UN General Assembly strengthens its collective response to the use of the veto by the Security Council

Nicolas Ferellec / Creative Commons

27 April 2022 — At the initiative of Liechtenstein, supported by a coregroup of 85 states, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) unanimously decided to upgrade its response to situations that are brought to the attention of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) when the latter fails to take action on a resolution because of the use of the veto power by one of the five permanent members (P5) of the UNSC.

Resolution 76/262 of the General Assembly on “Standing mandate for a General Assembly debate when a veto is cast in the Security Council” mandates the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) to scrutinise the use of the veto by UNSC permanent members, by automatically convening, within 10 days of a veto being cast, a debate to hear the perspectives that have justified its use.

“The UNGA’s vote is a welcome move. It is crucial that the international community finds ways around the UNSC blockages. From now on, the P5 will no longer be able to use their veto without it being subsequently discussed by the General Assembly. This could bear significant political weight and help reaffirm the role of the UN member states as a whole, over unilateral moves by the five most powerful States. This will be during this interim period pending Security Council reforms to address categories of members, regional representation, size of the Security Council, the relationship between Security Council and the General Assembly and the veto power.”

FIDH President Alice Mogwe

In some of the most tragic examples of our modern times, on too many occasions the veto has been exercised by some of the permanent members of the Security Council to protect the governments of Syria, Israel or Russia from resolutions meant to address crimes against humanity and war crimes committed against the civilian populations of Palestine, Syria or Ukraine.

When P5 members have cast their veto power to protect national interests over human rights crises, notably in the face of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, this has constituted a violation of existing international law. Indeed, all states are bound to respect jus cogens norms. Additionally, Article 24(2) of the UN Charter provides that the UNSC must act “in accordance with the Purposes and Principles” of the UN. The exercise of their right of veto has prevented several P5 members from implementing their obligations to act for the protection of global peace and security.


From the creation of the UNSC in 1946 until today, the veto power has been used 263 times (120 by Russia, 82 by the United States, 29 by the UK, and 16 by France and China). This power has historically prevented the Security Council from intervening in the situations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and in Israeli-Arab conflicts (34 resolutions blocked by the United States); in Apartheid South Africa; and more recently in the wars in Syria (vetoed by Russia and China) and in Yemen; or following the Russian invasions of Ukraine in Crimea and the Donbass region in 2014, 2015, and in early 2022 (vetoed by Russia).

The P5 have consistently exercised their right to veto – primarily to protect their national interests – thus neglecting their primary responsibility of maintaining international peace and security through the protection of human rights.

The UN General Assembly has the power to take action to maintain international peace and security, notably in cases where the Security Council, due to lack of unanimity among its five permanent members, fails to take action. This has been done through the application of UNGA resolution A/RES/377 “United for Peace.”This resolution has been invoked 13 times between 1951 and 2022. The most recent invocation was effected following Russia’s veto of a resolution on the invasion of Ukraine. This led to a debate and the UNGA resolution on 28 February 2022.

In taking action on such matters, the General Assembly may issue appropriate recommendations to UN members for collective measures, including the use of armed force when necessary.

Two further initiatives deployed since 2015 encouraged members of the Security Council to “refrain” from using the veto in situations of grave crimes and mass atrocities. In 2015, France and Mexico encouraged the P5 to abstain from using their veto powers in cases of mass atrocities. The 27-member ACT (Accountability, Coherence, Transparency) Group called for the adoption of a Code of Conduct by all UN Member States. This would commit them to not vote against a draft resolution before the Security Council that aims to prevent or respond to mass atrocities, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Disappointingly, while France and the UK have since ceased using their right to veto, neither of these initiatives prevented the use of the veto by the three other permanent members in situations in which the Code of Conduct applied.

While this scrutiny will enable strengthened political control of the UNSC, the UNGA’s decisions are not legally binding. This is a step towards more accountability of the P5, but the ultimate structural power imbalance in favour of the UNSC permanent members remains essentially unchanged.

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