The UN's Dangerous Infirmity

The United Nations Security Council sit for a high level meeting on Syria at the United Nations in Manhattan, New York, U.S.,
The United Nations Security Council sit for a high level meeting on Syria at the United Nations in Manhattan, New York, U.S., September 25, 2016. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

With the election of a new UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, a fresh administration will shortly be taking power at Turtle Bay -- only to face a familiar problem which the global organization has never resolved, even after the Cold War: namely, how to stop the unlawful infringements on the UN Charter by the three most powerful permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Over the last thirteen or so years, the world has watched as all three nations -- the United States, Russia and China, all original sponsors of the UN's establishment -- have, each in turn, acted contrary to the provisions of the Charter by sending in forces to seize territories or overthrow governments without prior approval from the UN Security Council.

The first instance of this activity began with the decision by the Bush administration to dispatch troops to Iraq in 2003 to oust the regime of the Iraqi strongman, Saddam Hussein. Responding to the Al Qaeda attacks on America, President George W. Bush charged that Iraq had contacts with Al Qaeda and was harboring weapons of mass destruction. Therefore he demanded that the United Nations inspect the country for weapons and, if it was found in "material breach" of its obligations to disarm under previous UN cease-fire resolutions, seek measures to get rid of the weapons.

Subsequently, even as the UN was completing its inspections, Bush sought a new resolution in the Security Council authorizing the UN to intervene in Iraq. Two permanent veto-empowered members, France and Russia, opposed the measure, along with other non-veto countries on the Council. Understanding that he could not obtain the Council backing but asserting that he was acting under the umbrella of previous UN dictates on Iraq -- as well as claiming self-defense under Article 51 of the Charter -- Bush ordered American forces into Iraq. Later the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan publicly called the intervention illegal.

The second was Russia's takeover of the Crimea in 2014. Following the downfall of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych in February of that year, Russian President Vladimir Putin secretly moved masked Russian troops without insignia into Crimea that same month and rapidly took over the territory without notifying the UN Security Council or getting its consent -- in ways similar to what it had done in 2008 in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. By March 2014, following a pro-Russian referendum in Crimea sponsored by Moscow -- which the UN later called of "no validity"-- Russia officially annexed the land.

In late March 2014, the United Nations General Assembly formally denounced the annexation and the Crimea plebiscite, citing the need to defend the "territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders." Ukraine, for its part, pointed out that the land-grab violated the Helsinki Accords, the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons of 1994, and the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine signed by Moscow. World leaders condemned the act and later the West imposed still-extant economic sanctions on Russia.

The third was China's seizure of the South China islands. Beginning in the new century, the Chinese began to assert control over the islands in the South China seas, in the face of overlapping claims by at least a half-dozen Asian governments. It based its own claim on old official maps marked by a nine-dash line that include the entire watery boundaries. Subsequently the Chinese dumped tons of dirt to transform rocks and reefs into artificial islands, established military outposts and airbases on many of the islands, restricted navigation within this vital conduit for global shipping, barred foreign fishing vessels from the sea, and declared exclusive dominion over the seas' potential reserves of natural gas and minerals.

All of this was done without any prior authorization from the UN Security Council. Subsequently the Philippines, which had its own claims over the islands, filed a case against the Chinese government at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. This year that court invalidated China's seizure of these islands. Since then, though, there has been no follow-up on the court's finding, as the new president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, seeks to make peace with China.

The outcome of all three dramas, however, has meant that the three original sponsors of the UN have, in effect, tossed aside all their reasons for creating this global security body for the pursuit of narrow nationalistic and security objectives. Their actions have set a direct challenge to the heart of the UN's mandate which is to stop outside aggressors. How can the UN pursue its duties under such circumstances in the future? Will an institution riven apart by its own founders ultimately be able to survive? These are the question which the new Secretary-General will now have to address.