United Nations General Assembly will subject any Security Council veto to debate

·5 min read

In the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the UN General Assembly voted on Tuesday to subject Security Council members that veto resolutions to an assembly debate on their decision within 10 days - a move as likely to affect China as it does Russia.

Passed by consensus by the 193-member assembly, the resolution was greeted with applause and comes amid widespread criticism that the United Nations has failed in its mission to prevent the Ukraine invasion, regarded by some analysts as the greatest international security crisis since World War II.

Christian Wenaweser, Liechtenstein's ambassador to the United Nations, addressing the 93-member General Assembly before it adopted the resolution. Photo: Reuters alt=Christian Wenaweser, Liechtenstein's ambassador to the United Nations, addressing the 93-member General Assembly before it adopted the resolution. Photo: Reuters>

A Security Council resolution two days after the February 24 invasion would have required Moscow to halt its attack and remove its troops from Ukraine - but Russia vetoed it.

Do you have questions about the biggest topics and trends from around the world? Get the answers with SCMP Knowledge, our new platform of curated content with explainers, FAQs, analyses and infographics brought to you by our award-winning team.

"There has never been a stronger need for effective multilateralism than today, and there has never been a stronger need for innovation in order to secure the central role and voice of the United Nations," said Christian Wenaweser, Liechtenstein's UN ambassador who introduced the resolution.

The resolution does not prevent the five permanent Security Council members - Russia, China, the United States, France and Britain - from wielding their veto. But it will subject them to mandatory scrutiny and debate before the General Assembly, a potentially significant check on behaviour.

Tuesday's vote came as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres met in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin as part of a three-day trip to Russia and Ukraine. This latest bid to broker a ceasefire follows efforts by France, Germany, Turkey, Israel and others.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meeting with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the Kremlin in Moscow on Tuesday. Photo: Sputnik/AFP alt=Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meeting with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the Kremlin in Moscow on Tuesday. Photo: Sputnik/AFP>

Under the terms of the resolution, the General Assembly will "hold a debate on the situation" that sparks any Security Council veto within 10 working days. The assembly is not required to take action but it does potentially put the vetoing nation on the hot seat to defend its decision. However, the vetoer has the option not to answer questions.

Analysts said that Tuesday's resolution could have a greater impact on Beijing, which is often more reluctant than Moscow to weather global criticism.

"China does actually really hate the reputational costs of using it, especially if it's ever forced to do so without Russia co-vetoing with it," said Richard Gowan, UN director of the International Crisis Group think tank.

"The Chinese have always been more cautious about using their veto than the Russians and will see this as one more reason they would prefer not to use that privilege very often."

Between 1992 and February 2022, Russia and the former Soviet Union used the veto 120 times, compared with 82 for the US, 27 for Britain, 17 for China and 16 for France, according to the watchdog group Security Council Report.

Russia's vetoes have included 16 in recent years employed to defeat resolutions condemning human rights violations in Syria.

Security Council vetoes are a significant source of frustration among UN critics and the other 188 member states that regard their use as unfair, undemocratic, a major source of institutional paralysis and might-is-right bullying.

"Too often in the recent history, the abuse of the veto undermines the council's ability to respond to challenges to international peace and security," Sergiy Kyslytsya, Ukraine's UN ambassador, said. "Russia considers the veto a green light for such crimes."

While China has generally supported Russia in the wake of the invasion, it has been relatively circumspect at the UN, underscoring its own broad economic interests and greater stake than Russia in the international rule-based order, analysts said.

"Russians have reached the point where they don't seem to care about world opinion, they're unshameable," said Louis Charbonneau, the UN director at Human Rights Watch. "As exporters of oil and gas, they have an interest in instability, which causes prices to go up. For China, instability is bad for business."

In advance of two recent successful General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia, China worked closely with the United States and European Union on wording so that it could abstain rather than join Moscow in an outright veto, analysts said. And it interceded on a motion providing UN humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan, convincing Russia not to oppose it simply because the US was involved.

"We see a distinction between China's behaviour in the real world and China's behaviour at the UN," Gowan said. "China doesn't want this war to blow up the UN system. I think that's actually something that we should see as a relief."

On April 7, Beijing gave its clear support to Moscow during a General Assembly vote to remove Russia from the UN's Human Rights Council.

But that issue directly affects China's self-interest, analysts said, amid its concerns that it could suffer the same fate over Xinjiang, where the UN has reported that some 1 million Uygurs have been held in detention camps that Beijing has called training and employment centres.

Tuesday's resolution - which was supported by nearly 100 cosponsors, including the United States and Britain - was in the works for two years amid growing discontent with UN inefficiency. It gained traction in recent weeks after the Russian invasion.

A railway station destroyed in the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol. Photo: Reuters alt=A railway station destroyed in the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol. Photo: Reuters>

Moscow voted against it Tuesday, arguing that an unencumbered veto was essential to the efficient working of the UN, that permanent Security Council members already give enough explanation of their actions and that it undercuts the UN's separation of powers.

Security Council reform has been debated for more than four decades amid concern that the body has locked in place an ossified 1945 power structure. But reform efforts to change it have often been blocked by rivalries - and use of the veto.

Tuesday's action was aimed at wresting more control from the smaller, more powerful council to the broadly representative assembly. In addition to the five permanent members, the Security Council has 10 members elected for two years. But those nations do not have vetoes.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.