The Origins of the UN Veto and Why it Should be Abolished
April 28, 2022
April 28, 2022
With the entry of the United States into the war in December 1941 efforts were set in motion for the creation of a new organization that might provide a secure basis for peace and prosperity. The organization that emerged from the efforts at the San Francisco conference in 1945 was the United Nations, but the work leading to this outcome was the result of long and delicate negotiations.
On January 1, 1942 the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, China and 22 other nations then fighting the Axis powers created an alliance in which members pledged to work for the establishment of a broad-based and effective system of international security. The name adopted for this alliance was United Nations, suggested by President Roosevelt himself. This was no small act of imagination. In early 1942, the war effort was not going well for the United States and its allies; Japan had made major territorial gains in Asia and Germany had brought Europe, other than Great Britain, under its control and was intent on conquering Russia as well.
Until October 1943, the focus of the deliberations about the kind of UN that should be established centered on the founding of an international entity based on federalist principles. That is, a legislative body with substantial powers to enact laws binding on member states. Unfortunately, these more ambitious visions for future international cooperation were confronted with a strong dose of reality at the October 1943 conference in Moscow, to discuss the vision of global order then being embedded in the draft UN Charter.
Soviet authorities were more concerned with the war effort and keen to obtain Allied support for the opening in 1944 of a second front to divert German military resources away from Russian territory. From the discussions at this point, it was apparent that the Russians would not object to some form of collective security mechanism, provided it was based on great power unanimity—meaning the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and China—through the exercise of the veto. Thus, as long as the United Nations was founded on the principle of “sovereign equality of states” and was rendered a largely harmless organization, the Soviets would not object. There were growing concerns as well within the drafters to avoid the fate of the League, and to ensure that the UN Charter would ultimately secure US Senate approval, resulting in a shift of focus away from what might be desirable to what might be politically feasible, particularly considering the presence of strong segments of isolationist sentiment within the US Congress.
Clearly, with the global military conflict still raging, there were scarce resources and little time to promote a global vision of world order that might receive the endorsement of the public and to ensure an adequate degree of democratic legitimacy for the new body being created. Instead, to prevent creating an organization with the same flaws as the League of Nations, an effort was made to embed within the UN Charter clauses that would allow, at least in theory, for the future strengthening of mechanisms of international cooperation, as circumstances evolved.
The UN Charter would give the veto power to the four great powers only, not to every member as had been the case with the League. The Charter would introduce strong protections for human rights, as the League had not done. Once it was clear that the idea of a world legislature with binding powers on member states was premature, the proposal for attaching a Bill of Rights to the UN Charter was abandoned. The draft Bill of Rights had included the possibility of the right of petition by private citizens to the International Court of Justice, raising some concern among the US authorities about the implications of this, given the background of widespread discrimination against African Americans and members of other minorities. The US civil rights movement was, after all, still several years into the future.
Two other issues in the deliberations over the design and scope of the United Nations concerned the voting mechanisms and the distribution of power within the organization. Some experts, notably Grenville Clark, counsel to the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, had argued for a system of weighted voting, with voting power linked to some objective criteria, such as population size, trade flows, levels of defense spending, and the like, to take into consideration the huge disparities in size and economic heft of the membership. This was not accepted and, in the end, as is well known, the General Assembly was established based on the principle of one-country-one-vote. Weighted voting was, however, adopted at the Bretton Woods United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference of July 1944, bringing into being two institutions, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
The veto itself was perceived by many as undermining the democratic legitimacy of the organization
Related to concerns over the voting mechanism, was the perception that a Security Council in which the five permanent major power members had veto power—France was included in 1945—and that the UN would turn into an imperialistic organization in which the permanent members of the Council would be, de facto, running the world. The veto itself was perceived by many as undermining the democratic legitimacy of the organization, a practice that could not be defended on the basis of any principle of just governance. Non-permanent members of the Security Council accepted to be limited by a two-thirds majority, whereas the permanent members accepted no such constraints. More importantly—and with huge practical and political implications—some argued that a system was being created in which the organization would not be able to deal with problems and/or conflicts between the major powers or between a major power and a smaller country.
Since most major security problems in the future were likely to involve, directly or indirectly, one of the major powers, this gave rise to the concern that, given the strategic importance, economic size, and large geographic footprint of the Soviet Union, China, the United States and the British Commonwealth, the United Nations, as conceived, would be largely useless at doing what it was created to do, namely, “maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace.” (Article 1.1) The kinds of collective security interventions envisaged in Article 43 would inevitably clash with the principle of the “sovereign equality of states,” as opposed to an order based on principles of international law, as made tragically clear in recent weeks with Russia´s unprovoked attack on Ukraine.
