• carswellandrew

75 years later: re-imagining a functional system of international peace and security

Updated: May 26, 2020

Picture a system of international peace and security that actually works. Imagine the United Nations Security Council springing into action and efficiently mobilizing collective action to pacifically settle a major international dispute, prevent an imminent civilian slaughter, or repel a foreign invasion, unimpeded by the narrow economic and political interests of any individual state.

Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill onboard HMS Prince of Wales in a Newfoundland bay, 1941 (Getty)

Since the signing of the UN Charter 75 years ago, the world has only witnessed a truly effective Security Council for a single decade: the 1990s. Neither the Cold War nor the post-9/11 counter-terrorist wars were kind to the international rule of law. The Council became a microcosm of the geopolitical polarization taking place on the world stage, exacerbated by the veto wielded by its permanent five (P5) members. Today's large-scale armed conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya and the Maghreb are emblematic of our new era of sovereignty-obsessed international relations. Indeed, in the fog of current affairs it is sometimes difficult to recall that there is a rule book.

The world after World War II

In November 1941, Roosevelt and Churchill were living through the darkest days of the Second World War. They took advantage of a rare meeting on board two naval ships anchored in Newfoundland, away from the swarms of German U-Boats, to discuss the future of humankind. The fruit of that discussion was a hand-scribbled document that came to be known as the Atlantic Charter, agreeing that a postwar world (whenever that might be) 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 negotiated at Dumbarton Oaks and San Francisco, the 1945 United Nations Charter.


The Charter is built around a peremptory prohibition on the use of inter-state force, with exceptions available only for action taken on behalf of the UN Organization, normally in the form of Chapter VII enforcement measures authorized by the 15-member Security Council, and a state's right to individual or collective self-defence against an armed attack, following which the matter should revert to the Council. In principle, the Charter enshrines a UN monopoly over the international use of force. In reality, that monopoly has been strained and ultimately broken, due in large part to the threat and exercise of the P5 veto.


The Uniting for Peace resolution


In the context of the 1950 Korean War, US President Harry Truman and his Secretary of State Dean Acheson called out the Soviet Union for their systematic series of vetoes that had paralyzed the Security Council since 1945. They encouraged the world's "democracy of states", the General Assembly, to pass the Uniting for Peace (U4P) resolution.The resolution purported to give the Assembly the right to step in with its more limited powers where the Council had failed, recommending collective measures up to and including the use of force. It was a bold move, although it grew out of favour during the 1960s onward, as the Assembly swelled in size and would no longer generate predictable majorities for the West. Furthermore, the resolution may well have overstated the authority of the Assembly relative to the Council, turning the Charter upside down. Its underlying logic was, nevertheless, a brilliant interpretation of the Charter's division of powers.

The veto has a legitimate role to play at the Security Council table. It reflects a compromise made between the great victors of the Second World War and the remaining international community. It must however be exercised in good faith, in accordance with the Principles and Purposes of the UN. The Council itself is best placed to determine whether a veto has been exercised for reasons that are unrelated to the body's duty to shoulder the burden of international peace. In those exceptional cases, it may refer the vetoed matter via procedural vote (9 of 15 in favour) to the 193-member General Assembly, which may in turn recommend collective measures -- up to and including force -- through a two-thirds majority vote, effectively delegating the UN's authority to a coalition of willing member states.


U4P is a particularly valuable tool in the event of an imminent humanitarian catastrophe inflicted by a government on its own citizens, where the Security Council is paralyzed by a veto exercised according to the narrow national interests of a P5 member. In the past, law-abiding states have been placed in the impossible situation of choosing between circumventing the Council to take coalition enforcement action in violation of the UN Charter, and standing by while the slaughter continues. A prominent example was the 1999 decision of Western states to use force to protect civilians in Kosovo despite the certain vetoes of Russia and China. While principled, that decision represented a violation of the Charter and served to dilute the Council's authority, as later reflected in Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003) and beyond.


The U4P mechanism provides an alternative avenue that allows both the Security Council and the General Assembly to determine the validity of a proposed action and its conformity with the Purposes and Principles of the UN. It does, however, require states in favour of intervention to clearly make their case to the international community. In effect, it is a two-tier system of checks and balances against the arbitrary use of force. In this sense, U4P interpreted in accordance with the Charter represents a significant step towards the international rule of law.


The prospect of breathing oxygen back into the UN system, preventing war and saving lives, is highly motivating. That is why, on this 75th anniversary of the UN Charter, we are launching the International Rule of Law Initiative. Please learn more and join our movement on irli.net, and follow us on Twitter.

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