A bloc of small countries – the so-called Small-Five or S5, comprised of Costa Rica, Jordan, Liechtenstein, Singapore, and Switzerland – was forced to withdraw their draft resolution at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on 16 May, which sought to amend the working methods of the UN Security Council (UNSC).
Among other measures that were aimed at “enhancing the accountability, transparency, and effectiveness” of the UNSC, a notable element of the S5 resolution recommendation No. 20 that urged the Permanent Members (P5) of the UNSC – Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States – to agree to refrain from using their veto power to block collective Council action to prevent and halt genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. As the S5 stated in their 4 April speech to the UNGA, in which the bloc introduced the resolution, their work stems from the commitments made at the 2005 World Summit:
“The recommendation #20 to refrain from using the veto to block action in situations of “atrocity crimes” (genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity) is in line with the 2005 World Summit resolution which states, in its paragraph 139, that the, “international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use the appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian, and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”
The idea of such restraint on the Council’s veto power in situations of mass atrocities was expressed in the 2001 report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), the ground-breaking document that first articulated the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP, R2P). As the report stated:
“An issue which we cannot avoid addressing, however, is that of the veto power enjoyed by the present Permanent Five. Many of our interlocutors regarded capricious use of the veto, or threat of its use, as likely to be the principal obstacle to effective international action in cases where quick and decisive action is needed to stop or avert a significant humanitarian crisis. As has been said, it is unconscionable that one veto can override the rest of humanity on matters of grave humanitarian concern. Of particular concern is the possibility that needed action will be held hostage to unrelated concerns of one or more of the permanent members – a situation that has too frequently occurred in the past.”
As such, ICISS recommended that the UNSC agree to a “code of conduct” with regards to their veto power. Citizens for Global Solutions (CGS) , an ICRtoP member, has explored this notion of a code of conduct, or a “responsibility not to veto” (RN2V) further in a 2010 paper that seeks to advance the understanding of the initiative and the RtoP. As CGS’s paper explains:
“Momentum for the idea of a responsibility not to veto continued in the debates leading up to the World Summit in 2005. However, the final version of the outcome document did not address any measures that would limit the P5’s veto powers in relation to situations of mass atrocities. According to accounts of the long process of drafting the outcome document this particular omission was due in large part to P5 pressure.”
Despite its omission in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, the idea for an RN2V would re-emerge with the UN Secretary-General’s (UNSG) 2009 report, Implementing the Responsibility to Protect, with Ban Ki-moon stating:
“Within the Security Council, the five permanent members bear particular responsibility because of the privileges of tenure and the veto power they have been granted under the Charter. I would urge them to refrain from employing or threatening to employ the veto in situations of manifest failure to meet obligations relating to the responsibility to protect, as defined in paragraph 139 of the Summit Outcome, and to reach a mutual understanding to that effect.”
Despite the endorsement by the UNSG and the efforts of the S5, as well as the work of civil society in advancing the RN2V concept, the veto has remained a complex issue in formulating collective responses to situations of mass atrocities, as evidenced recently by the situation in Syria. On two occasions over the course of the government-led crackdown, China and Russia employed their veto powers (on 4 October 2011 and 4 February 2012) to block Council action aimed at resolving the crisis, which were widely believed to have been employed as an expression of their respective national interests in the situation, and their concerns over the implementation of Resolution 1973 in Libya.
And as Colum Lynch at Foreign Policy noted on 15 May, the S5 draft resolution led to a rift within the UN, pitting the bloc of small countries and the supporters of their resolution against members of the P5, which felt the resolution would impede their prerogatives. Ultimately, the RN2V and other provisions in the S5 resolution would not be voted on, as the S5 dropped their motion as the UNGA was set to meet. As Lynch writes in his 16 May post on his Foreign Policy blog:
The U.N. secretary general’s top lawyer today effectively killed off an initiative by five small U.N. member states to press the U.N. Security Council to allow greater outside scrutiny of its actions…the initiative failed after the U.N.’s lawyer, Patricia O’Brien, recommended that the resolution require the support of two-thirds of the U.N. membership, rather than the simple majority required for most U.N. General Assembly votes.
Lynch explains further:
Under the U.N. Charter, a General Assembly resolution requires the support of a simple majority, unless it involves particularly “important questions,” like an amendment of the U.N. Charter, in which case it would require a vote by two-thirds of the General Assembly. But in 1998, the General Assembly passed a resolution declaring that the assembly would not adopt any resolution “on the question of equitable representation on and increase in the membership of the Security Council and related matters” without a two-thirds majority.
According to Lynch, the Swiss representative to the UNGA withdrew the motion when this recommendation was made, suggesting that the S5 bloc did not have the support of two-thirds of the Assembly on its resolution.
Ahead of the consideration of the S5 resolution by the UNGA, the ICRtoP – as well our partners at the Coalition for the International Criminal Court (CICC) – sent a letter to all Heads of State and Ministers of Foreign Affairs on 14 May expressing its support for recommendation No.20. The letter from the ICRtoP stated:
[…] this provision reflects the historic decision in the 2005 World Summit document which states that the international community, through the UN, has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity; and that when a state is manifestly failing, the international community has a responsibility to take timely and decisive response, including measures authorized by the Security Council under Chapter VII…Tragically, almost every year and even at present the international community witnesses Council deliberations where use of the veto (or its misuse) is inconsistent with these provisions – a situation that this measure in the resolution attempts to address…This recommendation within the S-5 resolution would enhance the goal for preventing and ending impunity, and strengthen the responsibility of States, the international community, the UN and the Security Council to prevent and stop the commission of these crimes.
The RN2V remains an important initiative that will likely continue to be advanced at the UN and in national capitals by like-minded governments, often working in tandem with an engaged and supportive civil society, that strive to ensure that early and flexible responses to protect populations are available to the international community when faced with cases of mass atrocities. While the withdrawal of the S5 resolution may have been a setback, and current Security Council practice dictates that a “responsibility not to veto” is far from being accepted by the P5, the RN2V idea is certainly here to stay.