We support the UN veto, except when used against something we want. That seems to be Ottawa’s position towards the ability of the five permanent members of the Security Council to veto resolutions.
Recently Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Foreign Minister John Baird criticized the possibility of Russia vetoing a UN resolution authorizing military action in Syria. In an article titled “Putin shouldn’t have veto on world security” the National Post quoted Harper saying, “we are simply not prepared to accept the idea that there is a Russian veto over all of our actions.” For his part, Baird mocked the idea that military action without UN approval would be illegal. “This is OK if Russia says it’s OK, but it’s not OK if Russia won’t say it’s OK,” Baird complained to a Toronto Star reporter.
While the Security Council veto is flagrantly undemocratic, it’s more than a bit hypocritical for an ardently pro-Israel and pro-US government to denounce it. Over the past 40 years the US has used the veto more times than any other permanent Security Council member and Israel has been the primary beneficiary. Between 1972-2011 Washington vetoed more than 40 Security Council resolutions condemning Israeli actions.
The current Canadian government doesn’t seem to have opposed any of the recent US vetoes. In fact, when the Palestinian Authority pursued its statehood bid at the UN, Ottawa cheered on the Obama administration’s threat to veto any Security Council motion recommending full membership status for the Palestinians.
But there’s also a historic irony in Ottawa complaining about Russia’s veto. At the United Nations founding convention in the spring of 1945, the Prime Minister of New Zealand called the veto for major powers “an evil thing” while the Australian officials in San Francisco pushed a proposal without a veto for permanent members of the Security Council. In a move with long-lasting implications the Canadian delegation abstained on this Australian motion, denying them the single vote needed to carry the meeting. After this close vote a member of the Canadian delegation, Lester Pearson, is said to have asked the US delegation whether it would sign the new international organization’s charter without the veto. They said no, prompting Ottawa to declare its support for the permanent Security Council members’ veto.
“Canada Switches to Back Big 5 Veto,” blared the front page of the New York Times. Probably the most important middle power at the time, five medium and smaller countries followed Ottawa’s lead. But, the poorer and smaller countries subsequently picked Australia, not Canada, to sit on the opening incarnation of the Security Council.
It’s past time to do away with the Security Council veto. Nearly a decade ago the UN’s ‘High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change’ declared: “As a whole the institution of the veto has an anachronistic character that is unsuitable for the institution in an increasingly democratic age.”
But it’s not just the big five veto that is an anachronism. We should also do away with the Security Council’s effective control over UN military force. Ottawa could get the ball rolling by proclaiming that this country’s armed forces will only ever be used abroad under a UN mandate passed by the 193 members of the General Assembly, not the Security Council.
If other countries follow suit, Prime Minister Harper would no longer need to worry about a “Russian veto over all of our actions.”
A version of this article appeared in Embassy magazine.