The subtext here, of course, is the Security Council's inability to do anything substantive about the conflict in Syria. According to Reuters, Russia and China have used their veto four times to block resolutions related to Syria: three times to thwart the threat of sanctions on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and once to block Syria's referral to the International Criminal Court.
"How can the U.N. remain paralyzed when the worst is unfolding in front of our eyes?" asked French President Francois Hollande, when he addressed the U.N. General Assembly on Monday.
Backing the venture is a coalition of international organizations and rights groups, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect. In a statement released Wednesday, they stressed that Russian and Chinese diplomats weren't the only ones guilty of misusing their veto powers.
Russia and China are not alone. All Permanent Members of the Security Council have, at one time or another, misused and abused their veto prerogative. But defending those committing mass atrocity crimes can never be justified as a matter of “vital national interest.” Such an approach is always contrary to the purposes and principles of the UN.
The challenge of reforming the U.N. Security Council has been discussed for years now. Most governments, including the U.S., pay lip service to the need to shake-up and expand what is the U.N.'s de facto executive chamber. The Security Council's permanent members -- and the exalted status afforded them -- is a reflection of the status quo in the immediate aftermath of World War II.
Proponents of reform argue that, 70 years later, the Security Council is a woefully inadequate representation of the international order. Some proposals include expanding the chamber to accommodate countries like Germany, Japan, Brazil and India as permanent members, with or without veto powers.
But altering the composition of the Security Council requires changing the U.N. Charter -- a move akin to amending the U.S. Constitution, and one which needs the votes of two-thirds of the General Assembly and the support of all five permanent members.
Finding such consensus is not easy; convincing the permanent members to agree to concede or share some of their current power with others is even harder.
So, in a bid to make some progress, the French are pushing for measures that don't need a revision of the U.N. Charter. This is from a French government statement on the use and regulation of Security Council vetoes:
...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 undertake not to use the veto where a mass atrocity has been ascertained.
Being a voluntary measure, it would not require a revision of the United Nations Charter.
And what of the U.S.'s role in all this? American diplomats have been scathing in their condemnation of Russian intransigence in the Security Council. But the U.S., too, has frequently deployed its veto to block resolutions condemning Israel.
America’s lethargy reflects the reality that, rhetoric aside, U.S. leaders aren’t convinced that council reform is in the national interest. The United States has an awfully good deal on the Security Council. On many issues, it can use the council to help share burdens, amplify its voice, and endow policies it favors with the force of international law. When Washington doesn’t find the council convenient, the veto power means it can work around the body without risking an official reprimand.
France, meanwhile, has not wielded its veto in decades--it threatened to use it ahead of the U.S.'s 2003 invasion of Iraq--and its statement outlines the need to treat the act very seriously.
"France is convinced that the veto should not and cannot be a privilege," it reads. The veto "implies duties and a particular responsibility... It has been given to the five permanent members in order to foster cooperation between them so that the United Nations can forestall and resolve international conflicts, ensure effective compliance with international law and protect civilian populations."
This, at least in recent years, is not happening to anywhere near a sufficient degree.