7.4.4 UN Shortfalls

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 that have decided that they are strong enough to use Ungoverned Power.  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.

It was 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 – as described earlier (  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.  The Dutch UN peace-keepers couldn’t prevent the Srebrenitsa massacre in Bosnia in 1995, for example, as recalled in a BBC article: Mladic extradition arouses Dutch memories of Srebrenica.  Rupert Smith, who commanded the 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]

In some cases the Security Council has simply failed to act.  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.  They were pursuing their national interests, according to an Iran Chamber Society report, Iran-Iraq War 1980-1988:

  • “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]
  • 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.
  • The French and Russians had been supplying arms to Iraq.

These Security Council members put their own interests before their duty to keep the peace.

It is alleged that America 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. The American Administration 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.

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 by CNN: Russia casts latest UN veto, blocking probe on Syria chemical weapons.

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’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 must therefore appear to be logical when viewed from Iran’s perspective – having experienced US 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.  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 its legitimacy.


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This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3a book, © PatternsofPower.org, 2020.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/744a.htm