BERLIN — If you ask people on the street which United Nations organ has more influence, the Security Council or the General Assembly, they will most probably answer: “The Security Council,” since it has the primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security and is the only UN organ that can issue legally binding decisions that member states are bound to comply with under the UN Charter.
And they might add that the General Assembly is rather powerless since its resolutions are only recommendations and not mandatory or legally binding for UN members. And at first glance this is right.
Yet if you look closer at the UN Charter, the General Assembly is not that powerless; to some extent it can exert influence on the Security Council: It elects the nonpermanent members of the council, and the mighty permanent-five council members need at least four yes votes from their fellow elected members to adopt a decision or resolution. The assembly also has the power of the purse, as it decides on the budget of all UN organs, the Security Council included. And the council must convey reports to the General Assembly, an expression of the political accountability of the council to the assembly.
In other UN matters, the two organs have to cooperate, with the council sitting in the stronger position: on admitting new members to the UN, the council must make a recommendation, since the General Assembly can decide only on the basis of that recommendation. This is also the case for the election of the secretary-general: the council recommends one candidate and the assembly votes on the appointment based on this recommendation — it cannot vote on other candidates.
In early 2006, when the Security Council had to decide on recommending to the General Assembly a new secretary-general after Kofi Annan’s term ended, Canada initiated a nonpaper on the selection. At a meeting of the working group on the reform of the General Assembly in April of that year, numerous member states, among them Japan, Brazil, Switzerland and Malaysia, joined Canada in demanding to be informally included in the council’s process. For instance, they wanted to hold briefings with the candidates in the assembly or to have the assembly president hold substantial consultations with the council president. But the permanent-five council members — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — refused.
The assembly’s political power, which certainly bears no comparison with the powers of the council, lies in its reputation as a forum for the nations of the world and in its freedom to comment on all global issues: Article 10 of the UN Charter gives the assembly the authority to comment on the work of other UN organs, including the Security Council, and on any global problem or political conflict. In other words, the assembly can discuss everything and recommend many things, yet if it concerns conflicts that endanger peace it is the council alone that acts with political weight and legal consequences, such as imposing sanctions or deploying peacekeeping missions.
That means that the UN is prevented from acting effectively if the council cannot agree on an issue because of vetoes by the permanent members, a fact that has been demonstrated once again on the Syrian conflict: the council could not act due to the Russian and Chinese vetoes, and the assembly tried gallantly but without effect to fill the political gap through a critical resolution.
Yet the veto power of the permanent council members was intentionally built into the UN Charter by the founding members, since without this prerogative right of veto the great powers would not have ratified the charter at all.
There were times in UN history when the assembly partly overcame this frustrating situation by simply taking the political initiative in international peace and security matters from the council. For example, when the council proved to be unable to act in the Korean conflict in 1950 because of vetoes of the Soviet Union, the General Assembly claimed in Resolution 377 (V), titled “Uniting for Peace,” the right of the assembly to recommend “appropriate recommendations to members for collective measures . . . including the use of armed force when necessary” in cases of breaches of peace or acts of military aggression, provided the Security Council “fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security” because of permanent members’ lack of unanimity.
If such a situation arises while the General Assembly is not in session, a majority of the Security Council or members of the General Assembly may request an emergency special session within 24 hours on the grounds of Resolution 377 (V).
Even though the Uniting for Peace resolution confirmed only the right of the assembly to make recommendations on matters of international peace and security, the fact that emergency special sessions of the assembly could be requested either by the assembly itself or by council majorities turned out, time and again, to be effective in the handling of such political conflicts as the Suez crisis in 1956 and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
The assembly’s focused, timely debate during emergency special sessions were useful in exerting political pressure, but this tool lost its significance when the cold war ended in the early 1990s, and the council was less hindered since then by vetoes.
Yet the history of the use of the Uniting for Peace resolution gives proof that the council loses much of its power and legitimacy whenever the majority of the UN members get the impression that it is not interested in dealing with their problems and including them in decision-making processes. It seems that the council has learned its lesson about efficacy and legitimacy in the last two decades: since the late 1990s, it has increasingly involved the other member states in fact-finding and decision-making processes through informal reforms of its working methods. When the member states of the General Assembly can participate sufficiently, the powerful council can work better for peace and security.
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Helmut Volger has written and edited several books about the UN, including A Concise Encyclopedia of the United Nations, of which the second revised edition was published by Brill Academic Publishers in 2010. He is also a co-founder of the German UN Research Network (www.forschungskreis-vereinte-nationen.de).