Clearing a path
It can sometimes be infuriating to Americans that Russia and China would be ready to veto any United Nations Security Council resolution calling for intervention to punish Syria’s Bashar al-Assad for his regime’s use of chemical weapons in an attack that took an estimated 1,400 lives, including 400 children.
When the United Nations was created in 1945, it was decided that any of the five permanent members of the Security Council (the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China and France) had the right to veto any resolution brought before the council, thus preventing the taking of steps the other members may favor.
Perhaps, as critics maintain, the veto provision was a terrible mistake and perhaps they’re right. But it would be wrong to believe that the veto power doesn’t serve American interests as well as those of our sometimes adversaries.
The United States has frequently exercised the right to cast a veto. And savvy political scientists argue that as frustrating as a veto by the Russians or the Chinese may be on a particular resolution, from time to time the veto has proved vital to the interests of the foreign policy of the United States.
The first American veto was cast in 1970 and dealt with a major crisis in what was then Rhodesia, which is now Zimbabwe. The United Kingdom, of which Rhodesia had been a colony, vetoed seven Security Council resolutions on that subject. Two years later, the United States cast the only veto on a resolution that was critical of Israel.
In fact, since 1972 the United States has been by far the most frequent user of the veto and nearly all the vetoes involved resolutions that Washington agreed were contrary to Israel’s political interests, thus creating a great deal of friction between the American delegation and the U.N. General Assembly.
Two years ago, the Obama administration cast vetoes on resolutions condemning Israel’s construction of controversial settlements that many, perhaps even most, Americans opposed. But our nation’s foreign policy interests prevailed.
There have been serious debates about the virtues and evils of the Security Council’s veto powers. There is the belief, for example, that the five permanent members may no longer represent the most stable and responsible member states in the United Nations. After all, those who make the point argue, the world has changed dramatically since 1945, but membership on the Security Council remains as it was then.
Critics also argue that the very existence of the Security Council members’ veto power can prevent the adoption of important steps affecting delicate matters of international peace and security, matters that are, after all, the very reason the U.N. was created in the first place.
In addition, critics have argued that the very threat of the veto power may impede balanced political decisions because any draft resolution must first be approved by each of the five permanent members before it can be adopted. Several such proposed draft resolutions never formally reached the Council for a vote because their sponsors knew beforehand that at least one permanent member would exercise its veto power.
In a recent letter to The New York Times, Benjamin Ferencz, a prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials after World War II, suggested that in the case of Syria, the Security Council should refer the matter to the International Criminal Court in The Hague because that body “is competent to penalize crimes against humanity.”
But who would ensure Assad’s presence for that trial?
In short, there’s no clear-cut path to justice in this case.