Strategic Use of the Veto in the UN Security Council

Jeehae G. Park


Since Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in late February 2022, calls to reform the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) have become more persistent and louder. Critics have especially questioned the legitimacy of the veto, an exclusive right the Charter of the United Nations granted to the organ’s five permanent (P5) members: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States at the end of World War II. 

In this post, I argue that the P5, while using their vetoes sparingly, have done so in a way that contradicts the spirit of the Charter’s provisions. In so doing, they have abused their veto privilege, often exercising the power to advance their national interests and to shield their allies from international criticism. 

This post uses a dataset created by the World Politics Data Lab on the P5’s use of the veto from 1946 to 2021. The data was scraped from the United Nations’ Dag Hammarskjöld Library’s webpage, which documents the historical use of the veto. The dataset’s author added a set of new variables to help us further explain how the P5 members have historically exercised their veto. 

The UN’s Ideals Versus the P5’s More Narrow Interests

The UNSC comprises 15 members, with 10 rotating members, elected for two years at a time and representing different regions of the world. The decisions to grant permanent membership status to the great powers that won the Second World War and to give them the power to veto substantive resolutions were part of a compromise that secured the P5’s participation in the post-1945 world order and which also fostered “major-power comity”. 

The UNSC is the UN’s most important organ. It is the primary actor on issues concerning peace and international security. Under the guidelines in Chapter VII of the Charter, the UNSC can adopt resolutions that are legally binding on all member states. While the Charter may have recognized the P5’s unique status, Article 24 establishes that all of the UNSC’s members “shall act in accordance with the Purposes and Principles of the United Nations.” Thus, many observers believe that the UNSC has a responsibility to maintain international peace and security at all costs, above the domestic interests of the members.

Other observers question this viewpoint. They argue that the UNSC is a political—not legal—institution. Consequently, as a political institution, the UNSC’s operations tend to be dominated by the P5, which use their economic, diplomatic and military power to secure compromises and back-door deals to advance their interests, often at the expense of the UN’s goals and purposes. The existence of the veto has only worsened this dynamic. Thus, the P5 are an institution within the UNSC, shaping its outcomes. 

The clash between the Charter’s ideals and the P5’s more narrow interests has led many diplomats, academics, and policy experts to demand the reform of the UNSC’s membership and its voting procedures.

How has the veto been used historically? Are critics of the veto exaggerating their claims or is the use of the veto a detriment to humanitarian issues and the protection of human rights? The next section tries to provide answers to these questions.

The Veto: A Historical Perspective

The veto has been used sparingly and therefore strategically. Historically speaking, the veto has been used a total of 264 times out of 2,635 adopted resolutions. As the bar chart below suggests, vetoes only make up around 10% of the total number of adopted resolutions. In fact, the veto was most widely used in the UN’s early years and during the Cold War. 

While the P5 do not use the veto often, it is important to note that the former USSR and Russia make up almost half of the total vetoes, exercising it 121 times. The US has vetoed 82 draft resolutions, while the UK has done so 29 times. Both China and France have used this power less than 20 times.

My analysis of the dataset also suggests that the P5 members only use the veto when their country’s most vital interests are at stake. The next graph breaks down each permanent member’s use of the veto by main topic issues.

Criticism of the veto tends to arise when the use of the veto may worsen existing humanitarian crises or provoke serious human rights abuses. To support this claim, I explain how the US has used its veto to shield Israel’s occupation of Palestine and Russia’s and China’s repeated use of the veto during Syria’s current civil war.


One of the most glaringly obvious human rights abuses by a P5 state is the US’s consistent use of the veto regarding Israel-Palestine. The Israel lobby in the US tremendously influences its domestic and foreign policy. The US’s monetary aid to Israel is unmatched in comparison to the aid it provides other nations or the aid that any nation provides another. Another reason for the iron grip between the US and Israel is the conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. Because of this culture in the US, it is difficult for government officials and even casual voters to express disapproval of Israel without being accused of anti-Semitism. Before proceeding with further analysis, it is important to recognize that anti-Zionism is simply the disapproval of the Israeli apartheid and colonial practices against the Palestinian people and land. Anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitic—and those who mask their anti-Semitism under the anti-Zionist guise should not be taken for legitimate anti-Zionism and anti-colonialism.

The bottom line about Israel-Palestine is that Israel is an apartheid state that actively and violently discriminates against Palestinians. The UN has even concluded that Israel has violated international human rights laws with its illegal settlements. Israeli government/military personnel have disrupted the daily lives of Palestinians for which they are regularly beaten by soldiers on the streets, are arbitrarily arrested and detained without cause, are evicted from their homes, and even forced to tear down their own property. The abuse is unequivocal. Even so, the US has blocked all draft resolutions criticizing Israel, so much so that issues regarding Israel-Palestine are the most vetoed issue in the history of the Council, with the US making up 34 out of the 45 total vetoes. If not for the veto, Israel would not be able to get away with its human rights abuses, and the US would not be able to shield its ally.


Issues surrounding the crisis in Syria have been vetoed 26 times in the Council, all by Russia and China. UN officials recognize the gravity of the crisis but these members’ vetoes have hindered humanitarian efforts in the region. The UNSC is the outlet where such issues of refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs), and civil war violence are to be addressed, though China holds the position in accordance with left-wing principles that it should not be getting involved in external crises. Russia, on the other hand, actively supports the Bashar al-Assad regime. In different ways, China and Russia both are protecting their domestic issues in their consistent use of the veto when it comes to Syria.

Specifically looking at Russia, its use of the veto is blatantly covering up its misdeeds and role in the Syria crisis. The veto has allowed Russia to continue supporting the civil war and the Assad regime without paying mind to the refugee/IDP crisis the war has created. China’s role in the crisis is more passive since it is not supporting either side of the war. China hides behind ideology in order to turn a blind eye to the crisis. While there is something to be said about interventionist practices, the role of the Council is to protect international peace and security. This principle inherently involves humanitarian intervention in some form. China holds a permanent seat and veto privilege on the Council, and with this seat has signed on to the roles and duties of the Council; the veto has allowed China and others to abandon their duty to the Council and the international community.

Concluding Thoughts and Hopes for Change

There is a lot to be said about the role of the UNSC, the P5, and the use of the veto, and this analysis only scratches the very surface of this discussion. With my findings, I can conclude that the UNSC—specifically the P5—is responsible for human rights crises across the world with the use of the veto. The veto has consistently gotten in the way of humanitarian assistance to those who need it the most; nations will always protect their own interests before protecting others.

How can this be remedied? It is even difficult to suggest veto reform as a proper measure for change. In 2013, France first proposed a reform to the veto which would have the P5 refrain from using the veto on matters of mass atrocity. The proposal did not go anywhere as there was difficulty in defining what amounts to a mass atrocity. At the end of the day, semantics is only an underlying issue when it comes to changing the veto. The P5 do not want to give up this powerful tool because it has worked for them so far.

More recently in April 2022, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution that compels the veto-casting member to explain its vote in the General Assembly. An optimistic view of this resolution is that it would serve as a deterrent against the use of the veto in the future. Though, this extra step may not affect the P5’s decision to veto a draft resolution. After exercising the veto, the diplomatic delegation tends to explain their veto to the other members of the UNSC and the press.

Will the P5 learn from their abuses and simply stop using the veto, especially on matters concerning human rights or during humanitarian crises? I can only hope for the day there is a substantive and massive overhaul of the veto and UNSC rules that end the continued inaction on human rights by the P5.

About the Author

Jeehae G. Park is a Political Science major, Law, Justice, & Society minor, and Baldwin Honors scholar at Drew University.

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