The ‘veto’ charade

 Tuesday, 7 November 2006, marked the fifty year anniversary of one of the most important events in United Nations’ history; but I doubt you heard a word uttered about it. On 7 November 1956, the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 1001, marking the first use by the General Assembly of its most extensive powers under the UN Charter. That resolution established the United Nations Emergency Force I (UNEF I) in order to “secure and supervise the cessation of hostilities” that had broken out during the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956.

During the Crisis, the Assembly not only established UNEF I, it likewise, by its own resolutions, called for “an immediate cease-fire”, and recommended “that all Member States refrain from introducing military goods in the area”, thereby authorizing a global arms embargo on the region – ‘military sanctions’.

You might have noticed that I have not yet made any reference to the UN Security Council. Why? Because the Council played no part in the creation of UNEF I – the first UN Emergency Force – other than failing to “exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security”, as a result of the “lack of unanimity of the permanent members”. The outcome of such a Council deadlock had been made clear by Assembly resolution 377 A of 3 November 1950: In cases where the Council fails to accept its ‘primary responsibility’, the General Assembly is to then assume ‘final responsibility’ for the “maintenance of international peace and security”.

It is often wrongly asserted that resolution 377 A gave the Assembly new powers, or established a new ‘procedure’, but this is entirely incorrect. The powers of any UN organ derive from only one place: the UN Charter. The only way to change the powers of a UN organ, is to amend the UN Charter, and this is not any easy process. What 377 A did do was to make explicit, for the first time, what the powers of the Assembly actually are in the case of a deadlocked Security Council. For this reason, resolution 377 A can be best described by the legal term: ‘Declaratory Statute’ – it declared what the powers of the General Assembly actually are, according to the UN Charter.

Interestingly, the USSR was the only permanent member of the Security Council – of which there are five – to vote against the adoption of Assembly resolution 377 A (or more specifically, against the Charter interpretations it made), arguing that “the General Assembly may [only] decide, what measures ‘not involving the use of force’ are to be employed”. Six years later, rather than voting against Assembly resolution 1001, the USSR abstained from the voting.

You might be wondering why the Security Council wasn’t able to assume its primary responsibility during the Suez Crisis? Well, it was British, French and Israeli forces that made up one side of the hostilities, Britain and France enjoying a ‘veto’ in the Security Council, and thereby able to block it from assuming its primary responsibility. They were however, as already discussed, unable to block the General Assembly from creating UNEF I; there is no such ‘veto’ in the General Assembly. Britain and France constitute just two of the Assembly’s current 192 members, and enjoy just one vote each, as per every other state. This situation – unlike the Security Council where powers are far from equal – is the necessary result of the UN Charter, which declares that: “The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members”.

This brings us to the crux of the matter, ‘the power of veto’. The word ‘veto’ comes from the Latin vetare: ‘to forbid’. Although Britain and France were able to forbid the Security Council from exercising its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, they were of course unable to forbid the General Assembly from accepting its final responsibility for such. The Assembly adopted resolution 1001 and thereby established UNEF I, which was then able to “secure and supervise” the withdrawal of Israeli, British and French forces from Egyptian territory. This leads us to the big question, although I am not sure if it is philosophical or linguistic: What were the British and French able ‘to forbid’ with their ‘power of veto’? Were they were able to forbid the creation of UNEF I? Clearly not. So what was it they forbid exactly?

14 September 1981 saw another General Assembly milestone. On that date, the Assembly adopted resolution ES-8/2, authorizing “all States, in view of the threat to international peace and security posed by South Africa, to impose against that country comprehensive mandatory sanctions”. This was the first instance of the Assembly authorizing economic, diplomatic and cultural sanctions against a state. At that time, the United States, along with Israel, were the two most staunch supporters of apartheid South Africa, and as such, the Security Council was unable to exercise its primary responsibility for peace and security, owing to US ‘vetoes’; the matter thereby passed to the General Assembly.

So why is it that the implications of resolution 377 A appear to have escaped all? Even world leaders appear ill-informed on the topic. At the opening of the UN General Assembly’s current regular session, only a matter of weeks ago, Hugo Chavez gave a memorable speech, but I shall remember it for a different reason than others. In it, Mr. Chavez stated: “we consider fundamental the immediate suppression – and that is something everyone is calling for – of the anti-democratic mechanism known as the veto. A recent example is the immoral veto of the US Government, which openly allowed Israeli forces to destroy Lebanon just before our eyes, by blocking a resolution in the UN Security Council”. In fact, it was the General Assembly that “allowed Israeli forces to destroy Lebanon”, by failing to accept its final responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. Had the Assembly immediately called for a cease-fire, authorized the imposition of the complete range of sanctions against all parties, and had a significant majority of UN Members followed Venezuela’s lead by expelling Israel’s representatives, it is hard to imagine that such a call could have been ignored for long. Were it ignored, the Assembly would still have had several residual powers to force compliance.

