Limiting the Security Council Veto

PARIS – Back in 2001, France floated a proposal that the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (P5) should voluntarily refrain from using their veto power when dealing with mass-atrocity crimes. And now, in the lead-up to the commemoration of this year’s 70th anniversary of the UN, French President François Hollande’s government is actively pursuing the idea again. Could such an arrangement really work?

The predictable initial response is to dismiss the possibility out of hand. As Australia’s wartime prime minister, Ben Chifley, once famously remarked, “The trouble with gentleman’s agreements is that there aren’t enough bloody gentlemen.”

It is indeed hard to believe that Russia and China, in particular, would be accommodating. Russia, for example, has exercised vetoes more than 100 times since 1946, most recently – and unhappily – four times since 2011 to block resolutions intended to halt the carnage in Syria.

Nor has the United States, which has used its veto some 80 times (most frequently, in recent years, on Israel-related issues), shown much enthusiasm, notwithstanding its generally strong stand on genocide and related cases. Only the United Kingdom (which, like France itself, last resorted to the veto in 1989) has given any hint of support for the French initiative.