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Book IV Multilateral Diplomacy, Human Rights, and International Organizations, 18 The United Nations—I the Charter and its Operation

Emyr Jones Parry

From: Satow's Diplomatic Practice (7th Edition)

Edited By: Sir Ivor Roberts

From: Oxford Public International Law (http://opil.ouplaw.com). (c) Oxford University Press, 2023. All Rights Reserved. Subscriber: null; date: 08 June 2023

Consulates — Diplomatic relations — Since World War II — Territoriality — Governments

(p. 335) 18  The United Nations—I the Charter and its Operation

18.1  It would be idle to pretend that the UN is an uncontroversial body, though widespread ignorance of its workings and its complexity contribute to this. Some knowledge of its history facilitates understanding of the UN’s present situation.1 Its principal predecessor, the League of Nations, established in 1919, had been unsuccessful, failing to have any significant impact on the events leading to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. With the end of the (p. 336) Second World War the formation of the United Nations in 1945 replaced the League of Nations which bequeathed certain of its less political responsibilities to the new body.

18.2  The term ‘United Nations’ derives from the ‘Declaration by United Nations’ of 1 January 1942, in which the twenty-six nations then fighting against the German-Italian-Japanese Axis affirmed their resolve to cooperate in winning the war and their adherence to the Atlantic Charter. That Charter, proclaimed on 14 August 1941 by the President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the prime minister of the United Kingdom, Winston Churchill, looked forward to a peace affording to all peoples freedom and security from aggression.

18.3  Before any formal steps were taken internationally to set up a new world political and security organization, a conference in the name of the United Nations was held in May and June 1943 at Hot Springs, Virginia, USA, at the invitation of President Roosevelt. It was called under the title ‘United Nations Conference on Food and Agriculture’ and it was attended by representatives from forty-four countries. Its mandate was purely advisory, but the Conference led directly to the establishment in October 1945 of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

The Charter

18.4  The first formal international discussions with the objectives described in paragraph 18.2 were held at Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC, in the summer of 1944, between representatives of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union. They were followed by similar talks between the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Republic of China, represented by the Nationalist Chinese, which caused the Soviet government to refuse to participate in these preliminary meetings. Further discussions took place at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, attended by President Roosevelt, Marshal Stalin, and Prime Minister Churchill. Those talks resulted in a text of a draft Charter2 for presentation to the forthcoming United Nations Conference on International Organization which opened in San Francisco on 25 April 1945.3 Extensive argument also took place between the greater and smaller Powers over the Dumbarton (p. 337) Oaks proposals as modified at Yalta; some concessions were thereby achieved by the smaller Powers, but in the main the major Powers’ proposals stood. The Charter was signed on 26 June by representatives of all the fifty-one nations taking part in the Conference, except Poland, which signed on 15 October. The requisite number of ratifications having been received, the Charter went into force on 24 October 1945.


18.5  The names of the original membership of fifty-one are below.4 By 2016 there were 193 members and the list of current members will be found at <http://www.un.org/en/member-states/>.

18.6  Members are admitted under Article 4.1 of the Charter, which reads as follows:

Membership in the United Nations is open to all other peace-loving states [i.e. other than original members] which accept the obligations contained in the present Charter and, in the judgment of the Organisation, are able and willing to carry out these obligations.

Admission is effected by a decision of the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council. This means at least unanimous acquiescence by the permanent members. As the number of members has grown, so membership of States widely recognized as sovereign and applying pursuant to Article 4.1 has become more or less automatic. Hence the concept of universality of membership of the UN.

Principal Organs

18.7  The principal organs of the United Nations are:

  • The General Assembly

  • The Security Council

  • The Economic and Social Council

  • The Secretariat

  • The Trusteeship Council

  • The International Court of Justice.

(p. 338) The International Court of Justice is considered in Chapter 25. Comments on the operations of the other organs are given in the following paragraphs.

The General Assembly

18.8  The General Assembly is the only organ in which all members of the United Nations are directly represented. The Assembly is charged to discuss and make recommendations about any matter within the scope of the UN Charter. This has included the development of international law and its codification, as well as promoting international cooperation in the economic and social areas, and human rights. It also receives and notes reports from the Security Council and other bodies, and it is the Assembly which approves the budget of the organization. While the Assembly’s sphere of activity is thus as wide as the Charter itself, in essence, apart from household questions (budgets, elections, appointments, etc) and affirmations of corporate views (e.g. on racism), it is a recommending and not a deciding body. Under Article 11.1 the General Assembly

may consider the general principles of cooperation in the maintenance of international peace and security, including the principles governing disarmament and the regulation of armaments, and may make recommendations with regard to such principles to the Members or to the Security Council or to both.

But even this broad function is circumscribed by Article 12.1, which lays down that:

[w]hile the Security Council is exercising in respect of any dispute or situation the functions assigned to it in the present Charter, the General Assembly shall not make any recommendation with regard to that dispute or situation unless the Security Council so requests.

However, this limitation,5 intended in the main to avoid confusion, has not been difficult to circumvent by procedural devices.

18.9  The preceding paragraph has placed necessary emphasis on the limitations imposed by the Charter on the General Assembly in the matter of taking decisions. The corollary is that if the Assembly discusses and adopts a resolution which it is known in advance will be unacceptable to the Security Council then there will be no prospect of the Council, as the competent organ, authorizing action on the basis of that resolution. But there can nevertheless be a significant political impact by the passage by a large majority in the Assembly of resolutions on a major or highly topical matter.

(p. 339) 18.10  The Assembly is bound by the ‘non-intervention’ section of the Charter. Article 2.7 reads:

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 or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter; but this principle shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter VII.6


18.11  The Charter provides (Article 20) that the Assembly shall meet in regular annual sessions and in ‘such special sessions as occasion may require’. Such sessions can be convoked at the request of the Security Council or by a majority of members. In practice a session of the General Assembly now begins at United Nations Headquarters in New York each September, beginning with a ministerial element starting on the third Tuesday of the month. The Assembly remains in session until the next session opens a year later, thus making redundant the provisions of the ‘Uniting for Peace’ resolution (1950) which had made specific provision for meetings at short notice.7

Structure of the General Assembly

Main Committees

18.12  The final authority within the General Assembly is the Plenary Meeting which can be called at any time during a session. At the next level the Assembly has set up six main committees on which each member country may be represented by one person. (No limit beyond that of space is placed on the number of advisers present.) The committees are:

  • First Committee: Disarmament and International Security

  • Second Committee: Economic and Financial

  • Third Committee: Social, Humanitarian and Cultural

  • Fourth Committee: Special Political and Decolonization

  • Fifth Committee: Administrative and Budgetary

  • Sixth Committee: Legal.

Procedural Committees

(p. 340) 18.13  These are two in number.

The General Committee. This Committee consists of twenty-eight members, namely the President of the Assembly, who presides, and the twenty-one vice-presidents, together with the chairmen of the six main committees.8 It occupies a position in the structure which gives it some influence, since it assists the President of the Assembly over the arrangement of the agenda, including additional items presented for admission over and above those originally accepted.9 It can also in theory tender general advice to the President on the handling of the sessions: in practice, its advice covers procedural issues rather than political questions.

18.14  The Credentials Committee. This is a committee of nine members, appointed at the beginning of each session by the General Assembly on the proposal of the President. It examines the credentials presented by the leaders of the delegations to the particular session and reports on them to the Assembly. It has a particular responsibility to report in those cases where the admission of a delegation has been challenged.

18.15  In such cases the function of the committee may no longer be routine. For instance, a question of accreditation can arise if, during a civil war, both sides seek to send delegations to United Nations headquarters. This happened in the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the question overhung for many years the membership of China.10 Questions of official acceptability have arisen also when international opinion has moved very strongly against a member country, as it did when pressure developed for exclusion of South Africa from the United Nations.11

Standing Committees

18.16  This title is applied to two committees only, the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) and the Committee on Contributions. The former has its origin in the Advisory Group of Experts whose quiet, expert work at the San Francisco Conference subsequently laid the (p. 341) foundation for a rational structure for the United Nations. It examines and reports on the regular and peacekeeping budgets and the accounts of the United Nations and the administrative budget of the Specialized Agencies and advises the General Assembly on other administrative and financial matters referred to it. In the selection of the sixteen members of this committee, provision is made not only for broad geographical representation, but also for personal qualifications and experience.

