As UN Security Council action on Syria founders on the usual rocks of the veto-wielding permanent members, David Bosco has posted a series of entries on his Multilateralist blog at FP discussing the veto power and ways around it (Bosco posits shame). What he hasn’t included is a discussion of the “Uniting for Peace” resolution, the most direct (if esoteric) way around Russia’s veto obstruction.
Resolution 377 A—the so-called Uniting for Peace resolution—was adopted by the General Assembly in 1950 in response to Soviet veto obstructionism (the more things change?). At the time, the Soviet Union was preventing further UN Security Council action on the crisis in Korea after it ended its boycott of the Security Council. The text of the resolution reads in part:
Reaffirming the importance of the exercise by the Security Council of its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, and the duty of the permanent members to seek unanimity and to exercise restraint in the use of the veto,
. . .
Conscious that failure of the Security Council to discharge its responsibilities on behalf of all the Member States, particularly those responsibilities referred to in the two preceding paragraphs, does not relieve Member States of their obligations or the United Nations of its responsibility under the Charter to maintain international peace and security,
Recognizing in particular that such failure does not deprive the General Assembly of its rights or relieve it of its responsibilities under the Charter in regard to the maintenance of international peace and security,
Recognizing that discharge by the General Assembly of its responsibilities in these respects calls . . . for the existence of armed forces which could be used collectively . . .
1. Resolves that if the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in any case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression, the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately with a view to making appropriate recommendations to Members for collective measures, including in the case of a breach of the peace or act of aggression the use of armed force when necessary, to maintain or restore international peace and security. . . .
The Uniting for Peace resolution has been invoked on several occasions to circumvent a deadlocked Security Council in the face of a threat or breach of international peace and security. These occasions have included the United States’ invocation of Uniting for Peace during the Suez Crisis.
In theory, the Uniting for Peace resolution offers a path around the Security Council for Western actors that seek to intervene in Syria. Although it does not authorize military action under Chapter VII, as a Security Council resolution may, it may call for collective military action. Thus, the General Assembly could not invoke, as could the Security Council, endorse the Arab League plan for Syria under Chapter VII authority, which would compel Syria to follow that plan or face international force. But, Uniting for Peace, could be used to call on members of the international community to intervene in Syria because of its failure to carry out the Arab League plan (or because Syria’s actions are a threat to or breach of international peace and security). In the wake of intervention, it would then be up to the ICJ to determine whether such intervention under the guise of Uniting for Peace was wrongful.
Of course, like so many other technical devices, once used in this manner it can never be unused. The prospect of taking internationally sanctioned uses of force out of the hands of the Security Council and, implicitly, the hands of the permanent members thereof is the very reason this route is unlikely. Much like the elevation of R2P to the level of customary international law or (even less likely) jus cogens, this would represent a radical alteration in the power dynamics of the current international system.