Reforming the United Nations


 The six principle organs of the United Nations, being a Security Council, a General Assembly, an Economic and Social Council, a Trusteeship Council, an International Court of Justice and a Secretariat,[3]

In this paper I shall be looking at the functions and powers of the Security Council, since this is perhaps the most important organ of the United Nations, with the five permanent members of the Council each having veto power that can block almost any decision that can be made by the United Nations.

Functions and powers of the Security Council

Article 7 of the Charter establishes the existence of the Security Council as one of the six principal organs of the United Nations.[5]

In the articles 24 to 26 the functions and powers of the Security Council are described. Article 24 states that the Security Council is primarily responsible for the maintenance of international peace and security, article 25 tells the Members of the United Nations to accept the decisions of the Council and to carry out their decisions in accordance with the present chapter, and in article 26 the Council is held responsible for formulating plans for the establishment of a system for the regulation of armaments.[7] As you can see, the five permanent members of the council are granted implicit veto powers in this article.

The Charter of the United Nations, in Article 2.4, explicitly prohibits Member States from using or threatening force against each other, allowing only two exceptions: self-defence
under Article 51, and military measures authorized by the Security Council under Chapter VII (and by extension for regional organizations under Chapter VIII) in response to ‘any threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression’.

Clearly this article legalizes the use of force by the United Nations, and the decision to use force is put in the hands of the Security Council.

To pose as a serious player on the world’s stage as an international organization capable of taking action when a situation requires to do so, the legitimized use of force is of course of the utmost importance. But money and political will need to be added as ingredients to make the United Nations actually work. The Charter by itself is not enough to make the work of the UN a success, as we have seen over the past sixty years. What went wrong?

Challenges for the United Nations

In the past sixty years the United Nations has been challenged many times by war, humanitarian crises, terrorist attacks and other disasters, most of them man-made. Having established what the UN (and the Security Council as one of its principal organs) is supposed to do, the next questions are: Is it doing it? And if not, why and what must be done to return the UN to first principles? What means are available for accomplishing this goal and what is the best option?[11]

A second problem in maintaining international peace and security is the threat of terrorism. Over 9000 terrorist attacks took place worldwide before 9/11.[13]

As for advancing social progress, individual freedom, and the rule of law and improving living standards, a majority of UN members reportedly are not politically free.[15]

And there are numbers to back this up: From 1918 to 1945 about 37% of crises ended in full-scale war. From 1946 to 2001, about 16% of crises ended in full-scale war. The United Nations contributed to the peaceful abatement of about 81 of 325. When conflicts have erupted, the UN contributed to the resolution of 55% of conflicts.[17]

And it didn’t take long after the end of the Cold War before the UN had to take position in a new threat to international peace and security: when Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2 1990 Resolution 660 was immediately accepted, calling for an end to the ‘breach of international peace and security’ and deciding that an economic blockade was to be put up in order to get the Iraqis out of Kuwait.[19] Not much later the United States of America attacked Iraq, supported by the United Nations.

The Iraq-Kuwait case was a relatively easy one for the United Nations, and after the Cold War it seemed to reaffirm the important role the UN played. But even then it was clear that the USA was in charge really, and failed ‘interventions’ in for example Somalia, Rwanda, Srebrenica, and now perhaps Sudan clearly show that the UN lacks the power it has on paper. Like Kofi Annan said himself in 2000:The time has passed when the 15 council members can provide themselves with an alibi by passing peacekeeping resolutions that cannot be implemented. Some of them vote for and then refuse to contribute troops to a force.[21] All that happened was that the United States attacked Iraq even though there was no evidence of the lack of disarmament or (what the Americans were worried about) the existence of ‘weapons of mass destruction.’ Indeed, unfortunately there is a long list of UN failures, excuses and lessons to be learned.[23] Due to the veto power of the five permanent members there is a huge democratic deficit in the Council and in the UN as a whole. And this makes it harder to get the legitimacy of the UN recognized by peoples all over the world. [25]

The most direct method to change the UN is to amend the Charter. Chapter VIII of the Charter describes how this can be done:

Amendments to the present Charter shall come into force for all Members of the United Nations when they have been adopted by a vote of two thirds of the members of the General Assembly and ratified in accordance with their respective constitutional processes by two thirds of the Members of the United Nations, including all the permanent members of the Security Council.[27] And that brings us right in the middle of the other solution: changes within the existing framework.

The UN-installed ‘High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change’ has proposed two alternatives in 2004 to the current configuration of the Security Council. [29]

The real problem of course would still be the veto powers of the five original Permanent Members. You might even argue that adding more seats to the Council actually makes it harder to reach consensus, since more (different) opinions have to be taken into consideration.

The United Nations is about the people, but it’s not bound by them. The real problem of the United Nations is the lack of democratic accountability. You can put blame on Member States for not paying their dues, you can put blame on them for not sending troops when needed, but no one will kick those Member States out of the United Nations. Why not let the Security Council at least recommend that such states should be punished and say this is a procedural matter so the veto power does not come into play? You can defend this by stating that not following the rules of the Charter is so clearly in cases like these, that there is no political debate needed to warn the offenders. But warnings and reprimands are not enough. Real sanctions are needed for UN decisions to have effect, but those will always hinge on the willingness of the five permanent members. And that has nothing to do with flaws in the Charter or law in general, but with politics. Law always follows the political reality of the day. So if you really want to change the functions and/or the power(s) of the Security Council, you will need to change the political ideas that now rule the world.

The United Nations has done good things, especially on semi non-political issues such as helping out in Health- and Development issues, and it has done bad things by not doing anything in many cases as well, such as not acting when needed in Rwanda). But in the end, for now, the United Nations is all we have. And I’m glad we have it.

‘We need to carry each other, carry each other…’
            U2 – ‘One’


Kirsten Verdel
February 2005  (February 16, 2005).  (February 15, 2005).  (February 15, 2005).  (February 15, 2005).  (February 15, 2005).  (February 7, 2005).  (February 7, 2005)., blz. 75  (February 7, 2005).  (February 9, 2005).  (February 14, 2005).
[13] [14] Freedom House (2004) Freedom in the World 2004: The Annual Survey of Political Rights and Civil Liberties, Rowman & LIttlefield Publishers, Inc.  , p. 62
[17] Security Council Resolutions Adopted under Chapter VII, UN Department of Political Affairs Database, updated October 2004  (February 9, 2005)  (February 9, 2005)  (February 14, 2005)  (February 16, 2005)  (February 16, 2005)  (February 10, 2005).  (February 11, 2005)  (February 7, 2005).  (February 9, 2005).

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