18.17  The second standing committee, the Committee on Contributions, advises the General Assembly on the division of the expenses of the UN among its members, the assessments for new members, appeals by members for a change of assessment, and application of Article 19 in cases of arrears. Its membership stands at eighteen and it seeks to avoid entanglement with the politics of arrears. This particular matter is dealt with by Article 19 of the Charter which reads in part:

A member … in arrears in the payment of its financial contributions to the Organisation shall have no vote in the General Assembly if the amount of its arrears equals or exceeds the amount of the contributions due from it for the preceding two full years …

18.18  At the time of the Congo crisis of 1960, there was disagreement within the United Nations about paying for the United Nations Emergency Force in the Middle East and for peacekeeping operations in the Congo. The Soviet Union and its Communist associates had taken the line from 1956 onwards that only the Security Council had the authority to establish United Nations forces and decide how their operations should be financed. The Soviet Union in 1960 opposed peacekeeping activities in the Congo.

18.19  The Assembly failed to resolve the dispute between the two organs and the Soviet Union and, in respect of the Congo, France began to withhold payments. The Assembly in 1961 decided by a majority to refer to the International Court of Justice the question whether peacekeeping activities in the Middle East and the Congo constituted ‘expenses of the Organisation’ under Article 17 of the Charter.12 The Court took, by majority vote, the view that these operations were properly authorized to serve the purposes of the Organization and were thus legitimate expenses. In 1964, when Soviet payments were seriously in arrears, the United States raised the possibility of action under Article 19 to suspend the Soviet vote in the Assembly. There was naturally relief when crisis was averted by a so-called ‘non-objection procedure’ which enabled the United (p. 342) States to withdraw its pressure. But this procedural device thinly concealed a major concession of principle proving the non-effectiveness of rules and committees when a leading Power decides not to comply.13

Subsidiary and Ad Hoc Bodies

18.20  The remaining committees, boards, commissions, and working groups are grouped by the United Nations under the title Subsidiary and Ad Hoc Bodies. In 2016 there were sixty-two of them. This total divides itself into four almost equal groups: political and disarmament, individual problems and crises, administration, and the remainder, notably legal, social, and economic. They vary greatly in activity and performance; their scope extends from the 124 members of the Special Committee on Peacekeeping operations, the sixty-three-nation Committee on Disarmament, and the sixty-seven members of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, through the International Law Commission, to the Joint Inspection Unit which continually inspects the functioning of the United Nations machinery.14 There is one characteristic of almost all of these committees. They are the classic field of modern collective diplomacy conducted by mixed national teams that contain specialist and diplomatic skills, increasingly through individuals knowledgeable in both areas.

18.21  General policy speeches, often made by Heads of Government and if not, by Foreign Ministers are delivered in plenary session during the first two or three weeks of the regular Assembly session. Since most speakers work out their speeches carefully in advance and devise them at least in part to satisfy audiences at home, there is not much actual debate at this stage. From then on, practically every item on the agenda is considered in the appropriate committee which will, if necessary, refer them, generally between sessions, to an existing or ad hoc subcommittee. This permits detailed and specialized work in a group smaller than the main committee of anything up to 193 people. Recommendations on each item will come back from committee to the Plenary Assembly where it will be voted on, sometimes without discussion and generally with much briefer discussion than that in committee.

(p. 343) 18.22  Decisions are taken in committees by a simple majority of those present and voting. The same rule applies in plenary meetings of the Assembly, except in respect of ‘important’ questions on which, as required by the Charter, decisions are taken by a two-thirds majority of those present and voting. ‘Important’ questions include automatically recommendations concerning the maintenance of peace and security, elections to the Councils, admission, suspension, and expulsion of members, and budgetary questions: other questions may be ruled to be ‘important’ by a simple majority vote. The overwhelming majority of substantive decisions are taken in this way. Those wishing to oppose a draft resolution can choose to make approval more difficult by advocating the more difficult hurdle of a two-thirds requirement.15 Thus a preliminary quasi-procedural vote (or decision by consent) can in fact anticipate the final, formal vote itself.

Order of Roll-call Voting

18.23  Rule 89 of the Rules of Procedure of the General Assembly reads in part as follows:

(a)  The General Assembly shall normally vote by show of hands or by standing, but any representative may request a roll-call. The roll-call shall be taken in the English alphabetical order of the names of the Members, beginning with the Member whose name is drawn by lot by the President …16

In the early meetings of the General Assembly, the roll-call was conducted in alphabetical order starting at the beginning of the alphabet. This meant that when roll-call votes were declared publicly, the first vote on a difficult question on which voting lines had not yet become clearly defined could have an influence on subsequent voting. Nowadays the General Assembly usually votes by mechanical means which replaces the show of hands or standing. The outcome and each member State’s vote are publicly visible. Any member State may call for a recorded vote, which replaces a roll-call vote, and the result of the mechanical vote is then inserted in the formal record of the meeting.

The Security Council

18.24  The Security Council has the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.


18.25  Originally the Security Council had eleven members, five permanent and six non-permanent. The permanent members were the Republic of China, France, (p. 344) the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the United States of America. The six non-permanent members were to be elected by the General Assembly for two years, a provision in Article 23.2 ensuring that three would be elected each year. Since that time there have been two important changes, one in the number of members and the other in the identity of one of the permanent members.

18.26  In the election of non-permanent members, due regard should be paid to the contribution of members to the maintenance of international peace and security and to the other purposes of the organization. In practice regard is seldom paid. Each year, candidates for election to the Council are elected by the full membership of the UN from each of the geographic groupings, thus ensuring equitable geographical distribution. Frequently each group nominates the same number of candidates as there are places available for that group.


18.27  The Security Council is organized so as to be able to function continuously at a few hours’ notice. Every member of the Council has to be represented at all times at the seat of the organization. The position of president is held for a month at a time by each of its members in turn, in the alphabetical order of their English names.


18.28  The main functions of the Security Council are dealt with in Chapters VI and VII of the Charter. Under Chapter VI of the Charter, entitled the ‘Pacific Settlement of Disputes’, the Council may call on the parties to a dispute to settle it by peaceful means; may investigate any dispute or any situation which might lead to international friction or give rise to a dispute, in order to determine whether the continuance of the dispute or situation is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security; or, at any stage of such a dispute or situation, may recommend procedures or methods of adjustment. Any member of the United Nations or the Secretary-General may bring such a dispute or situation to the attention of the Council, or of the General Assembly. Theoretically, any State not a member of the United Nations may bring to the attention of the same bodies any dispute to which it is a party, if it accepts for the purposes of the dispute the obligations of pacific settlement provided in the Charter.

18.29  Chapter VII of the Charter is entitled ‘Action with respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace and Acts of Aggression’. Under it the Council is given extensive powers, including the power to authorize the use of armed force. Chapter VII sets out a hierarchy of potential action by the Council if it determines the existence of any threat to the peace. It can make recommendations to (p. 345) the parties concerned, or decide on measures intended to maintain or restore international peace and security. Under Article 25 of the Charter, member States are obliged to comply with decisions of the Security Council (whereas resolutions of the General Assembly can, as a rule, only have the force of recommendations). Not all conclusions of the Council are decisions, and only decisions are binding on member States. Under Article 41 of the Charter the Council may decide measures not involving the use of force, effectively sanctions, to give effect to its decisions. If such measures are considered inadequate or have proved to be inadequate, the Council may take action under Article 42 which can include the use of armed force. The use of these articles evolved slowly, owing to the power of veto of the permanent members of the Security Council, and the Council rarely exercised the powers granted to it by the provisions of Chapter VII. An early example was resolution 217 which in 1965 called upon member States to do their utmost to break all economic relations with the then Southern Rhodesia, including imposing an oil embargo. This was followed in 1966 by resolution 221 which called upon the United Kingdom to prevent, by force if necessary, the delivery of oil destined for Southern Rhodesia. Since 1989, the Council has increasingly adopted resolutions which have been mandatory in nature, and involved sanctions and even the use of force. But the Military Staff Committee, for which Article 47 provides and which was intended to assist the Security Council in making plans for the application of armed force, has had from the beginning a purely formal existence. Mandates for peacekeeping forces invariably authorize the use of force, both to protect the troops themselves and to protect civilians. There have been few cases where the Council has authorized the use of force by nations in order to maintain international peace and security. Examples include resolution 678 which in 1990 authorized member States to use all necessary means to secure the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait; resolution 1973 which in 2011 authorized member States to take all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat in Libya; and resolution 2085 which in 2012 authorized the deployment of an African led International Support Mission to Mali.

