Debate reflects unhappiness with UN veto power

March 03, 2015 10:49
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (center) presides over a meeting of the Security Council last week. Photo: Reuters

Last weekend, Beijing ended its one-month rotating presidency of the United Nations Security Council.

This was an opportunity for China to present an image of itself as a responsible world power, and the Chinese government grasped it with both hands, organizing an open debate on maintaining international peace and security.

Since this year marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, the debate bore a historical theme: “Maintaining International Peace and Security: Reflect on History, Reaffirm the Strong Commitment to the Purposes and Principles of the Charter of the United Nations”.

The five permanent members of the Security Council – the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China -- were wartime allies.

Germany and Japan were excluded in 1945, but, 70 years on, the UN’s structure and membership no longer represent current realities.

Germany is now the most powerful country in Europe, and Japan is the world’s third-largest economy, after the United States and China, yet both are excluded from permanent membership in the council.

The world body has been talking about reform for two decades, including expansion of the council. Frustration at the lack of progress was evident in the Feb. 23 debate, at which representatives of more than 80 countries spoke.

China was represented by Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who, unsurprisingly, promoted the foreign policy concept advocated by President Xi Jinping of a new type of international relations “with win-win cooperation as the core”.

In words clearly aimed at the United States, which invaded Iraq in 2003, Mr. Wang said: "In China's view, any unilateral move that bypasses the Security Council is illegal and illegitimate.”

He also reiterated China’s customary insistence on respect for each country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The debate began with an address by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, who, interestingly, appeared to put human rights above national sovereignty, something with which China would not agree.

“A major obstacle to United Nations human rights action has been a concern among member states that such action may harm national sovereignty,” he said.

“In reality, it is serious violations of human rights that weaken sovereignty.”

The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, like Mr. Wang, warned against unilateral action.

Speaking of “the threat of terrorism and extremism”, Mr. Lavrov declared that “unilateral actions have no future” and “must be addressed within the framework of the UN”.

The reason for Chinese and Russian insistence on acting through the Security Council is that there they have the right of veto, and have used it repeatedly, as in the case of Syria.

Interestingly, the veto issue was raised by quite a few countries during the debate.

Many supported the French proposal that the permanent members limit veto use in cases of mass atrocities. Such a move, the French delegate said, underscored that permanent membership was a solemn responsibility and not a symbol of status.

The issue is inextricably linked to the question of United Nations reform and enlargement of the Security Council. There is widespread concern that more permanent council members would mean more frequent deadlock if the new members also have the right of veto.

China did not speak about the veto during the debate. But at a press briefing Friday, the Chinese delegate, Liu Jieyi, responding to a question, said: “We believe that we carry important responsibility to make sure that the charter is implemented in letter and in spirit.”

That is to say, agreeing not to use the veto would not be proper implementation of the charter.

Samantha Power, the United States delegate, took Russia to task and said that it was “violating core principles in Ukraine”.

Without naming names, she also said some Security Council members are violating the charter’s commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms when they attempt to silence critics.

In a clear allusion to China, Ms. Power said: “Rather than locking up one’s opponents or making ridiculous allegations in pointing fingers at foreign powers, respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, as the charter provides, is the foundation for peace, security and prosperity.”

The UN Charter, obviously, can be cited to support various positions.

But there is evidently much unhappiness over the current arrangements, and reforms are necessary.

Until there is a consensus on reforms, calling for voluntary restraint is a measure of desperation that is unlikely to be approved by council members.

And so, under China’s auspices, an “open debate” was held.

But if any country emerged smelling like roses, it was not China but France and its proposal for restraint in the use of the veto.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.