Although, according to the UN Charter, the United Nations was established to “maintain international peace and security,” it has often fallen short of this goal. Russia’s ongoing military invasion of Ukraine and the more recent Israeli-Palestinian war in Gaza provide the latest examples of the world organization’s frequent paralysis in the face of violent international conflict.
The hobbling of the Security Council, the UN agency tasked with enforcing international peace and security, bears the lion’s share of the responsibility for this weakness. Under the rules set forth by the UN Charter, each permanent member of the Security Council has the power to veto Security Council resolutions. And these members have used the veto, thereby blocking UN action.
This built-in weakness was inherited from the UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations. In that body, a unanimous vote by all member nations was required for League action. Such unanimity of course, proved nearly impossible to attain, and this fact largely explains the League’s failure and eventual collapse.
The creators of the United Nations, aware of this problem when drafting the new organization’s Charter in 1944-45, limited the number of nations that could veto Security Council resolutions to the five major military powers of the era―the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, China, and France.
Other nations went along with this arrangement because these “great powers” insisted that, without this acceptance of their primacy, they would not support the establishment of the new world organization. The Charter’s only restriction on their use of the veto was a provision that it could not be cast by a party to a dispute―a provision largely ignored after 1952. Fortifying the privileged position of these five permanent Security Council members, the Charter also provided that any change in their status required their approval.
In this fashion, the great powers of the era locked in the ability of any one of them to block a UN Security Council resolution that it opposed.
Not surprisingly, they availed themselves of this privilege. By May 2022, Russia (which took the seat previously held by the Soviet Union), had cast its veto in the Security Council on 121 occasions. The United States cast 82 vetoes, Britain 29, China 17, and France 16.
As the Council’s paralysis became apparent, proponents of UN action gravitated toward the UN General Assembly. This UN entity expanded substantially after 1945 as newly-independent countries joined the United Nations. Moreover, no veto blocked passage of its resolutions. Therefore, the General Assembly could serve not only as a voice for the world’s nations, but as an alternative source of power.
The first sign of a shift in power from the Security Council to the General Assembly emerged with the General Assembly’s approval of Resolution 377A: “Uniting for Peace.” The catalyst was the Soviet Union’s use of its veto to block the Security Council from authorizing continued military action to end the Korean War. Uniting for Peace, adopted on November 3, 1950 by an overwhelming vote in the General Assembly, stated that, “if the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security . . . the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately with a view to making appropriate recommendations to members for collective measures.” To facilitate rapid action, the resolution created the mechanism of the emergency special session.
Between 1951 and 2022, the United Nations drew upon the Uniting for Peace resolution on thirteen occasions, with eleven cases taking the form of the emergency special session. In addition to dealing with the Korean War, Uniting for Peace resolutions addressed the Suez confrontation, as well as crises in Hungary, Congo, Afghanistan, Palestine, Namibia, and Ukraine. Although, under the umbrella of Uniting for Peace, the General Assembly could have recommended “armed force when necessary” against violators of international peace and security,the Assembly adopted that approach only during the Korean War. On the other occasions, it limited itself to calls for peaceful resolution of international conflict and the imposition of sanctions against aggressors.
These developments had mixed results. In 1956, during the Suez crisis, shortly after the General Assembly held a Uniting for Peace session calling for British and French withdrawal from the canal zone, both countries complied. By contrast, in 1980, when a Uniting for Peace session called for an end to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Moscow ignored the UN demand. It could do so thanks to the fact that General Assembly resolutions are mere recommendations and, as such, are not legally binding.
Even so, global crises in recent years have heightened pressure to provide the United Nations with the ability to take effective action. In April 2022, shortly after the Russian government vetoed a Security Council resolution calling for Russia’s unconditional withdrawal from Ukraine, the General Assembly voted that, henceforth a Security Council veto would automatically trigger a meeting of the Assembly within ten days of the action to cope with the situation.
Meanwhile, numerous nations have been working to restrict the veto in specific situations. In July 2015, the UN Accountability, Coherence, and Transparency Group proposed a Code of Conduct against “genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes” that called upon all Security Council members to avoid voting to reject any credible draft resolution intended to prevent or halt mass atrocities. By 2022, the Code had been signed by 121 member nations. France and Mexico have taken the lead in proposing the renunciation of the veto in these situations.
These reform initiatives are likely to be addressed at the September 2024 UN Summit of the Future.
Clearly, as the history of the United Nations demonstrates, if the world organization is to maintain international peace and security, it must be freed from its current constraints.
This article was originally published in PeaceVoice.