18.30  While thus vesting primary responsibility for the maintenance of peace in the Security Council, Article 51 of the Charter also provides that nothing contained in it shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence, if an armed attack occurs against a member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. A debate continues as to whether this legitimizes pre-emptive action against what is perceived as an imminent threat of attack. It is under this provision of the Charter that the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was justified (see Chapter 23).

(p. 346) 18.31  The Charter also allows (in Chapter VIII) for the establishment of regional arrangements for dealing with such matters relating to the maintenance of international peace and security as are appropriate for regional action. But no enforcement action can be taken under regional arrangements or by regional agencies without the authorization of the Security Council. Both the African Union and the European Union favour only deploying military forces for peace-keeping operations when the Council has adopted a resolution giving specific authorization.

Enlargement of Membership

18.32  With the achievement by a large number of former colonies, particularly in Africa, of national independence, it had become clear that a Security Council of eleven members would not satisfactorily accommodate the views of the various regions of the world on a basis of equitable geographic distribution. It was accordingly decided in 1963 (ratified in 1965) that the membership of the Security Council should be raised to fifteen, the number of permanent members remaining at five.17 The geographical distribution of the ten non-permanent seats was laid down as follows:

Africa and Asia


Eastern Europe


Latin America and Caribbean


Western Europe and other States


18.33  This change had a consequence which was more than mathematical. When the Security Council numbered eleven members, a resolution required seven affirmative votes, so that one such vote had to come from one of the five permanent members. When the membership was raised to fifteen, it was decided to fix the number of affirmative votes required to carry resolutions at nine. As a result, provided that no permanent member exercises a veto, resolutions can be passed without an affirmative vote from any of the permanent members, and even with the support of the five permanent members a resolution also requires the positive votes of four non-permanent members if it is to be approved. To put it differently, any seven of the ten non-permanent members can collectively exercise a ‘sixth veto’. Therefore, on a matter on which the permanent members are not enthusiastic but on which no permanent member wishes to vote negatively, whether alone or in company with others, a proposition can be carried by (p. 347) the votes of non-permanent members only. This procedure was used in a vote in 1973 in regard to the holding of a Peace Conference in Geneva.18 The veto of permanent members of the Council cannot be applied to procedural decisions. Subsequently, and especially in the period 2000–10, debate on a further enlargement of the Council continued, the main focus of discussion being an enlargement in the number of permanent members. There was notably strong support for the membership of Japan, India, Brazil, and Germany and representatives of Africa, on whose identity there is no clear consensus within African States. Other States also have claims to membership. Agreement to enlarge the permanent membership is proving very difficult, the more so if it is proposed that the new members should also be able to exercise a veto. Since any amendment of the Charter would require the formal ratification of each of the five existing permanent members as well as an affirmative vote by two-thirds of the General Assembly, there is little prospect of a package amendment to enlarge the Council membership.

Replacement of the Republic of China by the People’s Republic

18.34  At the San Francisco Conference China was represented by the Republic of China. On the initiative of the United States, China was accepted as one of the original sponsors of the San Francisco Conference and one of the permanent members of the Security Council. As a result the Republic of China (which after the Chinese revolution in 1949 existed only as the Chiang Kai-shek administration in Taiwan) occupied the seat until its replacement by the People’s Republic of China on 25 October 1971.19

Voting in the Security Council

18.35  Article 27 of the Charter which deals with voting in the Security Council originally read as follows:

  1. 1.  Each member of the Security Council shall have one vote.

  2. 2.  Decisions of the Security Council on procedural matters shall be made by an affirmative vote of seven members.

  3. 3.  Decisions of the Security Council on all other matters shall be made by an affirmative vote of seven members including the concurring votes of the permanent members; provided that in decisions under Article VI and under paragraph 3 of Article 52, a party to a dispute shall abstain from voting.

(The Articles specifically referred to in subparagraph 3 above concern the Pacific Settlement of Disputes, whether in a general or regional context.)

(p. 348) 18.36  Under the amendment to the Charter already mentioned in paragraph 18.32, which entered into force on 31 August 1965, the number of votes required for affirmative decisions was raised from seven to nine.

18.37  The effect of Article 27.3 of the Charter is to create the so-called ‘veto’, exercisable by any of the permanent members. Not unnaturally this was strongly attacked at the San Francisco Conference by both ‘middle’ and smaller Powers, but it was a proposition from which the sponsoring Powers and France were not prepared to move, maintaining that it was only by a measure of this kind that the constitution of the United Nations could be made to conform with the realities of world power. The only modification agreed later (1946/7) by the permanent members, and confirmed by the ICJ, was that a veto by a permanent member required the exercise of a negative vote. Thus, if a permanent member abstained, such an abstention would not imply failure of a draft resolution provided that there were sufficient affirmative votes to make up seven or, after August 1965, nine.

18.38  On 25 June 1950, troops from North Korea crossed the boundary into South Korea and met resistance from South Korean forces. The matter was at once brought to the attention of the Security Council. In the debate the Secretary-General, Mr Trygve Lie, intervened to give his opinion that the attack was a violation of the United Nations Charter. It was to be presumed, however, that any proposal for United Nations preventive action would be vetoed by the Soviet representative.

18.39  But the Soviet Union was at that time boycotting the Security Council and other organs of the United Nations on the ground that, given the victory of the Communist forces on the Chinese mainland the year before, China was no longer properly represented at the United Nations by a Nationalist delegation. Accordingly, when a draft of resolution 82 was put to the vote in June 1950 calling for a cease-fire and a withdrawal of forces, there was no veto. Four subsequent resolutions were also passed in 1950. Of these, resolution 83 recommended that members of the United Nations, implicitly under the rubric of self-defence, furnish such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack and resolution 84 welcomed such support and recommended that forces should be made available to a unified command under the United States of America, which persisted throughout the subsequent war. This was to be one of the very few resolutions dealing with the use of military force until resolution 678 in 1990.

18.40  Hostilities were eventually and formally brought to an end by an armistice signed in Korea on 27 July 1953 by the Commander-in-Chief, United Nations Command, the Supreme Commander of the (North) Korean People’s Army, and the Commander of the Chinese People’s Volunteers. The Armistice agreement provided for the setting up of a Military Armistice Commission, consist(p. 349) ing of five members from each side, whose instructions were ‘to supervise the implementation of this armistice Agreement and to settle through negotiation any violations of the Armistice Agreement’. Nearly a quarter of a century then passed without change in this military and political arrangement. The absence of the Soviet delegate from the relevant meeting permitted the Security Council to adopt resolutions not only condemning aggression in Korea, but also recommending and welcoming action to repel it. The ‘Uniting for Peace’ resolution, accepted by the General Assembly on 3 November 195020 provided principally that, if the Security Council were prevented by lack of unanimity among its permanent members from taking action in a case involving a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or an act of aggression, the Assembly might be called within 24 hours at the request of seven members of the Security Council, or of a majority of Member States, to meet in emergency special session for the purpose of making recommendations for collective measures to maintain or restore peace.

