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A U.N. Alternative to War: ÒUniting for PeaceÓ


In the last few months the Bush Administration has been unyielding in its march towards war over the objections of some allies and despite the efforts of the United Nations. It now seems inevitable that the United States, with some other countries, may soon engage in armed conflict in Iraq. But for people around the world terrified by the current conflict, there may be hope yet. That hope lies in a little-discussed mechanism of the United Nations which, although it seems marginalized by American power, has the potential to stop the war.

In 1950, the Security Council set up a procedure for insuring that stalemates between countries would not prevent the United Nations from carrying out its mission to “maintain international peace and security.” With the United States playing an important role in its adoption, the Council adopted Resolution 377, the aptly named “Uniting for Peace” in an almost unanimous vote.

Uniting for Peace provides that if, because of the lack of unanimity of the permanent members of the Security Council (France, China, Russia, Britain, United States), the Council cannot maintain international peace where there is a “threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression,” the General Assembly “shall consider the matter immediately….” The language of Uniting for Peace would also allow its use even if the Security Council approved the use of force against Iraq. It can be employed “if the Security Council…fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security…”

The General Assembly can meet within 24 hours to consider such a matter, and can recommend collective measures to U.N. members including the use of armed forces to “maintain or restore international peace and security.”

The Uniting for Peace resolution procedure has been used ten times since 1950. Its first use was by the United States. After Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956 Britain and France attacked and occupied parts of the canal. Cease-fire resolutions in the Security Council were quickly vetoed by Britain and France. The United States went to the General Assembly calling for a cease-fire and a withdrawal of forces. An emergency session was held under the Uniting for Peace resolution; the U.S. resolution and subsequently an even stronger resolution passed the General Assembly. In the face of these resolutions it took less then a week for Britain and France to withdraw.

Uniting for Peace was next used by the United States to pressure the Soviet Union to cease its intervention in Hungary in 1956. The Soviet Union had used its veto to prevent the passage of an anti-intervention resolution in the Security Council. Again, an emergency session of the General Assembly was held and the Soviet Union was ordered to stop its intervention in Hungary.

In the current impasse over Iraq in the Security Council, Uniting for Peace can and should be used. The General Assembly should consider taking action with regard to the threat to the peace posed by U.S. military action against Iraq taken without U.N. authority. (The General Assembly could also act, as stated earlier, if the Security Council authorized a war that was a “threat to international peace and security.”) It could require that no military action be taken against Iraq without the explicit authority of the Security Council.

It could mandate that the inspection regime be permitted to complete its inspections. It seems unlikely that the United States and Britain would ignore such a measure. A vote by the majority of countries in the world, particularly if it were almost unanimous, would make the unilateral rush to war more difficult.

Uniting for Peace can be invoked either by seven members of the Security Council or by a majority of the members of the General Assembly. This gives those who oppose unilateral war a real opportunity for activism. People everywhere in the world can lobby their governments to bring on such a resolution. This effort can become a worldwide effort to, as the UN Charter so eloquently states, “save succeeding generations form the scourge of war.”

(The CCR website has a draft resolution and other supporting Uniting for Peace documents. www.ccr-ny.org)

Michael Ratner President, Center for Constitutional Rights

Jules Lobel Professor, Univ. of Pittsburgh Law School 1 412 648 1375

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