7.4.4 UN Failure to Protect

Disagreements on the Security Council, as shown in vetoes, have resulted in a UN failure to protect countries which are attacked.

The political impact of those disagreements was referred to earlier as UN impotence (  The practical consequences of this are that countries have to rely on their own defence forces to protect themselves.

Article 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, often Security Council members, exercising realpolitik (  It has been ignored, been swept aside, has failed to act when necessary and has been prevented from acting by vetoes in the Security Council.

Its structure makes it ineffective when one or more of the permanent five members of the Security Council – America, Britain, China, France and Russia: the P5 – exercise their vetoes.  Any of the P5 can therefore act with impunity.  America and Russia in particular have pursued their own interests without regard to the principles of international law, and have rendered the UN powerless.  They have both committed serious breaches of international law: 

●  As described in the next chapter (8), America’s invasion of Iraq, with British help, was carried out despite the vetoes of France and Germany, and with the catastrophic effects described below (

●  Russia annexed Crimea (7.3.5) and then invaded Ukraine. It committed war crimes while doing so.

The Security Council has sometimes failed to act, as in the example of the Iraq-Iran war in 1980:

●  Iraq attacked Iran over a border dispute (7.3.1), but the Security Council members allowed the war to run its course for more than six years before approving Resolution 598 on 20 July 1987.

●  The Americans, French and Russians were supplying arms to the combatants until they feared for their own security, according to an Iran Chamber Society report Iran-Iraq War 1980-1988.

●  It is alleged that the U.S. gave Iraq a “green light” to invade Iran, having become hostile to the latter, as described in an article Becoming Enemies: U.S.-Iran Relations During the Iran-Iraq War‘.

●  It then openly supported Iraq, whilst secretly supplying arms to Iran, until the ‘Iran-Contra’ scandal surfaced in November 2006 – as described in a retrospective summary, The Iran-Contra Affair 20 Years On.

Even when the UN has authorised a peace-keeping operation it doesn’t always have enough power to prevent a determined force of aggression.  It is not prepared to take losses, so it can be pushed aside.  The Dutch UN peace-keepers couldn’t prevent the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia in 1995, for example, as recalled in a BBC article: Mladic extradition arouses Dutch memories of Srebrenica.  Lieutenant-General Rupert Smith, who commanded a United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in 1995, described the orders that he received from the UN and the constraints placed upon the force’s effectiveness, in 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.” [chapter 9, page 359]

Security Council vetoes have enabled the P5 to prevent the UN from acting:

●  America used its veto to enable Israel to build settlements, for example, as reported in February 2011: Israeli settlements: US vetoes UNSC resolution. Israel has repeatedly been protected from censure.

●  Russia used its veto to protect the Syrian government, as reported by CNN: Russia casts latest UN veto, blocking probe on Syria chemical weapons. The Geneva Conventions forbid the use of chemical weapons, but only the Security Council can take action against State-sponsored breaches (3.6.3).

Every country, seeing the UN failure to protect the victims of attack, relies on Self-Protection – using its own defence forces.  Iran’s attitude is a good example:

●  It 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.

●  Iran could also see that North Korea, despite being widely condemned, had made itself invulnerable to attack by having developed nuclear weapons – as described in an Economist article, North Korea: How to deal with the world’s most dangerous regime.

Having a nuclear weapons programme was therefore logical from Iran’s perspective – having experienced U.S. intervention in its affairs in 1953 (, 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 (

The weaknesses in the UN’s record on maintaining international security have undermined its credibility, so future breaches become more likely.    Every time the UN is bypassed or defied there is less confidence its ability to keep the peace.  And the behaviour of America and Russia constitutes an existential threat to the entire system of international peacekeeping.


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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/edition04/744b.htm.