University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

Peter Wallensteen

Peter Wallensteen is Richard G. Starmann Sr. Research Professor at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and Senior Professor in the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Sweden’s Uppsala University. His most recent research focuses on quality peace and regional organizations as well as the use of targeted sanctions.

After the Cold War the UN, and particularly the Security Council, finally took a central role in international affairs. During the Cold War the Council was excluded from conflicts that Cold War parties defined as their domain, exemplified in the lack of deliberations on the U.S. war on Vietnam or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The end of the Cold War changed this. The UN was activated. Where the superpowers earlier had intervened in favor of one side, the UN now came in with a balanced approach. Although it had limited resources, the UN acted with remarkable effectiveness. As the UN became more engaged, a number of ongoing conflicts—as reported by the Uppsala Conflict Data Program—declined.


Over the past 15 years, however, matters have changed. By 2014 there were more conflicts than in earlier years. Refugee flows reached unprecedented numbers. The new conflicts may be less deadly than those of the Cold War, with the notable exception of Syria, but they still reflect a turbulent and unpredictable world situation. The UN cannot celebrate its 70th birthday in a world at peace.

Basic rules for international conduct have been violated, notably the respect for international borders and territorial integrity, military non-interference in the affairs of other states, protection of civilians against genocide, and treatment of prisoners of war. The violations stem from both state and non-state actors, for example in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq and Libya. Terrorist tactics in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Mali and Somalia grab headlines and inject fear, uncertainty and insecurity. The leading nuclear weapon states, the U.S. and Russia appear unable to cooperate on many of these concerns. The UN has lost some of the effectiveness it had in the immediate post-Cold War period.


One of the biggest obstacles to UN action is the use of the veto by the permanent members of the Security Council. Since 2000 there have been 28 vetoes in the Security Council. The U.S. and Russia top the list with 11 each, followed by China’s six. France and Britain have not exercised this prerogative during the period. Ten of the U.S. vetoes were cast between 2000 and 2006, while 10 of the Russian vetoes have come since 2007 (also true for China). On resolutions pertaining to Georgia, Ukraine and, most recently on the use of the term genocide for the 20th commemoration of the Srebrenica massacre in 1995, Russia was the lone user of the veto.

U.S. influence in the UN has increased. Russia, worried about its standing, has resorted to vetoes. President Barack Obama has chaired the Security Council twice, but at the meeting in September 2014 Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was not present. In September 2015, Putin gave a speech in the UN for the first time in a decade.

The use of the veto limits UN action in important conflicts. France has tried to address this problem. In 2013 French President Francis Holland suggested that the veto-holders should agree not to exercise their veto in cases where mass atrocities have been ascertained, either by the Council, the Secretary-General or by 50 Member states. By early October 2015, France claimed support from more than 70 countries. Ukraine was among them.

No other veto-holder has followed suit. Instead Russia’s UN-Ambassador Vitaly Churkin dryly informed the Council that Russia opposes the proposal: “We see it as a somewhat populist proposal. If France wants to limit its own veto they are welcome.”

The French proposal elaborates on an idea from 2012 by the S-5 group (Lichtenstein, Jordan, Switzerland, Singapore and Costa Rica). The group suggested that a negative vote should not be regarded as a veto if the country casting it made a declaration to that effect.


These are proposals that strive to make the Council relevant in pertinent conflicts. They offer an important way forward. A number of more radical alternative proposals have been made over the years for reforming the Council’s composition by creating additional seats. There are many models, for instance empowering regional organizations to fill the void created by Council inaction.

Many conflicts require international commitment through strongly supported mediation efforts or the use of targeted sanctions. For effectiveness, the Council has to be able to cooperate. The use of the veto restrains the UN at a time when it is badly needed and has allowed conflicts like Syria to continue amidst global inaction. It is time to resolve the veto problem and get the Security Council into action!