The idea of the right of veto in the UN Security Council was to protect the sovereignty of the great powers, but today the veto is often used instead of self-interest and political play. Sweden must work for a change of attitude in the veto issue, write Vendela Runold and Magnus Lundström from the Stop Illegitimate Vetoes campaign.
"We must reform our world, and I am committed to reforming the UN," Antonio Guterres said during his speech at the General Assembly's opening in September. His statement expressed the desire for change that has shaped the agenda since he took office as UN Secretary-General. But, as a dark shadow over Guterre's will to reform, the stalemate lies in the debate on the veto in the UN Security Council. A change in the use of the veto is needed to preserve the UN's credibility as an actor for international peace and security.
The ultimate responsibility for maintaining peace and security has been vested in the UN Security Council, which is the UN's most powerful body through its power to adopt binding resolutions for member states. The council is made up of 15 member countries, of which ten are elected on a rotating five-year mandate, and the last five are the permanent members, the so-called P5. These permanent members are the victorious superpowers after World War II, the United States, Britain, Russia, China and France, all of which have a veto - the right to stop a resolution from being adopted. Historically, the right of veto served one purpose; it was a precondition for the great powers' participation in the Security Council and an assurance that the sovereignty of these countries was not violated.
The veto is used for self-interest
However, the development of the use of the veto has gone in a different direction. A direction that means that vetoes are imposed for reasons that are incompatible with the purposes of the UN Charter. Instead of being used for its original purpose, such as safeguarding security around the world, or protecting its own security vis-à-vis other countries, the veto is used today based on self-interest and political play. It is used as an instrument to protect its allies or secure geopolitical advantages, rather than to protect the veto country's own population or territory. We call these illegitimate vetoes, as they are imposed for illegitimate reasons.
There are several examples of this type of veto, and in a number of these cases the consequences have run counter to the stated purpose of the Security Council. One example is the veto China imposed in 1997 against the UN sending medical personnel and military observers to Guatemala, which, after years of civil war, reached an agreement on a ceasefire. China gave the reason that Guatemala had previously opposed China at the UN, and that Taiwan, which is considered by China to be a revolting province rather than its own state, had been invited to a peace ceremony in Guatemala City. This veto had no direct link to China's security, but only served as a way to mark it, with the result that a resolution that could have been potentially important to Guatemala's peace process was stopped.
In recent years, the severe humanitarian consequences of veto abuse have become increasingly clear. Locks in the Security Council over resolutions against the Assad regime in Syria have made clear the UN's toothlessness in the face of action against atrocities when one of its permanent members has political reasons not to prevent them. The consequences are clear and very gloomy: abuse of the veto means that strong nations and their allies without reprimands can put self-interest before international law.
It is unrealistic for the veto to be abolished - but something must be done
When Jan Eliasson, former Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, was asked about the veto at a lecture in Uppsala in September, he stated that the abolition of the right of veto is unrealistic. A decision on abolition entails an amendment to the Charter itself, something that has never happened since the establishment of the UN. In addition, it also faces an unshakable Moment 22, where P5 can veto such a decision. But, Jan Eliasson added, a normative change of the veto is required. It must be “hammered in that the use of the right of veto is one failure".
In light of this, we strongly argue that the use of illegitimate vetoes is an active obstacle to achieving what is the Security Council's original purpose - to work for peace and security. The more occasions when the veto is abused, the clearer it becomes that the UN's normative and executive power is increasingly eroded. Since the abolition of the veto is not a probable scenario, we believe, in line with Eliasson, that a change in attitude is required regarding how and when the veto is used. A change of attitude which means that the entire Security Council takes its mission for global security seriously and sharpens a veto is a failure.
A change of attitude that calls for the United Nations to work together and where the Security Council strives for security - globally. The UN Charter cannot be changed, but it can be complied with, and should be done with respect for its original purpose.
Sweden must work for change
At present, Sweden has more than one year left of its term in the Security Council. This position entails influence, but at least as much responsibility. We therefore call on Sweden to work more clearly to change the attitude to the veto, and in this way to change an organization that does not live up to its purpose. Because even though Sweden is a small power, its influence is still real. If Sweden wants to continue to be an international role model for human rights, equality and democracy, action must be taken against the illegitimate veto.
"We are here to serve," Guterres concluded in his speech, referring to the role of the UN, but in order to serve the interests of the international community, it must be ensured that the UN Charter and its purpose can not be violated in favor of national and geopolitical interests in the Security Council. Therefore, Sweden should now take its chance as a member of the Security Council to take this seriously. A change in the thinking of the Security Council will not be easy. It will require stubbornness and visions, but in the long run a change in attitude towards the veto will be necessary. Both to maintain the UN's credibility, and for all the people who suffer when the interests of powerful states take precedence over the UN Charter and international law.
Vendela Runold and Magnus Lundström