The UN Security Council as a pivot for security management? A discussion on the Iraq Crisis

Essay 2006 11 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Topic: International Organisations


Table of content


The UN and the UN Security Council

The Second Gulf War and the UN

The future of the UN



In March 2003 an US-led coalition declared war against the Iraq and invaded Iraq. As soon as in April the resistance of the Iraqi military ended and the ‘coalition of the willings’ came out as the winner. But until today the situation in Iraq is far away from being peaceful. Instead there are terror attacks with hundred, sometimes even thousand, of dead civilians and soldiers every month.

But there is another point that led the war appears in bad light, namely that the United Nations (UN) and especially the Security Council of the UN never clearly backed this war. Furthermore the US-led coalition started the invasion disregarding the international community that was majoritarian against an attack on Iraq. But the fact that the US started the war by-passing the UN generates the question which role plays the UN nowadays in international politics? Is the UN still the only authority that has the legitimacy to decide and act in matters of international peace and security or are states paying less attention to the rules and regulations of the UN and strong states like the US act without regards to the UN and its the decisions in the future? Thus, can the UN and the Security Council restore and maintain their authority in matters of international dimension – despite the fact, that they were undermined in the Iraq war by the US (and the states that supported the US-led coalition)? Or did the unilateral Iraq War marked the ‘end of international security system’ (Glennon 2003, p.17)?

The starting point of this essay is this thesis of Thierry Tardy:

‘The ill-founded war in Iraq no doubt undermined the authority of the UN Security Council, apparently unable to match US security interests. But it also holds true that the UN still matters for the overwhelming majority of actors in the “international community” and is likely to remain an inescapable pivot of security management long after the Iraq crisis is out of the headlines’ (Tardy 2004, p.591)

To discuss these points this essay starts with a short introduction about the UN system and the Security Council of the UN. Afterwards I will look at the war on Iraq, how the UN and its member countries, especially the US, acted during to and after the war. This part will deal with the question why the war was not backed by the UN and which impacts this war had on the UN and the international community. Additionally this part looks at the future of the UN and its role in international governance after the Second Gulf War[1]. At the end I will make a short conclusion arguing that the Iraq War has not changed the role of the United Nations very significantly.

The UN and the UN Security Council

In 1945 the United Nations were founded. The United Nations were the successor of the League of Nations and were installed with the aim to prevent the recurrence of another world war. It has two central bodies that have an important role in saving international peace and security: the General Assembly and the Security Council (Weiss et al 2001, p.28).

Important for this essay is especially Article 2 (4) of the Charter of the UN which states:

‘All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.’ (United Nations 2006)

There are only two exceptions to this ban of the use of force. The first one is individual or collective self-defence in the case of a preceding attack written in Article 51 of the Charter of the UN. Although anticipatory self-defence or with other words a pre-emptive attack in which the defender uses forces before an actual attack is not explicitly ruled out, it is also not explicitly endorsed. Therefore, it is the normal case that the state which uses force first is seen as the guilty party (Coate, Forsythe and Weiss 2001, p.33). But this promise did not fit to every action. An example is the Six Day War in 1967. It is widely agreed that Israel fought a defensive warfare against its surrounding Arabic neighbour states that were a major threat to the Israeli security at that time. Thus, while this war was a pre-emptive war it was at the same time the exercise of self-defence (Falk 2005, p.109).

The second exception is the right of implementation sanctions that are imposed on a state according to Chapter VII of the UN Charter by the Security Council, including the use of military force to protect human rights (Schieder 2003, p.70).

Important in the field of international security is the institution of the Security Council of the UN. According to Article 24 of the Charta of the United Nations the Security Council has ‘primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security’. Furthermore the Security Council can make decisions that are obligatory for states (United Nations 2006).

