Petr Mach: The UN will inevitably continue to fail
published: 10.09.2004, read: 20193×
The war in Iraq revealed the weaknesses of the UN, which in the eyes of many is – or should be – the source of legitimacy of international military actions. These weaknesses, however, are of such a fundamental nature that we must ask whether the organisation’s further existence in its current form has any sense, or whether it has any sense at all.
The out-of-date UN
The United Nations Organisation consists of 191 member countries. Many people regard the UN as an arbiter in international conflicts – its decisions are then seen as criteria of the legitimacy of their solutions. This understanding of legitimacy is based on a document called the Charter of the United Nations, signed in June 1945, i.e. just after the end of the World War II.
According to this interpretation, a violation of state sovereignty is legitimate if sanctioned by the UN. The UN body to which the Charter entrusts the power to decide whether a military action is "legitimate" is called the Security Council. The Charter of the United Nations confers – based on the outcomes of the World War II – a veto power on five countries (permanent members of the Security Council). In this perspective, any war to which China, France, Russia (which maintained this position after the collapse of the Soviet Union), Great Britain, or the USA is opposed is considered illegitimate.
What is the basis for this privilege? Why should the veto power be in the hands of these countries, and not those of the remaining 186 member countries? The answer is obvious: Their right originates in the consent of the Charter signatories. And these signatures are based on the results of the World War II of which these countries were the winning powers.
However, today the situation is different, which is also reflected in the foreign policy of each country. A country feeling that its real power exceeds that conveyed on it by the UN wants to circumvent the organisation (such as the U.S.). On the other hand, a country that thinks that its real power is smaller than the one it exercises in the UN will defend the status quo and insist that the UN alone is entitled to solve international conflicts (such as France). This divergence between the real power and the one originally defined by the Charter of the United Nations is growing over time. In particular, the French veto may - 58 years after the World War II – appear as inappropriate. Today, France is a country of a relatively small geopolitical importance and its global impact and ability to promote its interests are likely to diminish even further.
Problems of international law
Apart from the anachronistic distribution of power within the UN, there is another, more serious argument against the interpretation of UN as an international arbiter.
The notions of legitimacy and law, clearly definable in the context of individual action under a state jurisdiction, cannot be defined in that of the action of states. Unlike UN, the state has the ability to enforce its legal provisions. Without the ability to enforce legal acts, the notions of legitimacy and law cannot be defined.
The term jurisdiction refers to the range of authority of a legal system having the power to enforce its laws. The basic attributes of a jurisdiction are: the interpretation of justice, its enforcement by the authority, and a system of defence against external threats. The state is a jurisdiction, since it has a government, courts, police, and armed forces. The UN is not a jurisdiction, since it lacks all these attributes (and there are many arguments proving that it is better if no such a global – monopolistic – jurisdiction exists; which, however, this article does not discuss).
In inter-jurisdictional conflicts, therefore, there is no last resort to refer to, which means that such conflicts must be solved either by diplomacy or war.
In any case, the mandate of the existing UN is illusive, since the UN itself has no real power and its decisions always result from diplomacy or the threat of using the right of the strong hand. Thus, the superpowers may use the UN to disguise their actions by the appearance of legitimacy.
For all the above reasons, any attempt to put the UN – or any other international organisation – into the role of an international arbiter will inevitably continue to fail.
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