18.41  The ‘Uniting for Peace’ resolution also provided for a Peace Observation Commission of fourteen members which could observe and report on the situation in any area where international tension existed; a Panel of military advisers to be available to advise Member States on the formation of military units which they would be asked to keep ready for service upon the recommendation of the General Assembly or the Security Council; and a Collective Resources Committee of fourteen members to study and report to the Security Council and the Assembly on methods of maintaining and strengthening international peace. In fact, none of these provisions was ever put into effect. But what had been done was the best that could be achieved in the absence of a Security Council decision and an effective United Nations Military Staff Committee as intended under Article 47 of the Charter.21

18.42  No situations involving the procedural complications produced by the Korean crisis arose in the following years. But the proceedings just described enabled a Special Session of the General Assembly to be convoked in November 1956 at the time of the Suez crisis, and which authorized the formation of a United Nations Emergency Force to secure and supervise the cessation of hostilities.

Use by the United Nations of Armed Forces

18.43  The sequels of this episode ran along two lines, the use of military forces by the United Nations, and the use of the veto. It was not unreasonable to expect that, (p. 350) as a result of what happened over Korea, no permanent member of the Security Council would again be absent on a comparable occasion and no further use of armed forces would be made by the United Nations. The first judgment has been correct. The second judgment would be wrong. It is true that with the tacit approval of at least two permanent members of the Security Council, machinery for organizing action under Article 47 of the Charter through the Office of the Military Adviser had been allowed to run down. However, this did not happen to the use of the armed forces of the United Nations in the cause of peacekeeping.

18.44  Two years before the Korean War, the Security Council had on 29 May 1948 authorized the United Nations mediator in Palestine to use military observers for truce supervision; but at that stage these observers did not constitute an ‘interposition’ force between possible combatants. Later, after the Suez crisis, a United Nations Emergency Force was placed on the border between Israel and Egypt between the forces of the two countries. In 1967, however, in a tense political situation, the withdrawal of the force was demanded by President Nasser of Egypt. The then United Nations Secretary-General, U Thant, acceded to this demand on the grounds that Egypt was not consenting to the presence of the UN force. His immediate acquiescence and failure to consult the Security Council provoked controversy. At the end of the subsequent hostilities, the passage five months later of Security Council resolution 242 resulted in the truce supervision organization assuming responsibility for maintaining the cease-fire in the Suez Canal Zone. When in 1973 war broke out again, the Security Council in resolutions 338 and 339 of 21 and 23 October set up a new UNEF with the instruction to ‘supervise the immediate and complete implementation and observance of the cease-fire … and to use its best efforts to prevent a recurrence of the fighting’.

18.45  The use of United Nations forces in a peacekeeping capacity has not been confined to the Middle East. In 1960 in the former Belgian Congo (Zaire), now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the employment of forces in the name of the United Nations was wholly different from the other two referred to earlier. A few days after independence day (20 June 1960) the Congolese army revolted against the Belgian forces still stationed there. Tensions were high and the then Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjöld, put the matter urgently to the Security Council under Article 99 of the Charter. He couched his initiative in language which was based on the setting up of the UNEF in Sinai and avoiding the concept of ‘enforcement’. The Secretary-General persuaded the Security Council to accept his plan22 and at one time there were contingents from eleven members (p. 351) of the United Nations in the Congo for the purpose of promoting the peace and unity of the country. In the wake of the Soviet and French complaints about the Congo operation, a Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations was set up by General Assembly resolution 2006 (XIX) of 18 February 1965 to draw up guidelines on peacekeeping operations. As of 2016 the UN peacekeeping operation in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo is the UN’s largest such operation.

18.46  Yet another variation in the use of United Nations forces for peacekeeping was the Security Council’s resolution 186 of 4 March 1964, designed to keep the Greek and Turkish protagonists in a near-civil war in Cyprus from actual hostilities. Under this resolution there was established, in consultation with the governments of Cyprus and the three guarantor Powers, Greece, Turkey, and the United Kingdom, a United Nations Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP). Drawn from seven Commonwealth and European countries (including, for the first time, a permanent member of the Security Council, the United Kingdom), the force became operational on 27 March 1964, initially for three months. It remains there in 2016.

18.47  Peacekeeping and the presence of UN blue helmets or blue berets in conflict areas has become a key UN role and one of the most recognizable aspects of the UN. Conventionally the United Nations only deploys a peacekeeping presence in support of a peace agreement or cease-fire between the protagonists, and with the consent of the parties. By the beginning of 2016 there were sixteen UN peacekeeping operations. One, a joint operation with the African Union, is in Darfur. There are also some separate non-UN peacekeeping operations, carried out by regional organizations, but with authorization from the UN Security Council, for example the NATO-led force in Kosovo and the African Union Mission in Somalia. In approving a UN peacekeeping operation, the Council resolution spells out its mandate, authorizes the use of force necessary to defend the troops and civilians in the area of deployment, and the size of the deployment. It is then for the UN Department of Peacekeeping to generate the Force consistent with the mandate from the offers made by UN Member States. The cost of deployment is a charge on the UN’s peacekeeping budget, and in practice the General Assembly’s Fifth Committee ensures that the funding is provided. The key to this budget places a particular responsibility on permanent members. The nature of the Security Council resolution adopted has evolved to embrace a comprehensive peace support operation, covering the economic, political, and human rights aspects, as well as taking account of the work of UN agencies and others.

The Veto after Korea

18.48  The unique experience of the Korean debate and its sequel did not immediately change the spirit or practice of the Security Council in the use of the (p. 352) veto. In general, the custom was to bring disputes and situations involving possible dangers to peace rapidly before the Security Council (as indeed appeared to be the intention of the Charter) with the resultant risk of veto occurring soon after.23

18.49  The hundredth Soviet veto was applied in 1961. At the end of that year the total number of vetoes cast since 1945 was as follows:

China (Nationalist)



4  (2 jointly with the United Kingdom)



United Kingdom

3  (2 jointly with France)

United States


18.50  Although many of these vetoes had to do with potential new members, it was damaging to the UN organization to face an international crisis and take no decision at all, or worse still, not even to face it, despite the words of the Charter in Article 1.1:

The Purposes of the United Nations are:

1.  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 …24

18.51  A classic example of successful diplomacy to avoid the veto was the handling of the diplomatic situation after the Six-Day Arab–Israel War of 1967. A cease-fire was followed by the calling of a Special Assembly of the United Nations at which the Soviet Union prompted a draft resolution wholly favourable to the Arab view. This was not adopted, and deadlock appeared complete. However, early in August there emerged the first signs that there could be the possibility of compromise. This possibility was pursued over the next three months, particularly by two leaders of delegations in New York, Lord Caradon (United Kingdom) and Arthur Goldberg (United States), and by V V Kuznetsov (Soviet Union), who arrived for the 1967 General Assembly. The end of this intensive ‘conference diplomacy’ was Security Council resolution 242 of 22 November (p. 353) 1967, which remains an essential element of any proposal for the final settlement of the Arab–Israel conflict.25

18.52  In the later years of the Cold War, from the mid-sixties to the late eighties, there was a notable decrease in the overall number of vetoes used. The US became the principal user of the veto in this period—reflecting the fact that it had become relatively isolated in the Security Council due to the degree of understanding between the Soviet bloc and many of the UN’s post-colonial member States. The numbers of vetoes cast in this period was:


Vetoes cast in 1964–90







United Kingdom


United States


18.53  The proportionate increase in Western as opposed to Communist vetoes reflected among other things the careful choice by the Soviet Union of initiatives which, in the view of that government, might secure the support or non-resistance of the non-aligned countries while arousing at least anxiety in the Western world. Since 1990 the USA has been the most frequent user of the veto. Neither France nor the UK has used the veto since 1989. The USA has used it most often to veto resolutions critical of Israel. Indeed, the so-called Negroponte doctrine is attributed to the US ambassador who is said to have told the Council that the US would oppose any resolution which condemned Israel without also condemning terrorist groups. A particularly controversial use of the veto was China’s opposition in 1999 to the renewal of the mandate for a UN peacekeeping operation in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia because of that country’s diplomatic relations with Taiwan. In 2007 and 2008 Russia and China both vetoed resolutions on the situation in Burma/Myanmar and Zimbabwe respectively, on the grounds that they represented an unjustified interference in the domestic affairs of a sovereign State.

