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France's Plan to Fix the Veto

The last two weeks have seen more UN Security Council action on Syria than the previous several months. But in today's New York Times, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius reminds readers that the long stretch of Council paralysis likely took a toll:

[T]hese [recent] positive outcomes cannot hide the fact that, for a long time, the Security Council, constrained by vetoes, was powerless in the face of the Syrian tragedy. Populations were massacred and the worst scenario unfolded as the regime implemented large-scale use of chemical weapons against children, women and other civilians. For all those who expect the United Nations to shoulder its responsibilities in order to protect populations, this situation is reprehensible.

Fabius offers a plan to prevent this kind of damage in the future:

Our suggestion is that the five permanent members of the Security Council — China, France, Russia, Britain and the United States — themselves could voluntarily regulate their right to exercise their veto. The Charter would not be amended and the change would be implemented through a mutual commitment from the permanent members. In concrete terms, if the Security Council were required to make a decision with regard to a mass crime, the permanent members would agree to suspend their right to veto. The criteria for implementation would be simple: at the request of at least 50 member states, the United Nations secretary general would be called upon to determine the nature of the crime. Once he had delivered his opinion, the code of conduct would immediately apply.

Fabius does include a major caveat: "To be realistically applicable, this code would exclude cases where the vital national interests of a permanent member of the Council were at stake."

The French proposal is not new; various activists and even some governments, notably the "Small Five" countries, have floated the concept of a "responsibility not to veto" in mass-atrocity contexts before. I've always been skeptical of this kind of proposal because what constitutes a "mass-atrocity situation" is largely in the eye of the beholder. Almost all international and internal conflicts feature atrocities of one sort or another. But these conflicts also have political and strategic dimensions. At least rhetorically, the West sees Syria through the prism of atrocities. But it  do so in every cases where atrocities occur. Was Iraq between 2003 and 2006 a mass-atrocity situation? Is Afghanistan now? Was Gaza during the Israeli incursion of late 2008?

What is new (at least to me) is the mechanism that Fabius suggests for determining what constitutes such a situation. The notion of a combined role for the General Assembly and the Secretary General is innovative. And it's remarkable that a veto-wielding permanent member is willing to advance the idea. The British and French have long been the permanent members most willing to consider changes to the Council's methods and architecture, and this is a notable new foray.

But if I had to guess, this proposal won't get very far. Russia and China are going to be very hesitant to adopt any code of conduct that restricts the veto power and encroaches on Council flexibility. And my guess is that the United States--even with a specialist in mass atrocities as ambassador--won't be keen either. 

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