IO Files2

Information Paper Prepared in the Office of Public Affairs, Department of State3

Questions and Answers on the Veto

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1. Question: Is the word “veto” used in the Charter?
Answer: No.
2. Question: What provision of the Charter has given rise to the use of the term “veto”?
Answer: Article 27, paragraph 3, which refers to voting in the Security Council and which reads as follows: “Decisions of the Security Council on all other matters shall be made by an affirmative vote of seven members including the concurring votes of the permanent members; provided that, in decisions under Chapter VI, and under paragraph 3 of Article 52, a party to a dispute shall abstain from voting”.
3. Question: Why is the term “veto” used in connection with this section of the Charter?
Answer: Because the types of Security Council decisions referred to in this section—decisions that are not procedural—require the concurring votes of all of the five permanent members of the Security Council except that a permanent member a party to a dispute is required to abstain from voting in decisions under Chapter VI. Therefore, with this one exception any on permanent member of the Security Council is in a position to block a decision of the Council of the nature described in that paragraph.
4. Question: What were the main reasons advanced for this requirement in most of the important decisions of the Security Council?
Answer: The voting formula was worked out at Yalta by President Roosevelt, Mr. Stalin, and Mr. Churchill. The requirement of unanimity of the great powers reflected in the voting formula of the Security Council was closely tied to one of the basic forces which made possible the establishment of the United Nations, the coordinated action of the great powers during the last war and in preparation for the San Francisco Conference. The view of the United States was expressed in the Report to the President on the San Francisco Conference presented by the Secretary of State on June 26, 1945:

“This war was won not by any one country but by the combined efforts of the United Nations, and particularly by the brilliantly coordinated strategy of the great powers. So striking has been the lesson taught by this unity that the people and Government of the United States have altered their conception of national security. We understand that in the world of today a unilateral national policy of security is as outmoded as the Spads of 1918 in comparison with the B–29 of 1945 or the rocket planes of 1970. We know that for the United States—and for other great powers—there can be no humanly devised method of defining precisely the geographic areas in which their security interests begin or cease to exist. We realize, in short, that peace is a worldwide problem and the maintenance of peace, and not merely its restoration, depends primarily upon the unity of the great powers …”

Similar views have been expressed by the leaders of all of the permanent members of the Security Council. The desirability of unanimity of the permanent members on the most important decisions in connection with peace and war has been reaffirmed during this session of the General Assembly by all of the permanent members.

5. Question: Does the United States still believe that the peace of the world depends primarily upon the unity of the great powers?
Answer: Yes. However, we do not feel that the desirability of unanimity of the Permanent Members, especially on the most important issues of peace and security, precludes liberalization of the voting procedure as it is now applied. To quote from the speech of the Secretary [Page 207] of State to the General Assembly on September 13, 1947:

“We were always fully aware that the successful operation of the rule of unanimity would require the exercise of restraint by the permanent members and we so expressed ourselves at San Francisco. It is our hope that, despite our experience to date, such restraint will be practiced in the future by the permanent members. The abuse of the right of unanimity has prevented the Security Council from fulfilling its true functions. This has been especially true in cases arising under Chapter VI and in the admission of new members. The Government of the United States has come to the conclusion that the only practical method for improving this situation is a liberalization of the voting procedure in the Council. The United States would be walling to accept by whatever means may be appropriate, the elimination of the unanimity requirement with respect to matters arising under Chapter VI of the Charter and such matters as applications for membership.”

