Can France succeed in limiting the veto in cases of mass atrocities?


Laurent Fabius, France's Foreign Minister

There is little doubt that, despite the dramatic progress made over the past decade, the international community still too often fails the victims of governments unable or unwilling to protect their populations. The system that was supposed to do this is still far from perfect, as we can see today in Iraq, Syria, Palestine and elsewhere. The UN Security Council bears an important part of the responsibility, and its inaction has weakened its authority and legitimacy. Most notably, Russia and China have, since 2011, cast four vetoes to block international action in Syria, where more than 200,000 have been killed since the conflict began. It is important to point out that none of the proposed resolutions involved military action. Equally important, they enjoyed regional support.

To avoid such scenarios in the future, the French government has proposed, in September 2013, the "responsibility not to veto (RN2V)." As the Foreign Ministry explains on its website, "a regulation of use of the veto would mean that the five permanent members of the Security Council (China, the United States, France, the United Kingdom and Russia) would voluntarily and collectively commit not to use the veto where a mass atrocity has been ascertained." The initiative envisions a code of conduct rather than an amendment of the UN Charter, which has only taken place three times in the UN's history, thus removing one potential obstacle to success.

The French proposal includes a trigger, consisting of a request by at least fifty UN member states to the UN Secretary General, which must then decide whether mass atrocities are being committed. If he or she confirms, the responsibility not to veto is "activated". Notably, as supporters of the idea often point out, this does not automatically imply military intervention -- far from it. Rather, it merely makes vetoing a resolution critical of the host government more difficult, or one that involves targeted sanctions or calls for providing humanitarian access.

Increasing the political cost of the veto

While not creating legal obligations for countries, the proposal is, in principle, an interesting idea because it would help increase the political cost of the veto, and if used, the country would need to explain in more detail why it is using the veto. The promotion of this discussion, thus, may strengthen the international consensus that using the veto in case of mass atrocity is highly problematic.

The broader context

France's initiative to restrain the veto takes place in a scenario of a temporary division between the West and the BRICS regarding how to deal with security challenges. The BRICS announcement in The Hague in March 2014 rejecting any move to exclude Russia from the G20 after the annexation of Crimea is a powerful reminder of the highly complex environment within which global security discussions are taking place.

The BRICS and the West also disagree about how to interpret and evaluate the 2011 Libya intervention. While in the West the move is still seen as a "model intervention" by many, the BRICS regard it as an example on how NATO dangerously transformed a mandate to protect the population of Benghazi into a mandate for regime change. When asked about the RN2V initiative, policy makers in the Global South still often remember the case of resolution 1973 and thus tend to regard France's proposal with some sense of skepticism and suspicion.

Still, the West vs. Rest narrative is the wrong way to look at broader dynamics, as it is unlikely to help us find lasting solutions to existing challenges. Even though Syria is today's most obvious tragedy, France's proposal is not aimed at Russia and China. Michael Ignatieff may be right that "Syria Divided the World'", but the division is not as systemic as he implies. After all, in the vast majority of cases, the BRICS have supported R2P, even after the controversial intervention in Libya. Syria has been an exception, not the rule. Engaging the BRICS, notably China and Russia, in the discussion about France's initiative, is crucial. After all, for China and Russia, the right to veto is the foundation to guarantee the feasibility of the United Nations' collective security arrangements.

Brazil and the RwP initiative

Just like France, Brazil has, over the past years, undertaken efforts to strengthen the international community’s capacity to avoid mass atrocities. And in the same way, it is interested in a more accountable, effective, and transparent UNSC – namely, by introducing the Responsibility while Protecting (RwP) in 2011, in the aftermath of the Libya Crisis. China has since then developed a similar (not yet official) concept of Responsible Protection (RP), which takes up several aspects of Brazil’s proposal.

Just like France's proposal, the Responsibility While Protecting (RwP) was a case of norm leadership. It was part of a whole range of ideas and proposals to improve the way we seek to prevent mass atrocities. It also addresses issues like the lack of consistency and selectivity in the actions of the UN Security Council. In that way, there is, in several aspects, an overlap with France’s current undertaking, which seeks to improve the working methods of the UN Security Council.