(p. 354) 18.54  Overall up to the end of 2015 the number of vetoes cast was as follows:







United Kingdom


United States


18.55  The work of the Council has broadened to cover the changing threats to international peace and security. Article 41 of the Charter empowers the Council to impose measures if it considers this necessary for the maintenance of international peace and security. Initially this power was little used but by the early 1990s the Council began to turn to this approach. Faced with threats and judging that military action was not appropriate and when diplomatic and political pressures had not succeeded, sanctions of a nature binding on all States were agreed. Early examples were those imposed on Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait, and on the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro). More sanctions followed, including those against Somalia, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Sudan, North Korea, and Iran. Early sanctions were often criticized as ineffective and as penalizing ordinary citizens, the weak, and unintended targets. As a result, sanctions became much more focused, targeted more precisely to seize assets, to impose arms embargoes, and to subject named individuals to bans on international travel. The outcomes tend to be more effective, but still of limited impact. Resolutions imposing sanctions are adopted under Chapter VII of the Charter so as to be mandatory and usually set up a sub-committee to oversee the implementation of the sanctions, often assisted by experts. Regional organizations, for example the EU, often act to give effect to UN sanctions, or act in parallel or even separately from the UN.

18.56  As terrorism became a more immediate threat, so the Security Council reacted to it. In 1999 the Council adopted resolution 1267 aimed at imposing asset freezes, travel bans, and arms embargoes against named individuals judged to be connected to Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Immediately following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the Council in resolution 1373 set up the Counter Terrorism Committee and imposed obligations on States to prevent terrorism, to deny safe haven to terrorists, and to cooperate in combating terrorism. States were encouraged as necessary to sign the twelve international anti-terrorism conventions agreed by the General Assembly. In 2004 resolution 1540 addressed the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and prohibited their transfer to or holding by terrorists. Each of these resolutions set up committees to ensure their implementation. A further resolution 1673 (2005) prohibited incitement to commit (p. 355) terrorist attacks. None of the resolutions sought to define terrorism and more generally, neither in the Security Council nor in the General Assembly has it proved possible to reach agreement on what constitutes terrorism. The search stumbles on the difficulty of covering action by States and acts in resistance to foreign occupation.

18.57  The agenda of the Security Council has evolved to include issues which are less an immediate threat to international peace and security as a longer-term or indirect threat. Sometimes termed thematic or horizontal issues, they include consideration of the conflict spectrum including prevention, the role of Special Tribunals, ongoing situations in countries like Sudan and South Sudan, and HIV/Aids. A significant resolution was 1325 (2000) which addressed ‘Women, Peace and Security’ and recognized the role of women as disproportionate victims of conflict and their contribution to ending conflict and creating stable States. There is now an annual debate on this subject, often accompanied by a further resolution. In May 2007 the Council held a debate on the security threats posed by climate change, again pushing the boundary of competence.

18.58  A key tension within the United Nations is that between the advocates of Article 2.7 who attach overriding importance to non-intervention in what they consider to be the domestic affairs of a sovereign State and those who want action. This has stopped the Council taking action in response to crises in Burma/Myanmar and Zimbabwe. The issue was addressed in the 2005 World Summit. It set out a doctrine on the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. It held that each individual State had the primary responsibility to protect its citizens. The international community has a responsibility to assist the State, but if the threat persists the international community, through the authority of the UN Security Council, then has the responsibility to act to protect the population from these threats.26 The principle of ‘responsibility to protect’ as adopted requires Security Council authorization for any military action to give effect to the principle in a specific case. It is therefore distinct from those doctrines of ‘humanitarian intervention’ that claim that individual States, or groupings of States, have a right to intervene in situations of urgent humanitarian necessity. The latter was invoked by a number of NATO Member States in 1999 to justify the military operation in defence of the Kosovars. Although all States at summit level agreed the principle of responsibility to protect, it remains to be seen whether, case by case, States are prepared to act and can secure agreement for action in the Security Council.27

(p. 356) Economic and Social Council

18.59  Under the heading ‘International Economic and Social Cooperation’, Article 55 of the Charter sets out the objectives of this side of the organization’s work as follows:

With a view to the creation of conditions of stability and well-being which are necessary for peaceful and friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, the United Nations shall promote:

  1. (a)  higher standards of living, full employment, and conditions of economic and social progress and development;

  2. (b)  solutions of international economic, social, health, and related problems; and international cultural and educational cooperation; and

  3. (c)  universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.

18.60  Authority for carrying out the above functions is vested in the General Assembly and, under its authority, in the Economic and Social Council (Article 60). The Council may make or initiate studies on the matters referred to, and may make recommendation upon them to the General Assembly, to member States, and to the Specialized Agencies concerned. It may also make arrangements for consultation with non-governmental organizations. The Council enters formal relationships with the Specialized Agencies by negotiating special agreements with each of them, subject to approval by the General Assembly.

Membership and Procedures

18.61  Originally the Economic and Social Council consisted of eighteen members, of which one-third retired each year but remained eligible for immediate re-election. The number was increased to twenty-seven in 1963 and to fifty-four in 1971. Decisions of the Council are made by a majority of members present and voting, each member having one vote.

18.62  Why, given the importance of the economic and social aims of the United Nations and the progress made since 1945 in respect of many of them, does the Economic and Social Council not enjoy significant prestige? In the United Nations’ formative years of 1945–6, while economic and social objectives were accepted as very important, the main interest of governments and peoples lay in organizing the preservation of peace and the prevention of future war: that is why the Charter gave the Security Council strong potential powers. But there was also a basic difference between the two Councils. The Security Council had no competitors—at least not within the UN system; the Economic and Social Council had competition existing already in the International Labour Organization (1919), the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, (p. 357) and the International Monetary Fund (Articles approved in 1946), and later in the World Health Organization (1948) and, on the economic analysis side, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) (1961) and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) (1964). Of these ‘competitors’, all but the OECD have since become Specialized Agencies of the UN. Thus, while the Economic and Social Council has initiated such enterprises as the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) now the WTO (see Chapter 20) and encouraged progress on economic and social developments, including in later years work designed to assist the developing countries, it has never succeeded in establishing for itself a place of world authority.

The Secretariat

18.63  In the opening words of Article 97, ‘The Secretariat shall comprise a secretary-general and such staff as the Organisation may require’.

The Secretary-General

18.64  The same Article continues: ‘The Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council. He shall be the chief administrative officer of the Organisation.’ Article 98 states that the Secretary-General ‘[s]hall act in that capacity in all meetings of the General Assembly’ [and of all the Councils of the Organisation] ‘and shall perform such other functions as are entrusted to him by these organs’.

18.65  The functions of the Secretary-General are up to this point somewhat modestly described. But Article 99 is of a different quality. It reads: ‘The Secretary-General may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.’ It was realized by those who devised the Charter that one of the difficulties which obstruct international peacemaking and peacekeeping is a situation in which national or group sensitivities are so touchy, or moods so tense, that none of the States concerned wish to invoke or provoke third party intervention, national or international. Article 99 contains the strong implication that in such circumstances the Secretary-General has some moral obligation to have the position discussed in the Security Council. Such a decision would need both judgement and courage. If the Secretary-General acted too hastily, he might make matters worse; if he hesitated too long or did not act at all, he might be failing to exercise on behalf of the organization established as the guardian of the world’s security a most important faculty provided explicitly by the Charter. Different secretaries-general have taken different views. In any case the political arguments in favour of a Security Council discussion of a particular situation come to the fore.

(p. 358) The Staff

18.66  The staff of the Secretariat is appointed by the Secretary-General under regulations established by the General Assembly. The paramount consideration in their employment and in the determination of their conditions of service is, according to Article 101.3, the ‘necessity of securing the highest standards of efficiency, competence and integrity. Due regard shall be paid to the importance of recruiting staff on as wide a geographical basis as possible.’ In practice, all these conditions are seldom fulfilled. Indeed, they are hardly self-consistent, since the choice of the most competent candidate cannot be expected regularly to coincide with the widest possible selection on a geographical basis.

