The U.N. General Assembly Eyes a Bigger Role in International Peace and Security
The U.N. General Assembly Eyes a Bigger Role in International Peace and Security
Op-Ed / Global 1 minute

The U.N. General Assembly Eyes a Bigger Role in International Peace and Security

This month, the members of the United Nations General Assembly took a small step toward strengthening the forum’s role in international peace and security issues. The assembly, where all states have a single vote and none wields a veto, typically plays second fiddle to the U.N. Security Council when it comes to dealing with major crises. But the Council has become embroiled in debates between Russia and the West over Moscow’s war on Ukraine, and many U.N. members feel that the assembly should compensate for the council’s flaws.

The General Assembly has gained prominence due to the war in Ukraine, passing resolutions condemning Moscow for its aggression by large majorities. But most of these have stayed at the level of principle, making few concrete suggestions about how to structure a peace process. Following the military coup in Myanmar in 2021, the assembly did endorse a resolution specifically calling for an arms embargo on the country, but it had little impact. Unlike the Security Council, the General Assembly cannot pass binding resolutions on measures like sanctions. Diplomats serving in the assembly say that even if they want the body to play a greater role, figuring out how to achieve this is no easy task. 

Against this backdrop, a General Assembly working group agreed to the text of a wide-ranging resolution on the body’s functions in early July that included a short request for guidance—in the form of “a digital handbook or accessible outlines, on past practices, data and recommendations”—on how the body can fulfill its functions under Chapter IV of the U.N. Charter, which inter alia authorizes to make recommendations on security questions. The assembly still needs to adopt this resolution, but that should be a formality.

This is hardly a dramatic statement by U.N. members about the General Assembly’s future role in crisis management. Indeed, penny-pinching diplomats noted that U.N. officials and agencies should be able to work on this project within their existing budget. But it could fill a gap in U.N. members’ understanding of what the General Assembly can do when the Security Council cannot or will not act in a crisis.

This boils down to helping current and future generations of U.N. diplomats learn more about the history of the organization. Most officials who serve in the General Assembly stay in New York for three to four years, during which they inevitably get tangled up in the day-to-day business of debates and resolutions. Few have the spare time to delve into what the institution did in the past.

A quick survey of the assembly’s history shows that it has often interpreted its role on peace and security issues very expansively. In 1956, for instance, the General Assembly sidestepped a deadlocked Security Council to authorize the first fully fledged U.N. peacekeeping mission to end the Suez crisis. From the 1960s onward, the assembly was also a venue for states to put pressure on South Africa to end apartheid, recommending economic, military and other sanctions against Pretoria while the Security Council dragged its feet. By the standards of these earlier eras, the assembly’s recent interventions on Myanmar and Ukraine look comparatively tepid.

The General Assembly has rarely challenged the Security Council’s primacy on peace and security issues, and U.N. members have largely forgotten past precedents for assembly action.

If the General Assembly has taken a lower profile on international security in recent decades, it has been because the Security Council has been more-or-less effective since the end of the Cold War. The assembly has still engaged when the council has found itself stuck over a conflict. It was the assembly that, for example, called for the U.N. to mediate in Syria in 2012, after China and Russia blocked a council resolution over the escalating civil war. More recently, the assembly has pushed for accountability for war crimes and civilian disappearances in Syria.

Nonetheless, the General Assembly has rarely challenged the Security Council’s primacy on peace and security issues, and U.N. members have largely forgotten past precedents for assembly action. While the U.N. Secretariat publishes a detailed study of Security Council decision-making on crises, a similar record of General Assembly decision-making petered out years ago for lack of funds. A number of outside experts have tried to fill this gap. Rebecca Barber, an Australian academic, has authored a wide-ranging historical survey of how the assembly has engaged in crisis management. The General Assembly’s proposed handbook could build on this research, but also provide diplomats with a more official set of guidelines about handling future crises.

The proposal could also reinforce an initiative pushed by a coalition of states led by Liechtenstein last year for the assembly to debate cases that have been vetoed by one or more of the council’s permanent members. Assembly members have put this mechanism into action a number of times, most recently to address Russia’s decision to block a mandate for U.N. agencies to deliver aid to areas of northwest Syria outside of government control. But assembly members have not agreed on specific recommendations for how to overcome these council vetoes. A clearer outline of their options might help them make concrete proposals in these debates.

Of course, the primary obstacles to the General Assembly acting in most crises come down to politics rather than knowledge gaps. Many of the body’s members are willing to articulate broad positions of principle on conflicts, but wary of engaging in them more directly. Over a third of states that have voted on resolutions supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity failed to back a text last November that called on Moscow to pay Kyiv reparations. Having an online policy resource will not remove such political calculations.

But an authoritative outline of what the General Assembly can and cannot do in a crisis situation would also be a tool to help U.N. members that do want to see action lobby for their cause. Simply having a single point of reference that diplomats could turn to for ideas and precedents on assembly action on peacekeeping or mediation would ease discussions.

The General Assembly’s proposed call for a study of these issues is not in itself a great change to the way the U.N. works. But it may seed ideas to make the U.N. work better when the Security Council falters. The fact that assembly members have endorsed the idea is a sign that many suspect the body will need to engage more often in situations that split the council in the years ahead. And by every indication, they may be right.

The full article can be read on the World Politics Review′s website.

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