The UN Should Have Teeth. Its Word Should Be Law

 says Jim Addington                                                               


The United Nations, now more than half a century old, suffers from a lack of credibility in peace-making.  Despite its position as the only world peace enforcement organisation, with over 190 member nations its word is not law. In some situations there is no mechanism, where it has jurisdiction individual states can ignore its directions. The UN has no military power and few sanctions.

Former CND President Bruce Kent, in a letter to the Times in December, said that the military action in Afghanistan was illegal. He said that the UN Security Council is bound  like any other United  Nations organ, by the terms of the Charter. It is quite clear that Article 42 of the Charter gives the Security Council the right to authorise military action only when it has come to consider that non-military possibilities would be or have proved to be inadequate No such consideration preceded the bombing. In three weeks no such judgement could have been made. Mr Kent added that the self-defence provisions of Article 51 can only be used until the Security Council has taken measures necessary. His conclusion is that under the influence of the sole super-power  (in whose territory the UN is based) the Security Council has exceeded its powers and bent the Charter to its purposes.  

Even the International Court of Justice, founded eighty years ago - before the UN’s forerunner, the League of Nations - has never been given the power to force a state to account for its actions. The state has to consent before it can be brought before the court. In the 1980s the United States government was charged with mining the harbours of Nicaragua. While it agreed to the trial it declined to accept the verdict, apologise or make amends, and withdrew its  recognition from the Court.

In an Advisory Ruling in 1996 the Court was unable, although generally condemning the making, possession and intended use of nuclear weapons, to declare them illegal, or to enforce its ruling.

There is a clear flaw in the interpretation of the UN Charter because the UN Security Council is unable to enforce its decisions. Nor can it pronounce or take action against the breach of treaties signed and ratified by a state parliament. While the UN Secretary-General’s office registers treaties between member states, its power and responsibilities end there.

At a regional level the European Court of Justice is able to interpret European laws which have been agreed by member states and Britain, for example, accepts its rulings even if they conflict with our own laws. It is at the full international level where national self-interest is put before co-operation.

The International Criminal Court, which is now being set up, will try individuals, not governments or countries. 120 states voted for the treaty in 1999. But citizens of countries that refused to support the Court, including Iraq, Libya  - and the United States - will not be liable for indictment. It is also likely that references to the court will have to be approved by the Security Council. The Tribunal for Yugoslavia at The Hague, although nominally a UN court, was set up for a specific purpose. It is now trying Slobodan Milosevic and is mainly funded by states which took part against Yugoslavia in the 1999 war over Kosovo.

When faced with an attack like the invasion of Kuwait in1990, the UN has to rely on a small group of countries to do its work for it this case members of the group of five permanent members of the 15-member UN Security Council. These states were allocated permanent status on the Council at the formation of the UN in 1945. Four of them were nations that had won the war. France was the fifth.  

The five were then, and are still, the most powerful military states in the world. The US, Russia, China, Britain and France are the possessors of the UN’s teeth, although they do not generally act together. Their actions are not co-ordinated because the US, UK and France are members of the NATO military alliance.

In approving action to free Kuwait in 1990 the UN Security Council resolution called for the use of “all necessary means”. The United States took the lead in assembling a “coalition” to defeat Iraq, assuming the command.

The UN General Secretary has not been given the power by the Security Council to carry out military functions under the UN Charter, although there is provision for a Military Staff Committee. Any state can therefore ignore a Council ruling unless the UN’s case is taken up by a more powerful state or states. The strongest states, led by the US, carry out the UN’s bidding when it suits them, such as in the Gulf war.

Given an apparently open commitment they create their own agenda. For example, since the Gulf war the US and British governments have operated a no-fly restriction of the Iraq air force, often bombing daily, without any Security Council authority for their actions. That is the effect of a blanket injunction from the Security Council of  “all necessary means.”

In 1999 the US, Britain and France, reluctant to risk a UN Security Council veto over Kosovo, did not seek the support of a Security Council resolution. They attacked Yugoslavia claiming humanitarian necessity, supported by 16 other members of the NATO military alliance. As this was not authorised by a resolution of the Security Council it was invalid under NATO’s own charter of 50 years earlier. NATO’s original purpose had been to act against any state that attacked another member state; it had no out-of-area legitimacy. Its charter had also stated that it would only act if authorised by the United Nations. As usual, the two other permanent Security Council members, Russia and China, stood aside, unwilling to take their disagreement as far as military intervention.  

When the 19 NATO states took military action against Yugoslavia they broke a solemn agreement made by 33 European states, together with the US and Canada, never to breach another European country’s borders. The Helsinki Declaration of 1975 has been described as the most important ‘non treaty’ and has generally been honoured. There was no international organisation able to deal with those who had broken their solemn word. The UN had no teeth, they had been misappropriated by another body, NATO, on behalf of the “international community”.

There are a number of essential reforms of the UN Security Council which should be incorporated into its rules and terms of reference. These include:-

·         There should be no military action by any state, not immediately threatened, without a specific decision by the Council to implement its own decisions, or an equally specific decision to appoint a state or states to carry out approved actions. Such actions should be limited in time, renewable where needed. Adequate funding should be made available before action is taken The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) should be alerted before any military action is contemplated, and funds made available for its humanitarian operations.

·         There should be a time limit on Security Council operations so that if the Council delays its operations beyond a specific time or halts its actions, the General Assembly shall be entitled to take action

These proposals require the agreement of all five permanent members of the Council. The urgency should be understood by each of them, especially in view of the dangerous confrontation between India and Pakistan and the open agenda of the United States following September 11.

The author, Jim Addington, is Chair of Action for UN Renewal, a UK group which was formed by the merger last year of Renew UN and the Forum for UN Renewal. Among its aims is the conversion of the British government and parliamentarians to a proper respect and support for the United Nations.