In response to recent posts on the Security Council veto power, a number of smart folks were in contact to advance the notion of the "responsibility not to veto"--a concept that has been bubbling among Responsibility to Protect advocates for a number of years. (For a superb discussion of the concept and its roots, see this article by Ariela Blätter and Paul D. Williams.) The notion is that while a formal end to the veto power is not possible, the P5 can and should agree to a 'code of conduct' for its use. Specifically, the veto should not be used to oppose international action in the face of mass atrocities:
The use of the veto by the P5 to block rescue missions in cases of gencocide and mass attrocities, constitutes one of the main obstacles to the implementation of the Responsibility to Protect and rapid reaction by the international community to end mass violence against civilians. The principle of the Responsibility Not to Veto (RN2V) consitutes a means to enable more effective international actions to protect endangered civilian populations. It stipulates that the P5 should not use their veto power to block Security Council resolutions in response to genocide and mass atrocities which would otherwise pass by a majority. In addition, the P5 should provide a public justification to the use of veto against any such resolution.
The approach of altering Security Council practice through behavioral norms rather than formal rules or architectural modifications is eminently sensible. What's more, there's evidence that the P5 can be shamed in certain circumstances. Some members are obviously more susceptible to normative pressure than others, but the reports indicating that Russia may be ceding ground on Syria suggest that even the most obstinate can be pushed.
Profitable as generating a norm against the veto is, it has important limitations. Most important, I think it exaggerates the degree to which 'mass atrocity' situations can be parceled off from 'political' situations. There's a strong tendency in the advocacy community to think that when a situation involves atrocities it therefore sheds (or should shed) its political character. But states, even those sympathetic to the R2P cause, never stop thinking about the political and strategic realities (nor should they). And the idea that political actors will often be able to reach consensus on what constitutes a "mass atrocity" situation and should be dealt with as such seems illusory.
To take one recent example: Iraq in 2005-2006 was certainly a "mass atrocity" environment; the country was beset by frequent bombings aimed at civilians, and the toll was ghastly (probably greater than in Syria today). But few people spoke about it in the R2P or "mass atrocity" venacular. It was instead conceived of as a political and military problem. Why? Because U.S. troops were on the ground; because of the controversial background of the U.S. invasion; because of uncertainty about how to address the violence; because of the lack of credible Iraqi leaders. In short, because of the political and strategic context.
In important respects, R2P advocates want to decontextualize atrocity situations. They insist that the context doesn't matter, that the atrocities are unacceptable. It's a powerful and persuasive idea. But in a political world, it will always struggle.