7.4.4 UN Shortfalls

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/744.htm)

Article 1, paragraph 1 of the UN charter declares that one of its purposes is:

“To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace”.

Since the UN was founded, though, there have been numerous breaches of the peace where it was unable to fulfil its purpose; it has been side-lined by countries that have decided that they are strong enough to use Ungoverned Power.  Its failures to act are classified here into four types:

  • The UN has simply been ignored by powerful countries on some occasions. Russia had promised to veto any UN authorisation of the use of force in Kosovo, but NATO proceeded to intervene.[1]  A country is permitted to protect itself against attack, but there is no legal mandate for a country to protect people in other countries without an explicit UN Security Council Resolution – even though the intervention appeared to be morally right.
  • Even when the UN has authorised a peace-keeping operation it doesn’t always have enough power to prevent a determined force of aggression, and it is not prepared to take losses, so it can be pushed aside.[2] The Dutch UN peace-keepers couldn’t prevent the Srebrenitsa massacre In Bosnia in 1995 for example.[3]
  • In some cases the Security Council has failed to make a Resolution to take action. For example, when Iraq attacked Iran in 1980 over a border dispute (7.3.1), the Security Council members allowed the war to run its course for more than six years before approving Resolution 598 on 20 July 1987.[4] The French and Russians were supplying arms to Iraq.[5]  The Americans also supported Iraq, [6] whilst secretly supplying arms to Iran (until the ‘Iran-Contra’ scandal surfaced in November 2006).[7]  These Security Council members put their own interests before their duty to keep the peace.
  • Security Council vetoes have enabled the permanent members to defy the rest of the world and prevent the UN from acting. America used its power to enable Israel to build settlements, for example, as reported in February 2011: Israeli settlements: US vetoes UNSC resolution.  Russia used its veto to protect the Syrian government, as reported on 18 November 2017 by CNN: Russia casts latest UN veto, blocking probe on Syria chemical weapons.

These weaknesses in the UN’s record on maintaining international security have undermined its credibility, so future breaches become more likely.  Russia cited the intervention in Kosovo when invading South Ossetia ( for example.  Every time the UN is bypassed or defied there is less confidence its ability to keep the peace.  And when the Security Council members are flagrantly ignoring their responsibilities they are undermining the legitimacy of the UN.

No country has yet felt able to entrust its security solely to the UN, so every country relies on Self-Protection – using its own defence forces.  Iran was entitled to expect the support of the UN in preventing the invasion by Iraq, but that support was not forthcoming so Iran could see that it had to be able to protect itself against hostile neighbours.  Since 2006 it has been able to see that  North Korea, despite being widely condemned, had made itself invulnerable to attack by virtue of having developed nuclear weapons in defiance of international condemnation.[8]   Having a nuclear weapons programme must therefore appear to be logical when viewed from Iran’s perspective – having experienced US intervention in its affairs in 1953 (7.3.4), the lack of UN response to the attack by Iraq, and George W Bush’s open declaration of hostility in the ‘axis of evil’ speech (  Other countries might observe Iran’s plight and make similar decisions, so the lack of trust in the UN’s ability to keep the peace makes nuclear proliferation more likely and the world as a whole consequently less safe.[9]

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014



[1] Madeleine Albright, who was the US Secretary of State at the time of the Kosovo intervention and who argued strongly for it on moral grounds, described the circumstances and arguments which led to the decision in her book The Mighty & the Almighty (pp.  59-60).

[2] The UN described the role of its protection force in a website posting entitled Former Yugoslavia – UNPROFOR, which was available in April 2018 at http://www.un.org/Depts/DPKO/Missions/unprof_p.htm.

Rupert Smith, who was in charge of UNPROFOR in 1995, described the orders that he received from the UN, and the consequent constraints upon the force’s effectiveness, in chapter 9 of his book The Utility of Force.  He concluded:

“If you stand in the middle of someone else’s fight you must expect to be pushed around; and if you do intervene, decide if you are fighting one or all of the sides and get on with it – and be prepared to risk the forces allocated to achieve the object.”  (p.  359).

[3] The BBC published an article on 31 May 2011, entitled Mladic extradition arouses Dutch memories of Srebrenica, which described the circumstances of the Dutch UN force’s failure to protect the Muslims from the Serbs; the article was available in April 2018 at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-13610669.

[4] The text of UN Resolution 598, which was signed on 20 July 1987 to stop the war between Iraq and Iran, was available in April 2018 at http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/3b00f20e64.html.

The Resolution to bring it to an end was proposed by America, which had been directly affected by the Iraqi missile attack on the USS Stark on 17 May, 1987 – though its motivation was attributed by the Iranians to other factors:

“By late spring of 1987, the superpowers became more directly involved because they feared that the fall of Basra might lead to a pro-Iranian Islamic republic in largely Shia-populated southern Iraq.  They were also concerned about the intensified tanker war.” (p.  3)

This quotation, and the information about French and Russian arms sales, came from an Iran Chamber Society report on the war, which was available in April 2018 at http://www.iranchamber.com/history/iran_iraq_war/iran_iraq_war1.php.

[5] The French and Russians both provided Iraq with weapons during the conflict, according to the Iran Chamber Society report quoted above.

[6] It is alleged that America gave Iraq a “green light” to invade Iran, having become hostile to the latter – as described in an article entitled Becoming Enemies: U.S.-Iran Relations During the Iran-Iraq War, which was available in April 2018 at http://www.brookings.edu/events/2012/09/24-becoming-enemies-us-iran.

The American Administration then openly supported Iraq, helping “to deflect Iraq’s responsibility for the gas attack [on Halabja]” for example, as described by Joost R.  Hiltermann in his book A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja, an excerpt of which was available in April 2018 at http://assets.cambridge.org/97805218/76865/excerpt/9780521876865_excerpt.pdf.

[7] The American Administration’s arms sales to Iran were in contravention of a Congress ruling which prohibited them; the proceeds were used to support the Contra rebels in Nicaragua despite “the long-standing policy against dealing with terrorists”.  This was exposed in 1986 in a scandal known as the ‘Iran-Contra’ affair.  On 24 November 2006 the George Washington University National Security Archive published a retrospective summary, The Iran-Contra Affair 20 Years On, which was available in April 2018 at http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB210/index.htm.

[8] North Korea’s first successful test of a nuclear weapon was in October 2006 according to several sources, including a New York Times article dated 29 February 2012, entitled North Korea’s Nuclear Program, which was available in April 2018 at http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/international/countriesandterritories/northkorea/nuclear_program/index.html.

[9] Hans Blix, the former head of the UN weapons inspection team in Iraq, made the following point in his book Why Nuclear Disarmament Matters:

“..convincing states that they do not need weapons of mass destruction would be significantly easier if all U.N.  members practiced a genuine respect for the existing restraints on the threat and use of force.” (chap.  3, p.  49)