Although the significance of 377 A appears to have eluded our world leaders, it has not escaped those Palestine solidarity groups within Australia that are currently discussing the idea of a campaign to pressure the General Assembly into fulfilling its responsibilities under the UN Charter, as they relate to Palestine. Such a campaign could, for example, demand that the Assembly calls for the imposition of economic, diplomatic and military sanctions against Israel, until such a time as it complies with Security Council resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973), as required by the Charter. This would require Israel to withdraw all of its forces from any territories it occupied as a result of the June 1967 War, or subsequently, in conformity with the international law principle of “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war”, as emphasized in Council resolution 242.

In what seems to be an almost incredible coincidence, Cuba, which had chaired the UN’s Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) at the time the Assembly adopted its resolution ES-8/2 – thereby authorizing “comprehensive mandatory sanctions” against apartheid South Africa – has just assumed its second chairmanship of NAM. During the recent NAM Summit in Havana, which marked the beginning of Cuba’s latest Chairmanship, NAM adopted a new Declaration expounding the purposes and principles of the Movement. One of its stated purposes was: “To coordinate actions and strategies in order to confront jointly the threats to international peace and security, including … colonialism and foreign occupation”. Another was: “To promote the strengthening and democratisation of the UN, giving the General Assembly the role granted to it … in the Charter”. NAM will shortly see its membership grow from 116 to 118 Member States; not far from a two-thirds majority of Assembly members.

Of course, there will be many who will argue that for the Assembly to adopt a resolution authorizing such sanctions against Israel would be pointless, for Assembly resolutions are only ‘recommendations’; they are not considered binding. This situation contrasts with Security Council resolutions, which are said to be binding, given the Charter stipulation that: “The Members of the United Nations agree to accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council”. Again, this is another fallacy that needs to be reconsidered in the modern age, and with modern thinking.

Anybody who has read the article through to this point will be aware, if they were not already, that Israel is yet to comply with Security Council resolution 242, which was adopted on 22 November 1967, and from which point in time the world first began to speak of the ‘occupied Palestinian Territories’ – the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. To argue that Council resolutions are binding, is to ignore the sad reality that several UN members are consistently shielded from forced compliance by the Security Council, as a result of the ‘power of veto’ enjoyed by the five permanent members, in the Security Council.

Likewise, anybody familiar with the Israel-Palestine conflict will know that Assembly resolution 194, of 11 December 1948, ‘resolved that’ “[Palestinian] refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property”. It is widely agreed by international law jurists that by reaffirming resolution 194 every year, through the adoption of subsequent Assembly resolutions referring specifically to it, the Palestinian ‘Right of Return’ has now become a principle of ‘customary international law’. To argue that Assembly resolutions are in no way binding, is to argue that international law is in no way binding. Yes, there are several states around the world that seem to believe exactly that, but they are in an ever-shrinking minority. A minority which also seems to have forgotten that it was General Assembly resolution 181, of 29 November 1947, that granted the State of Israel its legitimacy under international law, by authorizing the partition of historic Palestine into “Independent Arab and Jewish States and the Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem”.

To be sure, the Palestinians are not alone. Even the US Administration has declared current events in Darfur “genocide”. So why doesn’t the Security Council act? Well, although I have no access to the records of its closed meetings – an unknown concept in the General Assembly – I am sure of two things: China gets oil from Sudan, and China has a ‘veto’ in the Security Council. So why doesn’t the US spearhead efforts in the Assembly to set up a UN Emergency Force for Darfur, as it did in 1956 in response to the Suez Crisis? Why? The US will take a weak General Assembly over a strong one any day, but most threatening of all, people might come to question what this ‘power of veto’ actually is.

The UN’s ‘High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change’ declared in its December 2004 report into UN reform: “We see no practical way of changing the existing members’ veto powers. Yet, as a whole the institution of the veto has an anachronistic character that is unsuitable for the institution in an increasingly democratic age”. Yes, the veto does have “an anachronistic character” – it hasn’t existed for over 50 years.

Cameron Hunt is the author of Pax UNita – A novel solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.


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