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The UN deformed

August 11, 2012

THE UN General Assembly’s resolution on Syria, on Aug 3, vividly reveals that the world body has come to a sorry pass.

The US and the UK, both permanent members of the Security Council, had no qualms about sponsoring a resolution “deploring the failure of the Security Council to agree with measures to ensure the compliance of Syrian authorities with its decisions”; a failure for which they themselves are responsible.

Such censure is unprecedented. The resolution is based on false claims; it is brazenly one-sided and is illegal in its usurpation of the Council’s function. The plea that it does not call for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad is untrue. The resolution “welcomes the relevant decisions of the League of Arab States including its resolution of 22 July, 2012” which call for just that. Iraq and Libya have taught us that seemingly innocuous UN resolutions can be cloaks to cover planned regime change.

The plea that it does not call for enforcement measures is just as untrue. In four places the resolution uses the word ‘demands’, which the Assembly has no right to use. That is a right reserved for the Security Council, and then only when it takes binding decisions under Chapter VII of the UN Charter on action with respect to threats to or breaches of the peace. When it acts under Chapter VI, on “pacific settlement of disputes”, it can do no more than make “recommendations”. A good example of the former was the Council’s resolution of Sept 20, 1965, imposing a ceasefire in the Indo-Pak war. The General Assembly’s “recommendations”, however worded, are not binding.

Apart from a formal condemnation of “all violence, irrespective of where it comes from, including terrorist acts”, the resolution censures the Syrian government alone throughout. The UN Charter has an overriding provision in Article 2(7): “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorise the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.” Flouting this, the resolution “welcomes, in this regard, the Syrian Opposition Conference held under the auspices of the League of Arab States in Cairo on 3 July, 2012, as part of the efforts of the League of Arab States to engage the whole spectrum of the Syrian opposition, and encourages greater cohesion among the opposition” — UN instigation to revolt against a member state.

The document reflects American dominance in the global order today. Chafing at the Soviet veto in the Security Council, it tried two devices to bypass it through the Assembly where it enjoyed a free run. The first device was the Interim Committee of the General Assembly set up by a resolution on Nov 13, 1947. That came to nothing, but the second worked. During the Korean War, the Uniting for Peace Resolution passed the Assembly on Nov 2, 1950, by 52 votes in favour, five against, and two abstentions. The Assembly was empowered to meet within 24 hours “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”. The Assembly shall thereupon “make appropriate recommendations to members for collective measures” that can include, in cases of a breach of the peace, “the use of armed force when necessary”.

The International Court of Justice upheld its legality in an advisory opinion on Certain Expenses of the UN, on July 20, 1962, by a 9-5 majority. It concerned members’ contributions for peace-keeping operations. The court ruled that the Assembly can make a non-binding recommendation for coercive measures but only the Council can take binding decisions. Members acquiesced in the expansion of the Assembly’s powers. The law and practice were discussed very ably by Z.A. Bhutto in his book Peace-Keeping by the United Nations, published in Karachi in 1967. He rightly opined that “where an act of aggression or breach of the peace is to be suppressed, the lack of a decision by the Security Council becomes conclusive.”

Expansion of the UN’s membership and self-assertion on part of the Third World induced second thoughts in the US. It was very angry at the Assembly’s resolution of March 10, 1975, declaring Zionism as “a form of racism and racial discrimination”. In 1991, it got the resolution repealed.

In his memoirs, Politics of Diplomacy, former US secretary of state James A. Baker III candidly explains the change. “As communism collapsed America’s status as the pre-eminent superpower was magnified. As a result everyone wanted to get closer to the United States. This gave us formidable leverage, which we did not hesitate to wield throughout the (Kuwait) crisis”. This is the grim reality which smaller powers have to reckon with now.

Realists had noted the UN’s limitations even in the early years of euphoria. Britain published A Commentary on the Charter of the United Nations soon after it was signed on June 26, 1945. It said: “The successful working of the UN depends on the preservation of the unanimity of the great powers; not of course on all the details of policy, but on its broad principles. If the unanimity is seriously undermined no provision of the charter is likely to be of much avail. In such a case the members will resume their liberty of action. … It is of course true that the General Assembly cannot take action in the sphere of security.”

The US used its majority in the Assembly to fight the Cold War. In 1947 Walter Lippmann exposed this in a devastating critique of George F. Kennan’s doctrine of containment. “It would take us to the destruction of the UN. … (it) cannot deal with disputes that involve the balance of power in the world”. Either the UN will become irrelevant “or it will be transformed into an anti-Soviet coalition. In either event the UN will have been destroyed.”

The UN survived, but in a deformed form.

The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.