18.67  In the performance of their duties the Secretary-General and staff may not seek or receive instructions from any government or from any other authority external to the organization. They are to refrain from any action which might reflect on their position as international officials responsible only to the organization. According to Article 100, each member of the United Nations undertakes to respect the exclusive international character and responsibilities of the Secretary-General and his staff and not to seek to influence them in the discharge of their responsibilities.28 This is an undertaking observed more in the breach than in its implementation.


18.68  On 1 February 1946, during the first part of its first session, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution entitled ‘Rules of Procedure concerning Languages’ of which the Annex, paragraph 1, reads as follows: ‘In all the organs of the United Nations, other than the International Court of Justice, Chinese, French, English, Russian and Spanish shall be the official languages, and English and French the working languages.’ This meant in effect that speeches made in one working language were interpreted into the other, and speeches made in the official languages were interpreted into both working languages. Any representative might make a speech in any other language, but in that case he would be responsible for providing interpretation into one of the working languages; the Secretariat would then provide interpretation from that working language into the other. Apart from this, a fuller documentation would be furnished in the working languages than in any other.

18.69  At that time simultaneous interpretation was in a very early technical stage, but by 15 November 1947, the General Assembly had decided29 that simultaneous interpretation should be adopted as a permanent service, either as an alternative (p. 359) to, or in connection with, consecutive interpretation. In fact, this was the end of consecutive interpretation in the Assembly.

18.70  Consecutive interpretation has some merit if there are only two languages in use at a Conference, since it gives delegates whose own language is other than either of these two a little more time and opportunity to make sure they understand what has been said. But the increase in the number of working languages has made the consecutive procedure impossibly lengthy, and made simultaneous interpretation essential.30

18.71  Meanwhile the number of working languages increased. In 1948 Spanish was added. Twenty years later the Assembly decided to add Russian. Five years after that in 1973, Chinese was included for all purposes, together with Arabic for the Assembly and its Committees. The terms ‘official’ and ‘working’ languages were retained in the title of Rule 51, the text of which reads:

Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish shall be both the official and the working languages of the General Assembly, its Committees and the subcommittees. Arabic shall be both an official and a working language of the General Assembly and the main Committees.31

18.72  Thus the simultaneous interpretation system, with its six booths containing interpreters, enabled the assimilation of working and official languages to progress, and various national and group claims on behalf of particular languages to be met. A limited addition to the language services was made when, to respond to the needs of Austria and the then two Germanys, it was decided that written German translation services (as opposed to oral interpretation) should be furnished in respect of basic documents, provided that the three countries collectively covered the cost.

18.73  As a result the annual budget provision for the aggregated expenditure of the Translation Division, Interpretation and Meeting Division, and the Editorial and Records Division now amounts to substantial sums.

The Trusteeship Council

18.74  The United Nations Charter devotes three chapters to the subject of dependent territories. Chapters XII and XIII, entitled respectively ‘International Trusteeship (p. 360) System’ and ‘The Trusteeship Council’, deal with a special task inherited from the Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations as modified by the changes in the world military and political situation brought about by the Second World War. Chapter XI, under the title ‘Declaration regarding Non-Self-Governing Territories’, presents a declaration under which ‘[m]embers of the United Nations which have or assume responsibilities for the administration of territories whose peoples have not yet attained a full measure of self-government’32 accept certain obligations. The scope and limits of these obligations are discussed in the following section of this chapter. But before the two methods of approach are described separately, it is important to note a degree of common origin.

18.75  Throughout history, stronger States or other groups have for a range of motives occupied through force or threat of the use of force, territories ‘belonging to’ or administered by others or barely administered at all. From the late sixteenth century onwards, European countries sought first trading posts and later sovereign territory in other parts of the world, notably Asia, Africa, and Central and South America, often in competition with each other.

18.76  At the end of the First World War, strong pressure by the United States, under the leadership of President Woodrow Wilson, led to a change in the world order. Colonies of the defeated colonial Powers (Germany and Turkey) were placed not under the sovereignty of individual victorious Powers, but under mandate exercised by individual Powers or groups of Powers on behalf of the world community embodied in the League of Nations, and in accordance with obligations laid down in the Covenant of the League. (The failure of the United States itself to become a member of the League did not affect the adoption of the new system.) This brought a new dimension into international law and diplomatic practice.

18.77  It was natural that the drafters of the United Nations Charter should have made provision for the continuation of the Mandate or, under its new name, Trusteeship system. Eleven territories were placed under the Trusteeship Council through agreements approved by the General Assembly. Of these, ten had become independent by 1975. With the termination of the Trusteeship Agreement for the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands in 1994 and Palau’s admission as a member of the UN, the Trusteeship Council had completed the tasks entrusted to it in respect of the last of the eleven territories placed under the Trusteeship system. One territory, South-West Africa (later Namibia), for(p. 361) merly a League mandate administered by South Africa, was not transferred by the administering State to the United Nations Trusteeship system.

18.78  By the early 1990s the constitution and proceedings of the Trusteeship Council had become irrelevant to the main stream of United Nations policy and action in respect of dependent territories. On 1 October 1994, with the termination of the status of Palau it completed its task and on 1 November 1994 it suspended its operation. The Trusteeship Council having thus fulfilled its purpose, the Secretary-General in both his report in 1994 on the work of the organization and in his 2005 report ‘In Larger Freedom’ recommended the elimination of the Trusteeship Council in accordance with Article 108 of the Charter. The 2005 Summit endorsed this recommendation. However, no Charter amendment has yet followed from that decision of the Summit. The Trusteeship Council continues in existence but is non-operational.

18.79  Two points may, however, be briefly noted. Article 76(b) of the Charter describes as a ‘basic objective’ of the trusteeship system:

To promote the political, economic, social, and educational advancement of the inhabitants of the trust territories, and their progressive development towards self-government or independence as may be appropriate to the particular circumstances of each territory and its peoples and the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned, and as may be provided by the terms of each trusteeship agreement.

Thus in careful language, bearing every sign of negotiation and compromise, the Trusteeship system looked forward to independence for those territories which had been committed to Trusteeship.

Non-self-governing Territories

18.80  During the Second World War various Allied declarations spoke in terms of freedom, and in the case of India a highly serious, if unsuccessful, effort was made in 1942 to advance this progress beyond the provincial self-government already achieved. India had in any case been a member of the League of Nations while not yet independent of Britain, and it was accepted internationally that India would be independently represented not only at politico-technical conferences such as the Chicago Civil Aviation Conference in 1944 but also at the San Francisco Conference itself. American opinion, official and unofficial, was strongly opposed to the return of French and Dutch rule in Indo-China and Indonesia respectively, where strong nationalist movements had developed during Japanese occupation. It was thus inevitable that the question whether there should be an Article in the United Nations Charter about non-self-governing territories should be raised and hotly debated in San Francisco. The majority of the Conference, containing as it did Asian, Arab, and Latin-American States, (p. 362) many of which had had colonial pasts, favoured the inclusion of such an article. Against this the proponents of the emerging Article 2.7, the non-intervention clause, could and did argue that the two concepts were inconsistent.33 When both Article 2 and Chapter XI—the latter dealing with non-self-governing territories—became part of the Charter as ratified, their coexistence raised obvious difficulties. Administering States in due course sought to use Article 2.7 to prevent discussion of items concerning non-self-governing territories, but the Assembly could, if the majority so wished, vote by majority to undertake such discussion.

18.81  The wording of Chapter XI is cautious. It is described as a ‘Declaration’, and its introductory paragraph, in Article 73, reads as follows:

Members of the United Nations which have or assume responsibilities for the administration of territories whose people have not yet attained a full measure of self-government recognise the principle that the interests of the inhabitants of these territories are paramount, and accept as a sacred trust the obligation to promote to the utmost, within the system of international peace and security established by the present Charter, the well-being of the inhabitants of these territories …

18.82  Article 73(b) opens with a commitment ‘to develop self-government’ but does not contain a commitment to political independence. On the other hand, the phrase ‘have not yet attained a full measure of self-government’ has an implication of progress towards independence, and a much stronger implication is to be found in Article 1.2 of the Charter which, under the introductory phrase ‘The purposes of the United Nations are—’ reads in part: ‘2. To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and determination of peoples … ’34 Yet here again interpretation has to be made carefully.

