Can the UN stop a war? 5 of your questions answered
The current war in Ukraine, following the Russian invasion, has sparked all sorts of questions about the United Nations, particularly the role of the Security Council, the General Assembly and the Secretary-General.
Here at UN News, we’ve taken a deep dive into the UN Charter to try and give you the answers you might be looking for.
Can the Security Council stop a war?
Well, first let us review its mission.
The functions and powers of the Security Council are set out in the UN Charter, the Organization's founding document. It was signed on 26 June 1945, in San Francisco, at the conclusion of the United Nations Conference on International Organizations and came into force on 24 October 1945.
The Security Council, made up of 15 members – five permanent seats belong to China, France, Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States, with 10 non-permanent seats that rotate by election among other UN member countries – is the body that was granted the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. It takes the lead in determining the existence of a threat to the peace, breach of the peace or an act of aggression.
What you might not know is that before 1965, the Security Council was composed of 11 members, six of which were non-permanent. The expansion to 15 members occurred after the amendment of Article 23(1) of the Charter through the adoption of a UN General Assembly resolution (A/RES/1991(XVIII)).
Although there are still some 60 UN Member States that have never sat on the Security Council, all members of the UN, however, agree under Article 25 of the Charter, to accept and carry out decisions adopted by the Council. In other words, actions taken by the Council are binding on all UN member countries.
When dealing with crises, the Council, guided by the UN Charter, the Security Council can take several steps.
Acting under Chapter VI of the Charter, the Council can call upon parties to a dispute to settle it by peaceful means and recommend methods of adjustment or terms of settlement. It can also recommend the referral of disputes to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which is widely known as the ‘World Court’ and is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, seated at The Hague in the Netherlands.
In some cases, the Security Council may act under Chapter VII of the Charter and resort to imposing sanctions or can even authorize, as a last resort, when peaceful means of settling a dispute are exhausted, the use of force, by Member States, coalitions of Member States or UN-authorized peace operations to maintain or restore international peace and security.
Importantly, the action required to carry out the decisions of the Security Council for the maintenance of international peace and security shall be taken by all the Members of the United Nations or by some of them, as the Security Council may determine pursuant to Chapter VII.
The first time the Council authorized the use of force was in 1950 under what was referred to as a military enforcement action, to secure the withdrawal of North Korean forces from the Republic of Korea.
What is the ‘veto power’ and how can it be used?
When deciding on “procedural matters”, nine members need to vote in favour for a decision to be adopted. On all other matters an affirmative vote of nine members “including the concurring votes of the permanent members” is necessary.
In other words, a negative vote by any of the permanent five (China, France, Russian Federation, the United Kingdom or the United States) can prevent the adoption by the Council of any draft resolution relating to substantive matters.
Since 1946, all five permanent members – widely referred to as the ‘P5’ – have exercised the right of veto at one time or another on a variety of issues. To date, approximately 49 per cent of the vetoes had been cast by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and thereafter the Russian Federation (the membership of the USSR in the United Nations, including in the Security Council, was continued by the Russian Federation), 29 per cent by the United States, 10 per cent by the United Kingdom, and six per cent each by China and France.
Find more information here about vetoes in the Security Councils since 1946.
Can the General Assembly step in when the Security Council is unable to take a decision on stopping a war?
According to the General Assembly’s 1950 resolution 377A (V), widely known as ‘Uniting for Peace’, if the Security Council is unable to act because of the lack of unanimity among its five veto-wielding permanent members, the Assembly has the power to make recommendations to the wider UN membership for collective measures to maintain or restore international peace and security.
For instance, most frequently, the Security Council determines when and where a UN peace operation should be deployed, but historically, when the Council has been unable to take a decision, the General Assembly has done so. For example, in 1956, the General Assembly established the First UN Emergency Force (UNEF I) in the Middle East.
In addition, the General Assembly may meet in Emergency Special Session if requested by nine members of the Security Council or by a majority of the Members of the Assembly.
To date, the General Assembly has held 11 Emergency Special Sessions (8 of which have been requested by the Security Council).
Most recently, on 27 February 2022, the Security Council, taking into account that the lack of unanimity of its permanent members had prevented it from exercising its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, decided to call an Emergency Special Session of the General Assembly in its resolution 2623 (2022).
As a result, on 1 March 2022, the General Assembly, meeting in emergency session, adopted a resolution by which it deplored “the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine in violation of Article 2 (4) of the Charter and demanded that the Russian Federation immediately cease its use of force against Ukraine and completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.
However, unlike Security Council resolutions, General Assembly resolutions are non-binding, meaning that countries are not obligated to implement them.
Update: On 26 April, amid growing criticism of lack of action by the Security Council to stop the war in Ukraine, the General Assembly adopted by consensus a landmark resolution requiring the five permanent members of the Council to justify their use of the veto.
The move was greeted by a round of applause, and the resolution calls for Assembly members to meet ‘within 10 working days of the casting of a veto by one or more permanent members of the Security Council, to hold a debate on the situation as to which the veto was cast’.
Entitled “Standing mandate for a General Assembly debate when a veto is cast in the Security Council”, the text had been in the works for two years. It was tabled by Lichtenstein, and co-sponsored by 83 countries, including three permanent Council members – France, United Kingdom and the United States.
Can a country’s membership in the UN be revoked?
Article 6 of the Charter reads as follows:
A Member of the United Nations which has persistently violated the principles contained in the present Charter may be expelled from the Organization by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.
This has never happened in the history of the United Nations.
Article 5 provides for the suspension of a Member State:
A Member of the United Nations against which preventive or enforcement action has been taken by the Security Council may be suspended from the exercise of the rights and privileges of membership by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council. The exercise of these rights and privileges may be restored by the Security Council.
The suspension or expulsion of a Member State from the Organization is effected by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Council. Such a recommendation requires the concurring vote of the Security Council’s permanent members.
The UN has, however, taken steps against certain countries to end major injustices. One example is the case of South Africa and the world body’s contribution to the global struggle against apartheid, by drawing world attention to the inhumanity of the system, legitimizing popular resistance, promoting anti-apartheid actions by governmental and non-governmental organizations, instituting an arms embargo, and supporting an oil embargo and boycotts of apartheid in many fields.
Along the road to ending apartheid, the Security Council, in 1963, instituted a voluntary arms embargo against South Africa, and the General Assembly refused to accept the country’s credentials from 1970 to 1974. Following this ban, South Africa did not participate in further proceedings of the Assembly until the end of apartheid in 1994.
What are the Secretary-General’s ‘good offices’?
The role of the Secretary-General as an important peace-making actor has evolved through extensive practice. The range of activities carried out by the Secretary-General has included good offices, mediation, facilitation, dialogue processes and even arbitration.
One of the most vital roles played by the Secretary-General is the use of his (thus far in the Organization’s 75-year history, all nine Secretaries-General have been men) ‘good offices’ – steps taken publicly and in private, drawing upon their independence, impartiality and integrity, and the power of quiet diplomacy, to prevent international disputes from arising, escalating or spreading.
In practice, this means a UN chief can use his authority, legitimacy and the diplomatic expertise of his senior team to meet with Heads of State and other officials and negotiate an end to disputes between parties in conflict
At the end of March, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres invoked the use of his good offices and asked Under Secretary-General Martin Griffiths, the UN emergency relief coordinator, to explore the possibility of a humanitarian cease-fire with Russia and Ukraine, and other countries seeking to find a peaceful solution to the war.