Issue 88: The Security Council and International Legal Obligations

In his September 12 speech to the United Nations General Assembly, President Bush challenged the United Nations to enforce its Security Council resolutions on Iraq.  Four days later in the same hall, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara asked: “Why should the world request Iraq to adhere to Security Council resolutions, while Israel is allowed to be above international law?”  Since then, versions of this “double standard” argument have appeared with greater frequency, and not just in the remarks of the Arab diplomats.  The New York Times, BBC, Le Monde and El Pais are some of the major media organizations that have uncritically cited these arguments in their reporting.

Analysis: In fact, the case of Iraq is unique from a legal perspective with regard to enforcing compliance with United Nations resolutions.  The most important distinction is between UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolutions and UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions.  UNGA resolutions are political statements and not legally binding.  UNSC resolutions create legal obligations, which vary depending upon the chapter of the United Nations Charter under which they are passed and the text of the resolution.

Chapter VI of the UN Charter is entitled “Pacific Settlement of Disputes” and resolutions under this chapter envision negotiated solutions.  All UNSC resolutions related to Israel were promulgated under Chapter VI.  Neither sanctions nor force are authorized to enforce Chapter VI resolutions.

By contrast, Chapter VII of the UN Charter refers to cases of aggression or threats to international security, and is entitled “Action With Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression.”  These resolutions involve non-military (i.e. political and economic) sanctions and/or the use of force.  These resolutions are enforced by third parties: the UN itself and/or UN member states.

All of the Iraq resolutions include the phrase “Acting under Chapter VII of the Charter.”  Some also include the phrase “authorizes Member States … to use all necessary means” (i.e. the use of military force).  For example, part of Security Council resolution 678 reads: “Determined to secure full compliance with its decisions, Acting under Chapter VII of the Charter, … Authorizes Member States … to use all necessary means to uphold and implement resolution 660 (1990) and all subsequent relevant resolutions and to restore international peace and security in the area”.

The other countries that, in the history of the UN, have been subjects of Chapter VII resolutions are: Afghanistan, Angola, Ethiopia and Eritrea, Haiti, Liberia, Libya, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Sudan and the former Yugoslavia.  Of the above, sanctions have been lifted on Ethiopia and Eritrea, Haiti, South Africa, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Sudan and the former Yugoslavia.  Sanctions on Libya have been suspended.

With the fall of the Taliban and the recent change in regime, the Afghanistan sanctions are under review.  The US military response to the September 11 attacks, though, was based on the inherent right of self-defense (UN Charter Article 51) and did not require a UNSC resolution.  Regarding Angola, Sierra Leone and Rwanda, remaining sanctions prohibit third parties from dealings with rebel groups.  For Liberia, sanctions are mainly economic, focusing on the diamond trade.  For Somalia, all arms sales are prohibited to groups in that country. None authorize “all necessary means.”

Iraq is the only country that is still the subject of Chapter VII UNSC resolutions that authorize military action for enforcement.  Therefore, there is no double standard with Israel or other countries.  Iraq is a unique case and a justifiable priority for Security Council enforcement.


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