Back in 2011 and 2012, some in the West criticized Brazil’s proposal saying that it would paralyze the council and make military intervention impossible, but that was never the intention of the proposal. Rather, it made an important contribution about how to operationalize intervention, a discussion that continues to be important as we watch the situation in Libya.

Lessons for France's RN2V proposal

Looking back to the RwP campaign may hold some useful lessons for the French proposal. Successfully promoting a concept or idea requires not only the intellectual capacity of developing a new idea, political support by the national leader, and international credibility. It also requires the logistical diplomatic structure to promote the initiative on a global scale. That requires fine-tuning global communication, involving embassies around the world, identifying allies early in the process, anticipating where resistance will emerge, and engaging global public opinion. It also involves policy makers and diplomats responding the media enquiries and writing convincing op-eds, and going on local TV to promote the idea. Laurent Fabius' op-eds in the New York Times and Le Monde are excellent examples of how to engage global opinion makers. His decision to invite his predecessor Hubert Védrine to help him in the effort is equally shrewd.

Even the concept of R2P would not have gained acceptance without people like Gareth Evans who tirelessly traveled the globe to speak to civil society, the media, state leaders and academia. France has the broad diplomatic network it takes, and only a systematic global effort – promoting, legitimizing, etc. can lead to tangible results. To the contrary, Brazil did not, perhaps, have the internal political support, or the diplomatic network to build a global campaign.

Remembering how R2P succeeded and how RwP failed to get broader and more explicit traction offers useful lessons of how France can proceed regarding the responsibility not to veto – taking the discussion not only to other governments, but also to representatives of civil society, newspapers and academia all over the world to build further political momentum. The Foreign Ministry's decision to organize a debate in Paris about the subject, inviting academics and policy makers from around the world, was an important step to strengthen the discussion. Similar events in Beijing, Moscow, London and Washington would help generate further visibility in the other P5.

RN2V seen from Brazil

To Brazil and the G4, supporting France's proposal could be an attractive opportunity to make their candidacy more attractive and acceptable to other countries. But, as any Brazilian diplomat will argue, the French proposal cannot be a substitute for broader membership reform, but part of an initiative to overhaul and adapt global structures to a more multipolar reality. Comprehensive reform of the Security Council includes not only a  reform of its working methods, but also a reform of the Council’s composition.

Pending issues

A series of issues need to be discussed in depth, of course. France argues that the proposed code would “exclude cases where the vital national interests of a permanent member of the Council were at stake.” Yet how do we define “vital national interest”? Is Israel vital to the United States’ national interest? Would the United States allow the imposition of a veto restraint in the case of Israel/Palestine? Could China one day claim that Sudan and Iraq – two of its key oil suppliers – are part of its vital national interest? How does it help in cases where no one wants to put the issue on the agenda?

Preventive action

In the same way, does the idea of veto restraint apply to preventive action? Could we imagine a UN Secretary General take the political risk and say he (or she) believed that a government is about to commit mass atrocities, and if fifty countries agree, the responsibility not to veto would kick in? How would this have worked in the case of Libya?

How to avoid previous obstacles?

Finally, from France’s perspective, it is worth considering the precedents of previous attempts to reform UNSC procedures. Why were the small five ultimately forced to withdraw their proposals in 2012, considering that they included a commitment to forgo the veto in case of mass atrocities? How will France be able to reduce the rejection among the other P5?

The potential obstacles of the RN2V initiative are formidable. (CFR's Stewart Patrick listed most of them in his presentation at the Paris conference). Yet in a way, Laurent Fabius has already succeeded in part if he can restart a global discussion about how to make the Security Council more effective at addressing mass atrocities.

Read also:

Responsible Protection: Chinese norm entrepreneurship?

The BRICS and the Future of R2P: Was Syria or Libya the Exception?

Brazil as a Norm Entrepreneur: The Responsibility While Protecting

Regulating intervention: Brazil and the responsibility to protect

Photo credit: Shannon Stapleton/Courtesy Reuters