Global Policy Forum

How Veto Powers Stymied


By Thalif Deen

Inter Press Service
July 13, 2007

The exercise of veto powers to bar countries from U.N. membership -- a relic of the Cold War -- is threatening to make a comeback in the politics of the world body.

The United States is expected to introduce a resolution in the Security Council, perhaps next week or before the end of July, seeking U.N. membership for Kosovo, the breakaway former province of the now-defunct Yugoslavia. But Russia, the successor state to the former Soviet Union, is threatening to use its veto to bar Serbia's U.N. administered Kosovo from the world body.

The United States is insisting that the 15-member Security Council act on Kosovo as soon as possible, but Russia, a close ally of Serbia, wants the proposal stalled. Moscow is opposed to the Albanian-inhabited Kosovo seceding from Serbia. But a political compromise is currently under closed-door negotiations.

A similar deadlock could arise if and when there is an eventual break-up of Iraq into three nation states -- Shia, Sunni and Kurds -- while there are other potential nation states in the political horizon, including Western Sahara and the breakaway Moldovan province of Trans-Dniester and the Georgian province of South Ossetia, according to U.N. diplomats. All of these could sooner or later trigger U.S.-Russian political confrontation in the world body -- primarily over U.N. recognition.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has dismissed U.S. attempts to resolve the Kosovo problem by posing the question: "Why don't we solve the case of Western Sahara first?" -- a longstanding dispute where the United States is backing its ally Morocco against the Polisario seeking an independent nation state in North Africa.

At the height of the Cold War in the 1960s and 70s, the two superpowers wielded their Security Council vetoes arrogantly -- and most of the time unjustifiably -- barring countries from U.N. membership primarily for political reasons or to protect their own national interests. The United States shut out countries considered Soviet "allies" and the Russians barred countries either "friendly" to the U.S. or political buddies of other Western nations such as Britain and France, the other two members with veto powers in the Security Council. Whether or not an independent nation state had the legitimate right to be a member of the world body hardly mattered.

The Soviets used Cold War political logic to bar Italy from the United Nations by casting their vetoes at least six times and against Japan four times. The United States, on the other hand, used its veto seven times barring Vietnam from the world body, and cast it once against post-independent Angola (both countries with political or military ties to the Soviet Union).

Asked if the threat against Kosovo is a throwback to the days of the Cold War, Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, sounded sceptical. "There are some unique circumstances which apply to Kosovo which set it apart from the U.S. and Soviet vetoes from the era of East-West rivalry," he told IPS. Unlike most countries which have applied for membership in the United Nations, he pointed out that few countries, if any, currently recognise Kosovo as an independent nation. "Despite the will of the vast majority of that nation for independence and their recent history of persecution by the Serbs, Kosovo has long been recognised by the international community as part of Serbia," Zunes said.

The Russians and Chinese -- which have their own restless national minorities -- are concerned at the precedent it would set for the United Nations to recognize a secessionist movement, said Zunes, who closely monitors Security Council voting. Finally, he added, even those who are broadly sympathetic with the Kosovar Albanians' nationalist ambitions fear that full independence could lead to a resurgence of ultra-nationalism in Serbia just as that country's democratic forces are struggling to consolidate power and thereby risk once again destabilising the region.

Ernest Corea, a former Sri Lankan ambassador to the United States and a newspaper editor who covered the U.N. General Assembly sessions in the 1950s, says the admission of his home country (then Ceylon) to the United Nations was vetoed by the Soviet Union four times. He said this was one the highest number of vetoes suffered by an independent nation seeking U.N. admission. What was at issue, primarily, was a Ceylon-British defence agreement under which, for instance, Britain had control of an airport and a naval base in the island nation. Still, when the country was eventually admitted to the United Nations on Dec. 14, 1955 -- as part of a "package deal" accepted by both superpowers -- the constitution remained unchanged, and the Ceylon-British defence agreement remained intact, He said 16 countries were admitted to the United Nations under the "package deal." They included Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania -- and Italy. "These cold war quirks are now best forgotten," Corea told IPS.

The misuse of the veto both by the United States and the Soviet Union has had a long Cold War history since the United Nations was created over 61 years ago. The last veto barring U.N. membership to any country was cast against Vietnam by the Unites States back in November 1976. But Vietnam and the U.S. are now in such friendly terms that U.S. President George W. Bush made a formal visit to Vietnam recently. "In international politics, the wheel of fortune keeps on turning as yesterday's mortal enemies become today's dearest friends," says one Asian diplomat.

Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, says the threat of a Russian (and possibly Chinese) veto over Kosovo is not the beginning of a new cold war. Rather, it is "a statement from Moscow that while they will acquiesce to the assertion of U.S. power in the United Nations in most arenas of the world (Iraq, Israel-Palestine, even Iran), there are some issues just too close to Russian self-interest to allow unchallenged U.S. domination." "While the tiny province of Kosovo itself holds far more symbolic than strategic significance for Russia, Putin will also have to take Russian public opinion into account," Bennis told IPS.

More Information on the Security Council
More Articles on the Veto
More Information on the Power of the Veto
More Information on Kosovo


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