Abolish U.S. veto power in the UN Security Council!

Photo: A meeting of the United Nations Security Council. Credit: Flickr/United Nations Photo (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED)

On March 1, the United States blocked an Algerian-led effort within the United Nations Security Council to condemn Israel for the horrific massacre of Palestinians in Gaza desperately seeking humanitarian aid in the middle of the night on Feb. 29. Out of the 15 members of the UN Security Council, the United States was the only country not to back a statement on the horrific “Flour Massacre,” which led to over 100 casualties after the Israeli military opened fire on a crowd collecting flour and other scarce resources from aid trucks.

The images of the Biden administration’s UN Ambassadors Linda Thomas Greenfield and Robert Wood have become infamous for their lone raised hands, using U.S. veto power to shield its imperial outpost of Israel from global condemnation, as virtually all other members of the UN attempt to condemn or speak out against the horrific acts by Israeli forces in Gaza.

Yet throughout the existence of the UN, the U.S. Mission has continually exploited its veto power to assert its dominance over the world. Below are six other key moments the United States used its UN veto to either reject the sovereignty of oppressed peoples or otherwise protect the most reactionary and oppressive regimes from international accountability. 

1-Ceasefire resolution in Gaza

More than 150 days into Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza, UN member states have made three separate efforts to put forward a ceasefire resolution to a vote: once through the General Assembly and twice through the Security Council.

At every instance, and even when its closest Western partners have either voted for or abstained, the United States has vetoed each effort calling for a permanent suspension of violence in Gaza.

UN General-Secretary Antonio Guterres has criticized the U.S. Mission’s usage of their veto as “paralyzing” the international body from taking any meaningful action on the crisis in Gaza. Guterres also invoked a rarely-used Article 99 of the United Nations Charter, which confers on the Secretary-General the power to “bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his [her] opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.” Days after blocking the second post-Oct. 7 ceasefire vote on Dec. 8, the Biden State Department declared it would bypass Congress to rush through 45,000 tank shells to the Israeli military so it could further its genocide, making it clear that Washington plays a direct role in continuing the genocide of Palestinians in Gaza.

2-Panama’s sovereignty over its canal

On March 21, 1973, the United States used its veto power for the third time since the foundation of the Security Council. The question that the resolution sought to resolve was a new Panama Canal treaty that would offer greater and meaningful sovereignty to Panama over its canal. It was intended to replace the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty of 1903, which granted Washington the right to build and operate “in perpetuity” a canal across the Panamanian Isthmus. The then-Ambassador John Hay, who negotiated the eponymous 1903 treaty, was a fervent supporter of the racist and colonial Monroe Doctrine. Hay infamously described the Spanish-American War, which saw the early imperial claims by Washington on Cuba and the Philippines, as a “splendid little war”.

While the U.S. Mission to the UN described the resolution as “unbalanced and incomplete and therefore subject to serious misinterpretation,” the resolution was supported by all other members of the Security Council at the time, including U.S. allies Australia and France, the latter being a permanent member of the Security Council.

3-Condemning Israeli occupation of Palestine

While the United States has used its veto power more in the last five months than the first two decades of the UN’s existence, its exploitation of the veto has largely been a tool used to specifically defend Israel’s aggression throughout the decades. As of the Feb. 20 ceasefire resolution vote in the Security Council, the United States has used the veto power to defeat resolutions critical of Israel 45 times. That is exactly half of the times they have used this power since the 1945 creation of the UN. Thirty three of the vetoed resolutions were related to the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine. 

Prior to 1972, the veto was used rarely by the United States, but that pattern was broken by that year after the Security Council attempted the passage of a resolution that condemned Israel’s unprovoked bombings of Syria and Lebanon in September 1972, put forward by Guinea, Somalia and Yugoslavia. After this, it became common for the United States to disrupt any international efforts to hold Israel accountable for illegal aggression on Palestine, Lebanon and others within the region. Between 1982-1990, Washington utilized its veto in support of Israel 21 times, and 14 times since just 2001.

4-Expelling apartheid-era South Africa from UN

Similar to its present-day support of apartheid Israel, the United States long held its support for the apartheid system in South Africa, and found the government in Pretoria to be a chief ally and imperial outpost in quashing the anti-colonial and liberation movements sweeping the African continent from the 1970s to the 1980s.

Between 1974 and 1988, the U.S. government vetoed resolutions relating to South Africa’s apartheid system and military aggression towards African countries 15 times. On Oct. 30, 1974, the United States, along with former colonial forces in Africa, France and Britain, vetoed a resolution in the Security Council to expel South Africa from the UN, due to its apartheid policies. The resolution cited South Africa’s “constant violation … of the principles of the Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” as well as its refusal to withdraw military forces from sovereign Namibian lands as grounds for South Africa’s expulsion. Put forward by Kenya, Mauritania and Cameroon, it was supported by the broad majority of Security Council members, including permanent members the Soviet Union and China.

In an attempt by Benin, Libya and Mauritius in October 1977 to impose economic sanctions and a global arms embargo on South Africa, once again the United States joined France and Britain to strike down these efforts. This resulted in the end of the United States shipping enriched uranium for South Africa’s SAFARI-1 research nuclear reactor. Notably however, this resulted in covert weapons transfers and cooperation with the fellow apartheid regime of Israel. In 1979, Tel Aviv helped test a low-yield nuclear device off the coast of South Africa, and began secretly building Israeli Sa’ar 4-class missile boats domestically within South Africa after the 1977 Security Council resolution publicly canceled a direct purchase of the boats between the two regimes.

5-Admission of post-war Vietnam to UN

In 1977, after a long and hard-won struggle for national liberation against colonial and imperial forces of Japan, France and the United States, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was admitted to the UN. Yet after experiencing a resounding defeat by the Vietnamese people, the United States went out of their way to thwart several efforts to admit the country into the UN body.

The first Security Council draft resolution initiated by the missions of Belarus, China, Guyana, Iraq, Mauritania, Sweden, the USSR, Cameroon, and Tanzania, was put forward in early August 1975, several months after the People’s Army of Vietnam and National Liberation Front took control of then-Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). The U.S. Mission utilized a veto to withhold Vietnam’s access to the UN, and continued to do so the following month and the following year, eventually with the Carter administration relenting in this crusade.

6-Sanctioning Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe)

The colonization of Zimbabwe from the indigenous African population was led by Cecil Rhodes in 1889, when Queen Victoria granted Rhodes’s company, the British South Africa Company, full mineral rights to the region. For nearly the next century, racist white-minority rule reigned in the country, largely supported by the British empire. Shortly after white-minority regime of Ian Smith declared Rhodesia’s independence from Britain officially in 1965, a national liberation struggle among the majority Black population was launched by leading organization Zimbabwe African National Union, led by Robert Mugabe.

In March of 1970, the governments of Burundi, Nepal, Sierra Leone, Syria and Zambia put forward a resolution condemning the existence of the racist minority regime, declaring it null and void. Further, it called on all UN member states to void their recognition of white-ruled Rhodesia, severing all diplomatic, consular, economic and military relations with the regime. The United States took this moment to cast its first ever veto in the Security Council, claiming they “found it an impractical step to restrict relations to that extent.”

U.S. veto power: Undemocratic and neo-colonial

The U.S. use of its Security Council veto in practice has been one of the sources, if not the leading source, of inaction towards war crimes and crimes against humanity — Israel’s genocide of Gaza and subsequent vetoes by the United States being the most pronounced example.

It is time to recognize the undemocratic nature of the Security Council and abolish U.S. veto power.

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