“The resolution to avoid an evil is seldom framed till the evil is so far advanced as to make avoidance impossible”. Thomas Hardy, whose novels set in a fictional Wessex constitute the best collection of characters coursing inexorably to inescapable doom in English literature, did not have in mind when he wrote those words the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council – he died in 1928 – but top marks for unintentional prescience nonetheless. And, once framed, there is nothing worse than seeing a resolution vetoed. So thinks the President of Poland.
President Komorowski has left Poland to attend 69th session of the UN General Assembly in New York with the declared intention of trying to persuade the leaders of other nations to limit the veto which Russia enjoys as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council (P5). Due to address the General Assembly on Thursday, the President Komorowski said that his main message will be that “perhaps the United Nations should be reformed to make the institution capable of addressing the threats that really exist today.” He told the New York Times that the UN is being seen as powerless to stop Russia’s aggressive policy in the east of Ukraine and that blocking the Security Council on Ukraine is “a token, a symptom, of the general weakness of the UN.” Or is it?
While Russia has used its veto power more often than any other Security Council member – most recently in March to veto a resolution condemning as illegal a referendum on the status of Crimea, and again in May (with China) to veto a resolution on Syria – the vast majority of its vetoes were exercised before 1965. Since 1972 the Unites States has exercised its veto more than any other member and neither the United Kingdom nor France has exercised its veto since 1989. China has exercised its veto the least of all members, although it can usually be relied on to join Russia when it does.
Be that as it may, to change rules to limit Russia’s power of veto is practically impossible. Any change would need a vote of two-thirds of the General Assembly and Articles 108 and 109 of the United Nations Charter grant the P5 veto over any amendments to the Charter, requiring them to approve of any modifications to the veto power that they themselves hold. It seems beyond the realms of possibility that any of the P5 would accept a reform of the UN Charter that would be detrimental to its own national interests.
Of course, discussions continue about the suitability of the P5 veto power in today’s world. Some argue that the veto power either slows down or prevents important decisions being made on matters of international peace and security; others question whether, because of the global changes that have taken place politically and economically since the formation of the UN in 1945, the P5 remain the best member states to hold the veto power at all or whether the number of permanent members should not be increased. Conversely, those who support the veto power argue that it is as necessary today as it ever was and that without the veto power, the Security Council would be open to making decisions on a majority basis on matters that have global implications, decisions that may well go directly against the interests of a permanent member.
Besides, vetoes are there to be used, even by a British monarch – although it hasn’t happened since 1708 – and President Komorowski himself is no stranger to using his veto in the domestic sphere. While one can understand the President’s frustration, to remove Russia’s veto because of the Ukraine is not a good argument, not least because one might be happy to see a future Russian resolution vetoed. An interesting idea at first sight, but President Komorowski’s proposal has as much chance of being adopted as Tess of the D’Urbervilles did of avoiding the hangman’s noose and living happily ever after. To conclude with Hardy’s words from the same novel: “…our impulses are too strong for our judgement sometimes.”