security Council reform as described above whose requirements are the fulfillment of the UN Charter is essential to maintain its legitimacy.