In the haze of current armed conflicts, from Syria to Yemen to Iranian-US naval clashes in the Persian Gulf, it is difficult to recall that there is a rule book. In 1941, Roosevelt and Churchill met on a warship sheltered in a small bay in Newfoundland, away from the swarms of German U-Boats, and charted a new course for humanity. They drafted a sheet of paper that came to be known as the Atlantic Charter, agreeing that a postwar world should be characterized by the right of self-determination of peoples, economic and social rights, freedom of the seas and, most pressingly, an effective prohibition of the use of force in international relations. Those principles would later form the foundation of a sweeping post-World War II order, the 1945 United Nations Charter.

The UN Charter, the Security Council and the veto

The UN was designed “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind”. Its Charter was built around a prohibition on the use of force between states (art. 2(4)), subject to only two exceptions: collective action taken in the name of the UN Organization – normally authorized by the UN Security Council under Chapter VII – and a temporary right of individual or collective self-defence against an armed attack (art. 51). Located in east side Manhattan, the Security Council is today comprised of 15 states, the world’s most exclusive club, only ten of which are elected for successive two-year terms.

Beyond their lifetime memberships, the permanent five (P5) members – China, France, Russia, UK and US – were each granted an extraordinary privilege: the individual right to veto the substantive decision-making of the Council (art. 27). The 1945 world believed that the great victors of the Second World War would continue to shoulder a disproportionate burden for the maintenance of international peace and security. That world also tacitly acknowledged that the P5, soon to be nuclear powers, could not be on the receiving end of collective UN military action without provoking a third world war.

The next chapter of the story is all too familiar: the Cold War guaranteed tit-for-tat vetoes between East and West, undermining the UN’s core function for the half century that followed. The Council nevertheless served as a crucial discussion forum in those sensitive early years of nuclear politics. It also developed the concept of UN peacekeeping. Then, when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, a brief but encouraging chapter began. The UN became the indispensable referee for international peace, from authorizing a broad coalition to repel Saddam Hussein’s 1991 invasion of Kuwait, to massively expanding its African peacekeeping missions. The Pax Americana was, however, short-lived.

For the first two decades of the twenty-first century, the Security Council has been re-polarized. From Kosovo to Iraq to Libya, from Georgia to Ukraine to the South China Sea, the threat and employment of the veto froze the Council in the face of pressing needs; and in other cases the Council was circumvented altogether. The international rule of law  has been hollowed out at its core. Valiant attempts to reform the body have come up against the rigid structure of the UN Charter: reform of the veto is itself subject to the veto. Established and emerging powers such as Germany, Japan, South Africa, India and Brazil are still on the outside looking in. The international security regime established by the UN Charter does, however, allow some scope for measures to maintain international and security when the Security Council is paralyzed by the veto

The UN General Assembly's Uniting for Peace (U4P) resolution

In 1950, the United States under the leadership of  President Harry Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson spearheaded a UN General Assembly resolution, “Uniting for Peace” (U4P), aimed at breaking the deadlock created by five years of persistent Soviet vetoes. The Assembly seats all 193 UN members, and although its regular function is to convene discussion and make recommendations, preserving the Security’s Council’s exclusive right to pass binding resolutions, it may in certain cases recommend collective UN measures in lieu of the stalled Council.

Secretary Acheson likely went too far when he effectively promoted the Assembly to the driver’s seat, allowing it to decide unilaterally whether the Security Council had failed in its primary role. However, the Council itself may decide whether a given veto has been exercised in bad faith – i.e. for reasons unrelated to the obligation to uphold international peace – and in that situation it has the power to refer the matter to the Assembly via procedural vote (9 of 15 members in favour), which is not subject to the veto. With that transfer of responsibility, a two-thirds Assembly majority may then recommend that a coalition of UN-hatted states take measures, up to and including the use of force, to rectify the crisis at hand. With these two major checks and balances in place, law-abiding states may rest assured that force will not be exercised except in pursuit of the Purposes and Principles of the United Nations. 

Uniting for Peace is not a perfect solution. The General Assembly was not designed to entirely take over the executive functions of the Security Council. Nevertheless, a revised U4P procedure may serve the purpose of reaffirming the international rule of law in situations that, despite a Security Council veto, cry out for an international response. States should not have to choose between preventing human slaughter and respecting the UN Charter.

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