In the late 1950s Clark and co-author Louis Sohn wrote World Peace Through World Law focused on reforming the restrained version of the UN Charter that emerged from the San Francisco conference. Those who put together the final draft of the UN Charter were not ready to contemplate the vision of an organization with binding enforcement powers over its member states and the associated instrumentality. Cord Meyer, an important member of the US delegation to the San Francisco Conference, claimed in an impressively insightful article in The Atlantic that the delegates had fairly narrow margins of freedom, not only because of the need to ensure US Senate ratification, but also because the broad outlines of the United Nations had been generally agreed to by Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin during their meeting in Yalta in February of that year.
Meyer, who had served in the war, thought that the fundamental problem in San Francisco was the unwillingness of the major powers to give up any of the attributes of sovereign power, especially the freedom “from any interference by others in its internal affairs and equally free in its external affairs to make any decisions that it wishes.” Peace and security within the United States, Meyer believed, were guaranteed by a law-based system in which powers of the states were circumscribed and, in some areas, subordinated to those of the federal government, and where there was an unshakable and legally based commitment to resolve conflicts in a peaceful way. He was convinced that, at the international level, under the system created in San Francisco “any disagreement is a potential source of armed conflict, and each nation must rely, for the protection of its interests, on the amount of armed force it is able and willing to bring to bear in a given situation. We should frankly recognize this lawless condition as anarchy, where brute force is the price of survival. As long as it continues to exist, war is not only possible but inevitable,” prescient comments in light of the current war in Ukraine.
Meyer was particularly harsh in his characterization of the veto power seized by the major powers for themselves. Among the consequences of the veto he noted that, “a major power can violate every principle and purpose set forth in the Charter and yet remain a member of the Organization by the lawful use of the veto power expressly granted to it;” amendments to the Charter required ratification by the five veto-wielding powers, a feature that gave them the power to permanently prevent any change or reform whatsoever; and if one of the Big Five was not a party to a dispute, it could “prevent even the investigation of the case by the Security Council.” The veto power would also have consequences for the application of the provisions included in the Charter allowing for the use of force in certain circumstances. Like Clark before him, Meyer cautioned against the “popular misconception” that the weaknesses embedded in the League of Nations Covenant had somehow been addressed in the UN Charter. In fact, Charter members agreed only to voluntarily make available to the Security Council a portion of their military forces when the Council saw fit to take military action. But in practice, the veto granted to the five major powers meant that they would be exempt from such actions being taken against them or against any smaller state which they wished to protect, such as Syria in the case of Russia in recent years.
Meyer thought that such a system, exempting the major powers in its most fundamental provisions for the application of the principle of the use of force, could not be characterized as being law-based in any meaningful sense of the word. Instead, it bordered on “hypocrisy or self-delusion” since the use of violence could be justified as police action only in a system in which the same rules applied to all participants in an even-handed way. In summary, he wrote, “the International Organization is, at present, as incapable of dealing with the probable causes of another war as a fire extinguisher is of quenching a forest fire”—again a sad commentary on the current impotence of the UN to address the dire situation in Ukraine.
Meyer was sympathetic with the views voiced by New Zealand Prime Minister Fraser during the San Francisco conference who, speaking on behalf of smaller nations “upset the monotonous ritual of empty oratory and petty disagreement into which the Conference often subsided” by referring to the Charter as “a series of platitudes—and petrified platitudes at that.” Touching upon the same points raised by Clark the previous year about the watering down of the Charter that took place to ensure US Senate approval, Meyer wrote that “the final price paid for Senate approval is an Organization that the United States can join and still retain intact every attribute of independence. The record of the hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are a tragi-comic commentary on what was achieved at San Francisco. To allay the fears of even the most unregenerate isolationist, every impotent inadequacy of the Charter was stressed as a positive assurance that in ratifying it we were committing ourselves to nothing.” Indeed, the UN Charter, an International Treaty, was ratified by the US Senate in July of 1945 by a vote of 89-2, without reservations.
The views of Clark and Meyer are important because they were both extremely well-connected observers of the process and the thinking that went into the design of the UN Charter and associated UN institutions. Also, because they were inordinately prescient in identifying the consequences for international peace and security resulting from the weaknesses and flaws that were embedded in the organization, as the price for its creation.
Perhaps nothing expresses more eloquently the deeply flawed nature of the distribution of power within the UN than to notice that if the UN had adopted for itself the system of weighted voting adopted by the Bretton Woods institutions in 1944—assume, for argument’s sake, a voting power linked to population size, global GDP share, and a membership share equal for all 193 UN members—Russia´s voting power in the UN today would be equal to 1.68% and rapidly declining since the Russian economy is likely to contract sharply in coming years as a result of the war and associated sanctions. (In fact, the voting power of the United Kingdom and France, two other veto-wielding members, would also be under 2%, 1.41% in the case of the UK and 1.39% in the case of France).
The UN veto power has paralyzed the UN at a time when the multiple global crises we confront call for an effective, problem-solving organization that will enhance our capacity for international cooperation. If it is not abolished it will not only hamper the organization in its effort to remain faithful to its noble founding principles, but it will ultimately corrupt its remaining moral authority without which it cannot hope to remain relevant in an interdependent world.