18.83  And, as if in the early stages of the United Nations this matter were not ambiguous enough, reference may be made back to Article 73(e), in which administering Powers accept the obligation to ‘transmit regularly to the Secretary-General for information purposes … statistical and other information of a technical nature relating to economic, social and educational conditions in territories for which they are respectively responsible’. The equivalent provision in Article 22 of the (p. 363) League of Nations Covenant had been weaker: ‘In every case of mandate, the Mandatory shall render to the Council an annual report in reference to the territory committed to its charge.’ Although it is stronger, Chapter XI of the Charter does not provide for the furnishing by the administering Power of political information.35

18.84  The limitations in Chapter XI of the Charter are important. But the essential change from previous practice is that the administering Powers accepted the proposition that they had a degree of obligation, sustained by international Charter, to report in detail to the international community on a wide range of matters regarding non-self-governing territories.

18.85  A third consideration, to become later of great importance, was that, no doubt because Chapter XI is a ‘declaration’, no specific organ of the United Nations was created with power to supervise its operation. The information under Article 73(e) was to be furnished to the Secretary-General. But the Secretary-General was not told what to do with the information. In the event, he transmitted it to the General Assembly, which created a committee to examine it. This committee, like the Trusteeship Council, was constituted on the basis of parity between administering and non-administering States. The colonial Powers resisted attempts by the committee or the General Assembly to issue guidance or directives on colonial policy, and also took refuge in the fact that there was no obligation on them to transmit political information on certain territories, on the grounds that these had already attained the ‘full measure of self-government’ referred to in the Charter. The committee to examine information submitted under Article 73 was dissolved in 1963, as part of the major changes of attitude and pace in the handling of these matters in the early 1960s.

18.86  In the early years after the ratification of the Charter a number of expected developments occurred. India and Pakistan became independent from Britain in 1947 and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Myanmar (Burma) in 1948: the first three within the Commonwealth and Burma outside. The Dutch, under pressure from the United Nations, accepted similar developments in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) in 1950. In 1956, Morocco and Tunisia declared independence from France, and Sudan emerged from a nominal Anglo-Egyptian condominium. In 1957, the Gold Coast (Ghana), under the leadership of Dr Kwame (p. 364) Nkrumah, became the first British African colony to gain independence, and in South-East Asia the same step was taken by Malaya (Malaysia).

18.87  History had now taken charge. Achievement of independence by a number of non-self-governing territories encouraged others to follow suit. The conspicuous failure of the United Kingdom and France, the two leading European colonial Powers, in their Suez enterprise in 1956; developments towards Algerian independence (1962); the speech by Harold Macmillan, the British prime minister, on 3 February 1960 while on a visit to South Africa, which launched the famous phrase ‘the wind of change is blowing through the continent’, all pointed this way. There was now no stopping the momentum to independence.

18.88  This was briefly the historical and constitutional picture in 1960 when over and above the many new admissions in the 1950s, seventeen more colonial countries were due to attain independence and, therefore, to become eligible for membership of the United Nations. The next episode is a classic example of a political tactic applied with appropriate timing to a foreign policy and diplomatic situation. On 23 November 1960 the Soviet Delegation requested that an additional item be added to the Assembly agenda, namely, a ‘declaration on granting of independence to colonial countries and peoples’.36

18.89  The text was considered so important that it was moved by the chairman of the Soviet Council of Ministers (Nikita Khrushchev) himself. Apart from the main theme of the resolution, perhaps the most penetrating phrase of the document as finally adopted was that ‘inadequacy of … preparedness should never serve as a pretext for delaying independence’.

18.90  There were objections from some delegations to the tone of the language, notably from those Latin-Americans who maintained that there had been some accomplishments in the colonial periods for which credit must be given to the colonizers. The Soviet draft, with minor modifications, was carried by 89 votes to nil with nine abstentions (the administering Powers).37 By abstaining from voting the administering Powers can be said to have conceded the proposition.

18.91  As explained in paragraph 18.8, a policy resolution by the General Assembly is not binding; but by a two-thirds majority vote, the Assembly can endorse a declaration which would include the establishment of a subordinate body. On 27 November 1961 the Assembly passed a resolution38 setting up a special (p. 365) Committee on the Situation with regard to the Implementation of the Declaration on Decolonization, to make suggestions and recommendations on the progress and extent of the implementation of the Declaration and to report to the Assembly at the next session. The original committee consisted of seventeen members of the United Nations but was increased in 1962 to twenty-four, a figure which has caused it to be known as the Committee of Twenty-four. No provision was made for parity between administering and non-administering countries among the first seventeen members; seven were from formerly non-self-governing countries in Africa and Asia, and three from Communist countries, if Yugoslavia is included. The procedure included a provision that the Committee would resort to voting procedures ‘whenever any member felt that procedure was necessary’.

18.92  The proceedings of the Committee of Twenty-four evolved over subsequent years. There were some difficulties, including the withdrawal of Australia39 in 1969, and later, in 1971 that of the United States and the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom now has a working relationship with the Committee.

18.93  These events left behind important questions of procedure.40 One, affecting delegations, especially those on the defensive, was by whom public argument should be conducted. Many of the meetings of the Committee of Twenty-four were conducted in an atmosphere of emotion, sometimes attended with abusive nagging, a challenge to reasoned argument and moderate language.

18.94  The handling of non-self-governing or dependent territory matters was inevitably caught up in East–West rivalries during the Cold War. This eased as more countries became independent. Post 1990, thirteen States from the former Soviet empire and eight from central Europe became new members of the UN.

Contemporary United Nations

18.95  These sections have sought to show how over more than 60 years a number of events and developments have affected the character and practices of the United (p. 366) Nations. Processes which may appear complicated and even frustrating may be more readily understood when their origins and history are examined. Undoubtedly, the most important single development has seen the total membership grow to nearly fourfold (50 to 193) in number. Of this latest number, a majority are former dependent territories.

18.96  Immediately after the drafting and ratification of the Charter in 1945, hopes of government and public opinion were naturally high, perhaps too high. The system set out in the Charter was anchored on agreements between sovereign States. But thereafter, nations did not cease to behave like nations, parties like parties, or politicians like politicians. Successes and failures were mixed. But at least, remarkably, membership of the United Nations has proved universal. No country wishing to become independent thought in terms of independence outside the United Nations and the only nation so far to suspend its participation (Indonesia) came back (see Chapter 35).

18.97  It is natural that the question of the revision of the United Nations Charter should often arise. The rules governing amendments of the Charter are set out in Article 108. They are precise and read as follows:

Amendments to the present Charter shall come into force for all Members of the United Nations when they have been adopted by a vote of two-thirds of the members of the General Assembly and ratified in accordance with their respective constitutional processes by two-thirds of the Members of the United Nations, including all the permanent members of the Security Council.

Permanent members of the Security Council have different views on the merits of changing their number or identity. National interest, history, and the reality of power play a part in these attitudes. Mustering the necessary majority within the General Assembly is also proving elusive as any suggested enlargement package seems to attract a blocking opposition. However, it is worth recalling that the Charter as it is at present has not worked too badly.

18.98  The United Nations system touches most aspects of global economic activity and of course international peace and security. It suffers most of the disadvantages of a massive spreading bureaucracy where change is very difficult to agree. The case for reform is long-standing but creating the conditions to amend the status quo has proved largely elusive. Vested interests, both within and outside the organization, inhibit change. But in Hammarskjöld’s words ‘the United Nations was designed, not to create heaven on earth but to prevent hell’. With all its limitations, the United Nations seeks to do good consistent with its Charter.

18.99  The United Nations system represents the principal multilateral bodies, with the Security Council pre-eminent. Increasingly the major issues confronting governments are global in nature, often requiring multilateral agreements. As (p. 367) an organization of States this presents problems for decision-making, not least if the apparent sovereignty of States is to be challenged. The organization will need to respond to the myriad challenges facing the United Nations. These include putting in place effective policies to cope with contemporary issues such as poverty and development, climate change, a sustainable environment, terrorism, and so on, not to mention effective peacekeeping, the peaceful settlement of disputes, conflict prevention, and peacebuilding. Members will need to meet their obligations and confront the difficulties. The individual organs of the UN for their part must be prepared to undertake reform, to modernize their processes, to focus on results, and generally become much more efficient, delivering value for the annual subscription by States.

