Can you bypass a U.N. Security Council veto?

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March 12 2003 5:38 PM

Can You Bypass a U.N. Security Council Veto?

Russia and France are threatening to veto any U.N. Security Council resolution that authorizes military action against Iraq. Is a veto the same thing as a "no" vote?

For the Security Council's five permanent members, voting "nay" is, indeed, tantamount to a veto, per a rule known as "great power unanimity." The word "veto" is nowhere to be found in the U.N. Charter, but the document does mention that Security Council decisions "shall be made by an affirmative vote of nine members, including the concurring votes of the permanent members." So, if permanent members China, Russia, France, Great Britain, and the United States aren't unanimous in supporting a resolution, the measure dies. Even if the United States were somehow to coax "yeas" out of 14 of the 15 Security Council members—10 nonpermanent members serve two-year terms on the panel—a lone French "non" would nix the resolution's passage.

A permanent member may also abstain rather than vote "nay," which preserves the resolution. Such a move lets a nation make its moral or political objections clear, while at the same time allowing the resolution to pass; four "yeas" and an abstention will do the trick, for example, as long as five nonpermanent Security Council members also are on board. (The Korean War was authorized with the OK of only four permanent members; at the time, Communist China's seat was occupied by the exiled government of Chiang Kai-Shek, and the U.S.S.R. was boycotting the United Nations.)

Vetoes were common during the Cold War, with the United States and the Soviet Union casting the majority of negative votes. There have been 251 public vetoes since the Security Council's inception in 1946, 238 of which occurred between 1946 and 1990. Of those Cold War vetoes, the United States and the U.S.S.R. accounted for 185 of the total. France, by contrast, has exercised its veto only 18 times all told. Its last lone veto occurred in 1976, when it killed a resolution that would have recognized the island of Mayotte as part of the Comoros. America last cast a lone veto just three months ago, refusing to support a resolution that would have condemned the killing of U.N. employees by the Israeli army.

There's an esoteric maneuver to get around a threatened veto: invoking the obscure U.N. Resolution 377, also known as the "Uniting for Peace" Resolution. In early 1950, the United States pushed through the resolution as a means of circumventing possible Soviet vetoes. The measure states that, in the event that the Security Council cannot maintain international peace, a matter can be taken up by the General Assembly. This procedure has been used 10 times so far, most notably in 1956 to help resolve the Suez Canal crisis. Britain and France, which were occupying parts of the canal at the time, vetoed Security Council resolutions calling for their withdrawal. The United States called for an emergency "Uniting for Peace" session of the General Assembly, which passed a withdrawal resolution. (A simple majority vote is required.) Britain and France pulled out shortly after.

Yet these non-Security Council resolutions are more symbolic pressure tactics than anything else. The council still maintains responsibility for enforcement, so naysayers among the permanent members can likely prevent the actual dispatching of troops. Nor, as history has shown, will all nations buckle like Britain and France did in 1956. In 1980, the General Assembly convened in a "Uniting for Peace" session and passed a resolution demanding the Soviet Union's withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Soviets merely shrugged.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.