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Hina Jilani: UN Security Council veto is a "privilege" not a right

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This speech was delivered by Hina Jilani, Pakistani Supreme Court Advocate and member of The Elders, at UNA-UK's commemoration of the UN's 70th anniversary at London's Guildhall on Friday 9 October 2015

Let me first of all thank UNA-UK for organising this important event to mark the 70th anniversary of the United Nations.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to begin by speaking about the veto power in the United Nations that rests with the permanent members of the Security Council. One advantage that I see is that this sense of power keeps the permanent five in the United Nations and retains their interest in multilateral politics. However, this limited advantage is also lost if the permanent five continue to see the veto as a right. The veto is a privilege that comes with a great deal of responsibility, and if that responsibility is not exercised in the use of the veto, then I’m afraid the power of veto in the Security Council and the United Nations that the P5 retains today has become anachronistic.

The UN certainly needs a lot of reforms, but the first reform that must come must be the kind of reform that allows the United Nations to become as effective as it can to end conflict and bring peace and safety to the people of the world. It is in this respect that this whole concept of the United Nations as a community of nations and as the "international community" must make sure that the decisions made to keep the world peaceful and to maintain people’s security must emanate from collective wisdom. If we are to depend on collective wisdom then narrow, national interests cannot supersede the need for a peaceful global environment in which can people can progress and prosper.

We know that a number of proposals have been put forward; however these proposals are taking too long to come into existence as material changes in the United Nations system. In the meantime, we are watching crisis upon crisis where thousands of people are suffering, lives are at stake, livelihoods are at stake. The crisis in Syria is a very obvious example, where repeated vetoes have prevented action which might have helped to promote peace.

But the problem in Syria is not just the use of veto. The problem is that some permanent members have not upheld their responsibilities towards Syria, and some have exacerbated the conflict through financing and arming opposing sides. Russia’s recent entry into the fray only follows that of the US and Britain.

I remind you, ladies and gentlemen, that this is not the first conflict that the world is experiencing. But the reason we should have done better this time is because we should have learnt better lessons. Unfortunately, it seems to be a human trait that you don’t learn lessons from the past. What happened in the ‘80s in Afghanistan, what happened in Iraq and in Libya doesn’t seem to have taught us how notto deal with international conflicts, and I think it’s very important - as important as learning how to deal with it - is to learn what you should not do, as actions can backfire and create more problems than they resolve.

As I said, there are useful proposals which aim to prevent such crises in the future through making permanent members to agree voluntarily to put aside their vetoes in situations where mass atrocities are taking place or are imminent. However, no theoretical agreement by itself is going to solve the crisis in Syria or any other conflict, and the Security Council is most helpful only when its members operate towards an agreed goal and put the protection of civilians above personal and strategic rivalries.

This need for cooperation is the basis for The Elders’ proposal. We say very simply that if a permanent member uses its veto to prevent action when mass atrocities are taking place, it must be required to publicly explain its reasoning. More importantly, it then has a responsibility to put forward an alternative plan to address that particular crisis on the Council’s agenda. Discussions and debate in the Council are not the point of it all. Finding the solution is what these debates are all about. Having been thwarted in their collective wish by a P5 member, the remaining members of the Security Council would also have a responsibility not to just give up once a veto has been cast. Instead, they should re-double their efforts to find a solution. It is therefore an awareness of collective responsibility within the Security Council which has to be at the centre of any new procedures.

It is also very important that we find ways to make sure that voices of civil society groups in conflict-affected countries get the chance to be heard in the Council. It needs to better understand what is happening on the ground to make reasonable and useful decisions. But it is also morally important so that those people most affected by conflict have the chance to be heard. And by asking for participation of civil society in security-related decisions about their part of the world, I don’t mean that civil society should always go to the Security Council and hold sessions with them. The least that can be done by the Security Council is to make better communications with the United Nations human rights system. And I will give you one example. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings detected the signs of genocide in Rwanda and reported that to the United Nations. If the United Nations political system was better coordinating with human rights system so that one hand knows what the other is doing, the civil society voices would already reach the Security Council.

As the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Human Rights Defenders, I have always found that the authentic information that allows us to analyse a situation comes from the civil society groups, who are living the situation that we are just studying. And lastly, on this point, remember that there is no notion of international community without the inclusion of civil society in that notion. International community is not just states.

The UN Peacebuilding Commission is an example of a more successful and flexible system which has specific officials dedicated to each country where it works. I wish that the Security Council would develop innovative mechanisms to have its ears to the crowd and put people in strategic places, either regionally or nationally, so that they are getting a continuous flow of information that alerts them to a situation that is developing. This is the direction that I think the Security Council should be moving in the future. It should be less about individual interests and far more about practical, cooperative, collective action to help make the world a safer and more peaceful place.

Thank you. 

Photo: Hina Jilani, pro-democracy campaigner and human rights lawyer, addresses the audience at UNA-UK's public event to commemorate the UN's 70th anniversary in London's Guildhall. Copyright UNA-UK