ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, July 15, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 07
Columns - Inside the glass house  

The UN veto: From cold war to Kosovo

By Thalif Deen at the united nations

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, right, looks over at Kosovo's President Fatmir Sejdiu during a media conference at the EU Council building in Brussels on Wednesday. Kosovo's Albanian leaders held talks Wednesday with Javier Solana, amid a flurry of diplomatic activity aimed at resuming negotiations on the future of the breakaway Serbian province. AP

NEW YORK - At the height of the Cold War between the US and the former Soviet Union in the 1960s and 70s, the United Nations was a key battle ground to settle international political disputes. The weapon of choice was the veto. The two superpowers wielded their Security Council vetoes arrogantly — and most of the time unjustifiably — barring countries from UN membership primarily for political reasons or to protect their own national interests.

Whether or not an independent nation state had the legitimate right to be a member of the world body has hardly mattered. The US shut out countries considered Soviet "allies" and the Soviets barred countries either "friendly" to the US or political buddies of other Western nations such as Britain and France, the other two with veto powers in the Security Council.

Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) had its application for UN membership vetoed four times by the then USSR during 1948 through 1955 primarily on the ground that we had a defence agreement with Britain and were playing host to a British naval base in Trincomalee. Therefore, the Soviets argued we were not a truly independent nation state and did not warrant a seat at the UN. Never mind our independence from colonial rule on 4 February 1948.

The Soviets at that time also used similar Cold War political logic to bar Italy from the UN at least six times and Japan four times. The US, on the other hand, used its veto seven times barring Vietnam from the UN, and once against post-independent Angola (both countries with political or military ties to the Soviet Union).

The only occasion when China cast its veto against UN membership was against Bangladesh in August 1972 primarily because of Beijing's close political ties to Pakistan and also because Bangladesh (former East Pakistan) broke away from West Pakistan. Moreover Bangladesh's war of independence was supported by India, then a political rival of China.

The veto against Mongolia was cast by the "other China", the Republic of China or Taiwan, in December 1955. The ROC was ousted by the People's Republic of China (PRC) back in 1971. Both Bangladesh and Mongolia joined the UN subsequently. The misuse of the veto both by the US and the Soviet Union has had a long Cold War history at the UN since its creation over 61 years ago.

The last veto barring UN membership to any country was cast against Vietnam by the US back in November 1976. But Vietnam and the US are now on such friendly terms that President Bush made a formal visit to Vietnam recently. In international politics, the wheel of fortune keeps on turning as yesterday's mortal enemies become today's dearest friends.

But now there are fears that Russia (the successor state to the Soviet Union) may wield its veto to bar Kosovo, the breakaway province of the former Yugoslavia, from gaining UN membership. Kosovo's membership is being strongly backed by the three Western nations in the Security Council: the US, France and Britain.

Of the other two veto-wielding members, Russia has threatened a veto, while China has expressed reservations on the Kosovo resolution which is likely to come up before the Security Council in late July or early August. Is the threat of a veto a throwback to the days of the Cold War?

Not likely, says Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, who closely tracks the exercise of vetoes in the Security Council. "There are some unique circumstances which apply to Kosovo which set it apart from the US and Soviet vetoes from the era of East-West rivalry," he said.

Unlike most countries which have applied for membership in the United Nations, few countries, if any, currently recognize Kosovo as an independent nation. And despite the will of the vast majority of that nation for independence and their recent history of persecution by the Serbs, Zunes argued, Kosovo has long been recognized by the international community as part of Serbia.

The Russians and Chinese — which have their own restless national minorities — are concerned at the precedent it would set for the UN to recognize a secessionist movement. And, even those who are broadly sympathetic with the Kosovar Albanians' nationalist ambitions fear that full independence could lead to a resurgence of ultra-nationalism in Serbia just as that country's democratic forces are struggling to consolidate power and thereby risk once again destabilizing the region.

Meanwhile, a war of words between the US and Russia has triggered fears of a new Cold War. When Russian President Vladimir Putin was asked about the rising confrontation between the two countries, he said: "We are, of course, returning to those times."

Besides Kosovo, the Russians have publicly opposed US plans to establish anti-missile bases in Russia's backyard: in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Recently, Putin compared US foreign policy to the Third Reich. The US, meanwhile, has criticised a return to authoritarianism by Russia. Still, Bush invited Putin to a cozy dinner at his vacation home in Maine recently. But Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former National Security Adviser to ex-US President Jimmy Carter, said with a tinge of sarcasm: "Putin has been spitting at the United States for the last year, and what is the reaction? An invitation to a (Bush) family gathering?"

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