18.100  Diplomats working within the UN system usually belong to a national mission in New York and elsewhere. This entails a specialized role, invariably concentrating on a particular topic or committee, and being the basic source of advice to the ambassador, and hence to the capital. The range of issues is almost infinite as all challenges, one way or the other, impact on the Organs of the UN or its funds, programmes, and agencies. Obviously the diplomat’s interest is in the organization and not in the host country. The diplomat will spend more time with colleagues from other member States rather than in the mission. The crucial skills needed include the ability to present arguments orally and in writing, negotiate and draft outcomes with representatives of other countries, and concert results and agreements. A capacity to engage across traditional groupings and blocks is a great asset. Representatives of Member States of the European Union will spend much time concerting EU positions in the General Assembly and its committees, where usually the External Action Service of the European Union will speak for all twenty-eight EU Member States.41 Similarly, African States increasingly discuss issues within the context of the African Union. Indeed most countries set their policies within some form of regional grouping.


1  For a perceptive insider’s view see Lord Hannay, New World Disorder (London: I B Tauris, 2008).

2  It is generally accepted that the word ‘charter’ originated in the group in the United States State Department engaged, under the supervision of Dr Leo Pasvolsky, in the preparation of documents and drafts for the Dumbarton Oaks talks. The alternative word ‘covenant’ was rejected as reminiscent of the failure of the League of Nations. See Chapter 36, paragraph 36.4.

3  See Chapter 23, paragraph 23.37.

4  Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Ethiopia, France, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Liberia, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Syrian Arab Republic, Turkey, Ukraine, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, United States of America, Uruguay, Venezuela, Yugoslavia.

5  The effect of the limitations on the powers of the Assembly to act in a situation in which the Security Council may not be able to do so is referred to in paragraphs 18.9 et seq.

8  Selection of Vice-Chairmen of the Assembly and Chairmen of Committees is carried out by negotiation, first within and then between ‘blocs’. The electoral process starting with the President may be protracted. The Assembly specified in resolution 33/138 of 19 December 1978 that the number of vice-presidents should in future be twenty-one, distributed in agreed proportions between African, Asian, Eastern European, Latin American, Western European, and other Groups, and permanent members of the Security Council. A comparable system has also been worked out for the choice of the six chairmen of the Main Committees.

9  The Soviet Draft Resolution on non-self-governing territories of 1960 was a case in point.

10  For the sequel see paragraph 18.34.

11  The United Nations Assembly records are full of examples of the mutual influence of politics, law, institutional theory and practice, etc. A classic instance is the debate on the position of South Africa recorded in A/PV 2281 of 12 November 1974.

12  Art 17.2 reads: ‘The expense of the Organisation shall be borne by the Members as apportioned by the General Assembly.’

13  The discussions, voluntary initiatives, and expedients accompanying this main question were of immense length and complexity and can only be studied completely by reference to United Nations documents. A good background can be obtained from S D Bailey, The General Assembly of the United Nations (rev edn, New York: Praeger, 1964) and S C Xydis in The United Nations, Past, Present and Future, ed James Barros (New York and London, 1972).

14  The best way to approach a more detailed knowledge of this subject is undoubtedly to use the latest edition of the United Nations Yearbook as a starting-point. Research into the more detailed or more controversial activities can then follow.

15  The Soviet Union applied to this ‘thesis’ the term ‘hidden veto’.

16  Rules of Procedure of the General Assembly, United Nations (New York, 1970) 18: Rule 128 prescribes the same procedure for the Main Committees of the Assembly.

17  General Assembly resolution 1991 (XVIII) of 17 December 1963. The resolution came into force on 31 August 1965 on receipt of the necessary ratifications.

18  In 1976 Angola was admitted despite abstention by the United States.

19  General Assembly resolution 2758 (XXVI) of 25 October 1971: ‘Restoration of the lawful rights of the People’s Republic of China in the United Nations.’

20  Resolution 377 of 3 November 1950.

21  On how the ‘Uniting for Peace’ procedure has operated in practice, see D Zaum, ‘The Security Council, the General Assembly, and War: The Uniting for Peace Resolution’, in V Lowe, et al. (eds), The United Nations Security Council and War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) 154–74.

22  UN Security Council resolution 143 (1960) adopted on 14 July 1960.

23  Any serious study of the question owes the highest debt to Sydney D Bailey, both for his general work on the United Nations, and, in this present context, for his careful, informative, and sensitive work Voting in the Security Council (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969), and his later work The Procedure of the Security Council (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975).

24  There was, for instance, criticism of the failure of the Security Council in 1976 to take active cognizance of the intervention of Cuban troops in the civil war in Angola; and of the civil war in the Lebanon in the same year.

25  The resolution left behind one ambiguity for which, in the view of the Israelis and some others, a solution is required. The English text of the first ‘affirmation’ in the resolution contains the following principle: ‘(i) withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict… … ’ The French text (‘des territoires’) does not admit the narrow distinction between ‘territories’ and ‘the territories’ implied in the English, and this distinction may require final compromise—and statesmanship. The interpretation of the formula by the majority of delegations was that the text meant a wholesale restoration of occupied territories qualified only by small agreed modifications where experience and good sense indicated that these would help secure agreement.

26  ‘2005 World Summit Outcome’, General Assembly resolution 60/1 of 16 September 2005.

27  See Chapter 2, paragraph 2.24 and Chapter 3, paragraph 3.38.

28  Full text in Arts 100 and 101.

29  Resolution 152 (II) of 15 November 1947.

30  It is, however, pleasant to record that the end of the era of consecutive system in the United Nations had its glorious moment. The noted Latin-American statesman and orator Señor Fernando Belaúnde of Peru made at the General Assembly a long political speech in Spanish which was translated into French by one of the famous Kaminker brothers. M. Kaminker reproduced every significant phrase, every telling pause, every emotional tone and even every dramatic gesture, and, having used no notes at all, sat down amid a thunder of applause.

31  Resolutions 3189 (XXVIII) and 390 (XXVIII). See also Chapter 7, paragraph 7.9.

32  See Art 73, Chapter XI of the UN Charter.

33  Art 2.7 reads in part: ‘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 or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter… … ’ (The remaining language removes this limitation in cases arising under Chapter VII which deals with threats to the peace, etc.).

34  This Article of course excluded Trusteeship territories for which provision is made in Chapter XII of the Charter.

35  Professor David A Kay, University of Wisconsin, in his essay ‘Colonisation and Decolonisation’, in James Barros (ed), The United Nations, Past, Present and Future (New York: The Free Press and London, 1972), writes (at 168, n 20) ‘significantly for later developments, this provision was sponsored at the San Francisco Conference by the Soviet Union’.

36  In the original Soviet draft, the introduction was violent in tone, containing old-fashioned phrases such as: (in the colonial territories) ‘the swish of the overseer’s lash is heard; there heads fall under the executioner’s axe’. (Ibid, 149). The declaration as adopted by the General Assembly was of course less intemperate.

37  General Assembly resolution 1514 (XV) of 14 December 1960.

38  General Assembly resolution 1654 (XVI) of 27 November 1961.

39  As a minor example, a sub-committee of the main committee visited Aden (South Yemen) in 1967. They correctly called in London on their way and saw the Foreign Secretary, George Brown, who explained the local situation to them. When they reached Aden, the situation was disturbed; the sub-committee stayed in their hotel and refused even to meet members of the local administration. After a few days they went back to New York and (with the tacit acquiescence of the Secretary-General, U Thant) did not return to Aden.

40  In this connection William Wallace’s observations are valuable. See The Foreign Policy Process in Britain (London: Oxford University Press for Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1975), especially 261 et seq.

41  See K V Laatkainen, ‘Multilateral Leadership at the UN after the Lisbon Treaty’ (2010) 15 European Foreign Affairs Review 475, at 479–80.