Global Policy Forum

The Veto: A Case Study


The China Veto and the Guatemalan Peace Process

By Farhan Haq

Inter Press Service
January 20, 1997

United Nations - A standoff over sending UN peacekeepers to aid Guatemala's peace process ended Monday after China reversed course from a previous veto of the force.

China dropped its veto of plans to send 155 military observers to Guatemala, allowing the 15-member UN Security Council to approve the force unanimously. UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said the troops may now be deployed to monitor the Dec. 29, 1996, peace agreement between Guatemala's government and the leftist Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) ''within a month''.

According to UN sources who spoke on condition of anonymity, the price of China's acceptance may be to forestall future efforts to bring any question of Taiwan's representation to the 185-nation UN General Assembly. Beijing's decision came only 10 days after it vetoed the force as a clear punishment to the Central American nation for maintaining warm ties with the People's Republic's nemesis, Taiwan.

In the January 10 vote, Chinese Ambassador Qin Huasun made it clear that only the Taiwan issue, and not any problems with Guatemala's peace process itself or the dispatch of UN monitors, had prompted the veto. ''No country's peace process should be at the expense of another country's sovereignty and territorial integrity,'' Qin said. ''The question of Taiwan is a major question of principle that bears upon China's sovereignty, territorial integrity and the cause of national reunification,'' the Chinese envoy argued. ''It falls entirely within China's internal affairs and brooks no outside interference whatsoever.''

China has had three outstanding problems with Guatemala in recent days. First, it objects that Guatemala, along with several other Central American and Caribbean nations, hold diplomatic ties with Taipei, which Beijing still claims as part of the People's Republic. Second, it resents the attendance of a Taiwanese envoy to the Dec. 29 signing of the peace accords in Guatemala City.

Perhaps most important, China vetoed the peacekeepers to punish Guatemala for being one of roughly a dozen countries that have consistently voted over the past four years to bring the issue of Taiwanese representation to the General Assembly.

Although the topic has never come to a vote, China worries that the prospect even of observer status for Taiwan would ultimately confer UN recognition of an independent Taiwanese state. Taiwan in fact held the permanent, veto-wielding Chinese seat on the Security Council as the ''sole representative of China'' until 1971, when Beijing was finally recognised as China's representative.

Beijing has lashed out at countries even for suggesting that the General Assembly broach the topic of Taiwan's status. When then-Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide mentioned Taiwan at a speech to the United Nations in 1994, Haitian diplomats quickly scrambled to remove his words from the transcript.

Even so, Beijing has repeatedly held up UN peacekeeping efforts in Haiti by threatening to veto further extensions for a small force there, because of its suspicion of Port-au-Prince's financial and diplomatic ties with Taipei. Most recently, the threat of a Chinese veto ensured that the Haiti mission will only be extended until this summer, when the Security Council has pledged to end it.

The People's Republic also won a new ally in recent months: South Africa abruptly broken ties with Taiwan and recognised mainland China three months ago, following pressure from Beijing. UN sources have suggested for months that a key factor in Pretoria's decision was its desire to avoid a Chinese veto in the Security Council should it support Tanzanian diplomat Salim Ahmed Salim as a candidate for the position of UN secretary-general. Salim, who also faced a veto threat from France, did not run.

But the actual Chinese veto on the Guatemala resolution has had decidedly mixed results for China's government. Although the veto put pressure on Guatemala to discuss with China its relationship with Taiwan, it also cast Beijing in a negative light for hindering a peacekeeping operation strongly backed by the United Nations. ''There has been more pressure on China now, because countries said they may really bring up Taiwan's representation at the next General Assembly,'' one UN source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IPS Monday. Over the past four years, Beijing and its allies easily prevented the matter from coming to a vote.

Beijing also has received its share of bad press. The Washington Post, in a Monday editorial, blasted China's January 10 veto as ''particularly cynical'' and argued the move could only hurt efforts to end Guatemala's 36-year civil war, in which more than 140,000 people were killed. ''China's contention that the United States should 'delink' various issues in dealing with Beijing -- trade and human rights, for example -- isn't strengthened when China links unrelated issues in this way,'' the editorial warned. ''And China's desire to win respect as a world power can only suffer from such pettiness.''

After several discussions here last week, China and Guatemala resolved their differences enough to allow the Monday vote to pass, although both nations have remained tight-lipped about the nature of the deal. Russian Ambassador Sergei Lavrov only said the consultations arrived at ''a formula to guarantee approval to send the mission''. However, some sources knowledgeable about the talks have said that Guatemala has neither had to apologise for Taiwan's representation at the December 29 signing ceremony nor break ties with Taipei. Instead, Guatemala -- and other countries -- have had to back off from bringing up Taiwan's status at the General Assembly, the sources claimed.

With the veto threat now ended, UN officials are confident that the world body can help to monitor a peace plan under which both Guatemalan troops and URNG soldiers are to be placed in cantonments and disarmed within the next two months.

More Information on the Veto


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