Are we going to see an ‘unreasonable veto’?

On the 6th February 2003 Tony Blair said this on BBC’s Newsnight

Supposing in circumstances where there was a clear breach of Resolution 1441 and everyone else wished to take action, one put down a veto. In those circumstances it would be unreasonable. Then it would be wrong because otherwise you couldn’t uphold the UN.  Because you’d have passed your resolution and then you’d have failed to act on it.

Blair was ridiculed on the left for suggesting that a veto at the Security Council could be unreasonable.  They argued that if one of the P5 vetoed the proposed 2nd resolution on Iraq there was no mandate for British/US policy.  Yet here we are anticipating a US veto of a Security Council resolution on Palestinian statehood and of course many, particularly on the left, would regard this as indeed unreasonable.  Now, I don’t think we yet know what exactly is going to happen, what the resolution will look like, or even where it will be tabled (Security Council or General Assembly?) if at all.  But Nicholas Watt poses this intriguing possibility:

The Palestinian authority would table a demand for recognition of statehood at the security council. … Britain believes that if the Palestinians were really clever they would go for a fourth option – tabling the exact text that Barack Obama used in a speech in May. This is the key paragraph: “The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.” Britain believes that this would be a smart move because every member of the security council would vote for this apart from one. Obama would order his diplomats in New York to veto his own words.

Is vetoing one’s own words a cast iron case for a veto being substantively unreasonable? Not I suppose if you disagreed with the sentiments of Obama’s May speech, but presumably Obama and his administration believed what he was saying back then and nothing has changed.  So how could he reasonably veto that resolution? Is the argument that a US veto is unreasonable strengthened if, as this scenario suggests, the US finds itself in a minority of one? I think so. My argument in the BJPIR article was that we had less reason to believe Blair’s characterization of the proposed French veto because in fact France was acting from a majority position.  This would be reinforced if the predicted General Assembly majorities in favour of some form of Palestinian statehood turn out to be true.   And before judging the veto do we have to think of the consequences of a veto on the region, especially now that the Arab Spring has given another shake of ‘the Kaleidoscope’? “ The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again”. Who said that, I wonder? Will he now be forced to recall the idea of an unreasonable veto?

About Jason Ralph

Jason Ralph, Professor of International Relations, University of Leeds
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