6. Question: Does the requirement of unanimity among the permanent members of the Security Council apply to the whole of the United Nations Organization?
Answer: No. It applies merely to certain decisions of the Security Council. It is not applicable to the decisions of the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council, the Court of International Justice, or any of the subsidiary and affiliated agencies of the United Nations.
7. Question: Does the requirement of unanimity among the permanent members of the Security Council apply to all decisions of the Security Council?
Answer: No. In the first place, procedural decisions are governed by Article 27, paragraph 2, which permits a decision by an affirmative vote of any seven members. In the second place, in decisions under Chapter VI or under paragraph 3 of Article 52 relating to pacific settlement of disputes, parties to a dispute, whether permanent or non-permanent members of the Security Council, are required to abstain from voting.
8. Question: How does the Security Council determine which decisions are procedural?
Answer: As early as the San Francisco Conference it was recognized that the provisions for voting in the Security Council were ambiguous. As a result, the Four Powers that sponsored the San Francisco Conference and proposals for the Charter, which included Article 27, prepared a statement intended to clarify these ambiguities. [Page 208] This so-called Four Power Statement4 which was later adhered to by the remaining permanent member of the Security Council, France, succeeded in part in its aims. For example, in paragraph 2 of Part I, the statement listed a number of decisions which are procedural. In paragraph 3 of Part I, the statement established the very important principle that no individual member of the Council can alone prevent consideration and discussion by the Council of a dispute or situation brought to its attention under the Charter. Paragraph 8 of Part I stated the general principle that permanent members of the Security Council will not use their veto power wilfully to obstruct the operation of the Council.
9. Question: Does the Four Power Statement completely clarify Article 27?
Answer: We think not. Many matters remain to be cleared up through interpretation, rules of procedure, definitions, and the establishment of precedents. The United States has submitted to the Security Council proposals for a number of such rules of procedure.
10. Question: Would the adoption of these rules of procedure by the Security Council prevent abuse of the veto?
Answer: Their adoption would probably materially increase the effectiveness of the Security Council. However, further liberalization of the voting formula in the Security Council would probably be necessary. The United States view of the steps to be taken in this direction is stated in the Secretary’s speech of September 13, 1947, to the General Assembly as follows:

“We consider that the problem of how to achieve the objective of liberalization of the Security Council voting procedure deserves careful study. Consequently, we shall propose that the matter be referred to a special committee for study and report to the next session of the Assembly. Measures should be pressed concurrently in the Security Council to bring about improvements within the existing provisions of the Charter through amendments to the rules of procedure or other feasible means.”

11. Question: If a permanent member opposes some substantive proposal of the Security Council, is it exercising a veto?
Answer: We think not. As stated previously, the word “veto” is not used in the Charter. We believe that the term is meaningless unless it refers to situations in which a proposal receives seven or more affirmative votes but fails to carry because of the negative vote of a permanent member.
12. Question: Under this definition of veto, how many times has it been exercised in the Security Council?
Answer: We consider that the veto has been exercised twenty-two times. Since in a number of instances the veto was exercised more than once in connection with a single question, it is possible to count the number of vetoes as 20, 21, 22, or 23.
13. Question: Has the veto been exercised by any state other than the U.S.S.R.?
Answer: France and the U.S.S.R. jointly exercised the veto on one occasion in the Spanish case and France vetoed a resolution of the U.S.S.R. in the Indonesian case. It is only fair to state that all of the permanent members have at times expressed opposition to and voted against proposals brought before the Security Council. It was not necessary, however, to exercise the veto since the particular proposals were never able to secure seven affirmative votes.
14. Question: When the representative of the U.S.S.R. departed from the meetings of the Security Council which were discussing the alleged controversy between the U.S.S.R. and Iran, was the action equivalent to an exercise of the veto?
Answer: No. There is no such thing in the Security Council as the requirement of a quorum. The absence of the representative of the U.S.S.R. did not prevent the deliberations of the Security Council nor prevent procedural decisions. In view of the well established practice in the Security Council that abstention from voting by a permanent member on a non procedural decision does not constitute a veto, the absence of a permanent member probably would not even prevent a substantive decision of the Council.
15. Question: Have permanent members ever reached agreement in the Security Council on substantive matters?
Answer: Certainly yes. It is impossible however to give the number of occasions with mathematical precision. [Page 210] There have been a number of formal votes on substantive matters where all permanent members were in agreement. However, frequently the Security Council has proceeded without voting when it has found that its members were all in agreement. It must be remembered, furthermore, that the tendency has been to bring to the Security Council matters in which disagreement among permanent members of the Security Council were pronounced. Other matters never reached the stage where it could be claimed that they could endanger international peace and security and thus be a proper subject for discussion in the Security Council. Since the begining of the Security Council, we would be safe in saying that the areas of agreement among permanent members of the Security Council have in general exceeded the areas of disagreement.
16. Question: What proposals concerning voting in the Security Council were adopted by the recent session of the General Assembly?
Answer: The General Assembly on November 21, 1947 adopted a resolution proposed by the United States requesting the Interim Committee of the General Assembly to:

