9.5.2 A Rules-Based UN

A rules-based UN would be a legal system, in contrast to the political self-interest that characterises the present arrangements.

The UN system would have more credibility and legitimacy if it relied more on predefined law and less on politicians making tactical decisions to benefit their own countries.  It needs a clear separation of powers, similar to national law (5.2.8), which might be implemented as illustrated below:  

Although the comparison with the government of a country has been made here, it is important to note that rules-based international governance would be collaborative, not hierarchical.  It is therefore not the same as what a Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on “World Government” argued against on grounds of feasibility, desirability and necessity.  Stronger rules would have to emerge slowly, as a succession of international agreements which would authorise collective action.  National governments would remain free to sign up to, adopt, or withdraw from, the agreements reached and they would need to adapt their legal systems to be complementary to the framework of international law (5.3.7).  National governments would empower the necessary institutions and control their composition, budgets and terms of reference. 

A rules-based UN requires substantial changes to the current system: 

●  The UN Security Council could continue to act as the executive under a separation of powers. As such it would be equivalent to the government of a country, but the legal system would be separate from it.  It needs to be more clearly representative of the world’s population. 

●  Vetoes are currently being misused.  They are the antithesis of inclusive negotiation and should only be applicable in a few tightly specified situations.  For example, none of the P5 countries could accept a Security Council Resolution which would threaten its own sovereignty – but they shouldn’t be allowed to block Resolutions applying to other countries. 

●  Security Council members who defy the UN should be accountable. Perhaps they should lose their seats for a period, say from 6 months to 5 years, depending upon the seriousness of the breach.  The International Court of Justice might be an appropriate body to determine the sentence.

●  More legislation is needed, to strengthen the legal framework ( It is suggested here that the UN Security Council could make requests for legislation as and when it can agree upon them.

●  The UN General Assembly could act as a legislature to make new laws, perhaps using voting rules which would allow countries’ votes to be partially weighted for population size.

●  Approved legislation would need to clarify the rules on aggression against other countries, and violations of “baseline” human rights, so that politicians know the rules before they commit crimes.

●  International courts ( are the appropriate bodies to decide whether the rules have been breached or not and agreeing whether proposed enforcement actions are appropriate. The International Criminal Court (ICC) was formed for that purpose, so supporting it is a priority.  There is also scope for increased use of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for arbitration on territorial disputes (7.3.1) and on cross-border legal issues (5.3.4). 

●  Any member of the UN Security Council should be able, without needing the agreement of other members, to refer cases to a court such as the existing ICC Prosecutor’s Office.

●  Decisions to prosecute should be based on legal considerations rather than political bargaining. The ICC can determine whether it needs to act or whether national courts can deal with an issue. 

●  As with other courts, if the case is proven the court would decide upon an appropriate sentence – which for an international court might mean authorising the punishment of individuals or, in some cases, military intervention.

●  As at present, the UN Security Council would need to decide what enforcement resources to use – e.g. Interpol, NATO, Russia, China, the African Union, or national forces.  It is also part of the Executive’s enforcement role to agree measures for crime prevention.

This proposal differs from the current process mainly in that decisions to proceed on breaches of security would be taken by the ICC, not by the UN Security Council.  Enforcement of ICC decisions would be guaranteed, so that would-be law-breakers cannot try and play one Security Council member off against another – as Saddam Hussein did for so long (Tony Blair gave a history of Iraq’s game of cat and mouse with the UN at the start of his speech [columns 761-763] in the Parliamentary debate on the decision to invade Iraq, on 18 March 2003).

This revised framework of international law would need slightly increased funding, which would have to be negotiated with all the countries concerned, but this would be more than offset by savings in national defence budgets.  It might also be desirable to reimburse the enforcers for the costs they incur, which would further increase the required funding, but that would enable costs to be shared more equitably than at present.

The reforms listed above could only be implemented if and when the existing serious conflicts between the P5 are resolved – as described next (9.5.3). 



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/952b.htm.