Global Policy Forum

P-5 Veto Outdated


By Mohamed Sid-Ahmed

Cairo Al-Ahram
July 8-14, 1999

In his address to the inaugural session of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs (ECFA) last June, Foreign Minister Amr Moussa urged ECFA to come forward with ideas on how the United Nations should be restructured to consolidate international legality, safeguard peace and security and ensure the democratisation of the organisation so that it is only exceptionally that regional crises are resolved outside the UN.

We must begin by admitting that all attempts so far to reorganise the UN in line with the tremendous global changes taking place have come up against formidable obstacles. For the first time in its history, the UN was totally absent from the efforts furnished to resolve a regional crisis with international implications. Indeed, it was deliberately kept out of the Kosovo crisis, its role taken over by NATO as the instrument by which Milosevic was punished and compelled to pull out his troops from Kosovo. To avoid a near certain veto by Russia and China of any resolution put forward by the Western powers to launch punitive strikes against a sovereign UN member state, the Security Council was not consulted at all before the NATO intervention. This unprecedented marginalisation of the UN betrays a major loophole in the established world order.

Until recently, projects to establish some kind of institutionalised international system were undertaken in the wake of world wars: the League of Nations was established after World War I, the United Nations after World War II. This pattern changed after what can be described as World War III, which is what the Cold War actually amounted to, even though the Soviet Union was not defeated on the battlefield but imploded from within. The political effects of the implosion were equivalent to those produced by war, albeit without human and material loss. But no institutionalised international system emerged to replace the system which reflected the balance of power prevailing in the wake of World War II.

Successive developments have highlighted the need to come to grips with what has clearly become a serious problem. To begin with, one of the five powers enjoying veto prerogatives in the Security Council has undergone a fundamental identity change. When the Soviet Union became Russia, its status changed from that of a superpower at the head of the communist camp to that of a society aspiring to become part of the capitalist world. Russia's permanent membership in the Security Council is no longer taken for granted. The global ideological struggle that had for so long dominated the international scene is no more, and the new realities have to be translated into a different set of global institutions.

The veto powers of the Big Five constitute the very essence of the United Nations. The international organisation is not democratic. Its members do not have equal rights. The five countries which reaped the fruits of victory in World War II were accorded special privileges. Indeed, the structure of the international organisation charged with maintaining world order was based on the premise that what is considered legal is only what is acceptable to these five privileged members concomitantly. The Security Council is the institution inside the UN entrusted with the implementation of this mechanism. As for the General Assembly, its main task is to ensure that the community of nations inside the UN respect the rules of the game and are kept within the system. Nowhere are the workings of the system more graphically illustrated than in the Arab-Israeli conflict, where we have seen countless resolutions passed by the General Assembly condemning this or that aspect of Israeli policy only to be nullified by a US veto.

The veto system was established initially to protect the interests of the founding members of the United Nations. It should be remembered that the countries which defeated the Axis powers in World War II came from two opposite camps, one committed to the furtherance of communism, the other of capitalism. For peace and security to be upheld and biopolarity sustained, no resolution unacceptable to any of the Big Five could be allowed to pass. Granted, this was a small price to pay for peaceful coexistence. But there is no logic in continuing to apply this type of veto system after the collapse of the bipolar world order.

Especially not in a world order whose most salient trait is globalisation, a process which assumes that the system is no longer built on two mutually exclusive ideological schools of thought; that, at least ideologically, the world has become unipolar and that the values of capitalism have prevailed. This is what Fukoyama called the 'end of history', the definitive triumph of the neo-liberal values of the western democracies. The present world order is more concerned with building up an intricate network of links, a web of interdependence, between societies and states than with independence and confrontation, eventually even with national sovereignty. In a way, if the 'pyramid' symbolises the structure of the sovereign state, based on the principle that sovereignty is inalienable, and with one supreme authority at the head of a hierarchical order, the new interdependent world system is better illustrated by the notion of a 'web' or net of which the Internet, the most outstanding feat of the Information Revolution, is a striking expression. None of the interlaced elements making up a web is privileged over the others a priori; competition is open for whichever among them proves capable of asserting its superiority.

The real question is whether it makes sense to extrapolate the veto system, which stood at the very heart of the bipolar world order, on to a unipolar world order. A wrong way to answer this question is through patching. With the exception of the Soviet Union, none of the other Big Five of World War II can presently be regarded as defeated nations. Furthermore, the vanquished in World War, mainly Germany and Japan, have now become economic if not military giants. They can also be regarded as victors. The solution for the veto impasse is not to replace the Big Five by the G-7, which groups both the victors and the vanquished of World War II. This can only privilege the North at the expense of the South and deepen global disequilibria rather than help solve critical crises wherever they erupt. Actually, globalisation has not ended bipolarity per se, only the bipolarity between capitalism and communism. The gap is widening still further between rich and poor, developed and non-developed, privileged and destitute.

Veto rights should no longer be the prerogative of given states, but rather, in the age of globalisation, of specialised institutions dealing with specific threats to the future of humankind, there should be authorities endowed with veto power to combat, each in its field of competence, such evils as the ozone hole, water scarcity, global warming, human cloning as well as ethnic cleansing, sexual and racial discrimination, religious persecution, the cumulative increase of the poorest countries' debts, the stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction and all forms of apartheid still practiced worldwide. This shift away from veto prerogatives limited to a number of great powers should occur gradually but systematically, according to a given calendar, with the ultimate aim of totally eliminating the veto power of any given state.

When he was secretary-general of the United Nations, Boutros Ghali established the custom of regularly convening world conferences on critical issues such as the environment, women, poverty, water scarcity, population, refugees, weapons of mass destruction, etc. With strong NGO support emanating from the base of the world community, such conferences could become the nuclei for permanent institutions with veto powers, instead of privileging specific states at the summit of the world community as is now the case. Such a transformation would update the veto in line with present day requirements in a world undergoing deep changes. How to bring about the transformation provides much food for thought.

More Information on Security Council Reform

More Information on the Veto


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