“1. Consider the problem of voting in the Security Council, taking into account all proposals which have been or may be submitted by Members of the United Nations to the. Second Session of the General Assembly or to the Interim Committee;

“2. Consult with any Committee which the Security ‘Council may designate to co-operate with the Interim Committee in the study of the problem;

“3. Report with its conclusions to the Third Session of the General Assembly, the report to be transmitted to the Secretary-General by 15 July 1948, and by the Secretary-General to the Members and to the General Assembly.”

The resolution further

“Requested the permanent members of the Security Council to consult with one another on the problem of voting in the Security Council in order to secure agreement among them on measures to ensure the prompt and effective exercise by the Security Council of its functions.”

17. Question: What benefits are likely to be obtained from the proposed Interim Committee study of the problem?
Answer: The general purpose of the study and the benefits to be obtained therefrom were summarized as follows by Mr. Dulles of the U.S. delegation to the General Assembly [Page 211] in his statement to Committee 1 of the General Assembly on November 18, 1947:

“We believe, therefore, that the General Assembly should proceed carefully and with consideration for the reasoned views of all the members, whether they represent large countries or small. We hope that out of such an approach will come developments which will enable the Security Council to discharge more effectively its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.”

“It may be asked whether that is a mere pious hope or has it, in fact, any substance. I think it has substance. If voting in the Security Council is under observation and study currently throughout the year, almost certainly that will influence Security Council members to improve their own voting procedures. Also, serious study on behalf of the General Assembly will, I believe, lead to better relations in this matter between the General Assembly and the Security Council.

“At present, there seems to be a tendency on the part of the General Assembly, perhaps, to over-simplify the problem. We are inclined, once a year, to strike out against what we call the abuse in the use of the veto. But we have not really given the matter serious study. I am confident that if the General Assembly should give the problem the kind of study which, for example, our Sub-Committee gave to the problem of setting-up the Interim Committee, the next General Assembly would approach this problem with a much better and more sympathetic understanding of the problem and with much more understanding and sympathy toward the attitude of the Security Council and the permanent members.

“I believe that only out of an attitude of sympathy and understanding between coordinate bodies, rather than out of an attitude of antagonism between them, can come the possibility of really finding; improvement in this field.”

18. Question: Can the Charter be amended without the concurrence of all of the permanent members?
Answer: No. The Charter provides:

“Amendments to the present Charter shall come into force for all Members of the United Nations when they have been adopted by a vote of two thirds of the members of the General Assembly and ratified in accordance with their respective constitutional processes by two thirds of the Members of the United Nations, including all the permanent members of the Security Council”.

19. Question: Is it true that the veto legalizes aggression by a permanent member because that member can prevent enforcement action against itself?
Answer: No. The permanent members are bound legally and morally in the same degree as all other members of the [Page 212] United Nations, “to settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice are not endangered,” and to “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations”. The veto does not legalize any violations of those commitments. It is true that if one of the great powers violates the Charter, ultimately the only way to enforce the law is by a major war. That, however, would be just as true if the Charter did not require unanimity of the permanent members of the Security Council.
  1. The term “IOFiles” is used in the Foreign Relations series to denote the files, of the. Reference and Documents Section of the Bureau of International Organization Affairs. The 1948 predecessor of the Bureau of International Organization Affairs, charged with principal responsibility for the conduct of United States relations with the United Nations, was the Office of United Nations Affairs (UNA); Dean Rusk was Director of UNA and the Deputy Director was Durward V. Sandifer.
  2. This paper was included in a “book” made up for the United States Delegation to the Third Session of the General Assembly, entitled “Voting in the Security Council”.
  3. For text of the Four Power Statement, June 7, 1945, see Department of State Bulletin, June 10, 1945, p. 1047.