The Security Council consists of five permanent members – namely the US, Russia, the UK, France and China – and ten non-permanent members. These non-permanent members are elected by the General Assembly (with a two-third majority) and have a mandate for two years (Ryan 2000, 21). In the case of a threat to international peace and security the Security Council has a few possibilities how to counter this threat. First it tries to settle the conflict peacefully under the term of Chapter VI of the UN Charter, including amongst others the possibility of sending a peacekeeping mission. It has further the possibility to enforce its decision under Chapter VII of the UN Charter with means like economic sanctions. Its most severe mean is to authorise member state to use ‘all necessary means’ which includes military action against a country to stabilise the situation and to guarantee security (Curtis and Taylor 2005, p.408).

But during more than four decades the UN the Security Council like every other player in international politics were dwarfed by the Cold War. The Security Council was mainly divided between the Western democracies and the Eastern Communist regimes und thus it was nearly not able to deal with and agree on major security and peace issues (Riggs and Plano 1994, pp.29-30). But after the end of the Cold War and moreover after the multilateral War against Iraq after the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, there was a world-wide ‘political euphoria about the possibility of relying on major international organizations, and particularly the United Nations, to legitimize the use of force’ (Stepanova 2003, p.191).

A first backlash for this euphoria was the NATO attacks in Kosovo in spring 1999. The Kosovo War was a unilateral attack of the NATO states without an explicit backing of the UN Security Council. Although the NATO states claimed that they had an approval the Security Council it was at least a controversial decision because China and particularly Russia expressed their refusal to such an action (Weiss et al 2001, p.97-8).

The Second Gulf War and the UN

The US president George W. Bush put Iraq together with Iran and North Korea to his ‘axis of evil’ in January 2002 (Cox 2005, p.152). Because of the rhetoric and the acting of the US government a unilateral attack against Iraq was widely expected. So it came somehow surprising that Bush went with this case to the UN in September 2002 to get support for their future actions (Tardy 2004, p.592).

The literature offers different explications of Bush’s action, ranging from the public opposition to a war and its preference of a multilateral approach, pressure from the US Congress, the influence of Tony Blair, the persuasiveness of Colin Powell, who was then Secretary of State to the importance Bush’s own views, values and priorities (Luck, 2004).

Apart from the reasons why the United States involved the UN, there was a real change for a diplomatic and multilateral solution. There was even a Resolution (1441) passed by the Security Council that threatened the Iraq with ‘serious consequences’ if it would not co-operate with the UN arms inspectors (White 2005, p.395). But in March 2003 it became clear that the Security Council would not come to an unanimous agreement and another draft of a new resolution was withdrawn by the US, the UK and Spain because it was sure that Russia, China and probably also France would veto this resolution that would have backed an attack on Iraq (Glennon 2003, p.18). The US had decided already in January to go to war against Iraq ultimately and only delayed its attack because it hoped that another UN resolution that backs the war would be passed (White 2005, p.395). But eventually a US-led coalition of 49 states attacked the Iraq without a permission of the Security Council and thus violating international law.

But the action of the US to bring the Iraqi case to the UN is differently interpreted. Glennon refers to this as ‘the beginning of the end of the international security system’ (2003, p.16). Glennon argues that at the time the US brought this case to the Security Council, it threatened the Security Council that it would act unilateral if the UN would fail to co-operate with US and back an attack of the US. Thus the US said from the begin that it did not need the Security Council in the case that the Security Council would not approve the use force against the Iraq (Glennon 2003, p. 17).

In opposite, Tardy argues that this commitment of the US to the UN shows that the UN Security Council was the only and central actor for a multilateral actor in managing the Iraq crisis. Tardy suggests a distinction between the process and the outcome of the process. In this way it would be clear that the UN still matters and that it is the central institution dealing with matters of international security, albeit the UN was bypassed in the end (Tardy 2004, pp.596-598). Tardy goes on and argues that actually the strong support of the UN and the belief in its institutions throughout the world convinced the US that ‘taking the UN route matters’ (2004, p.596).

The future of the UN

Most of the literature agrees that the attack on Iraq in 2003 undermined the role of the UN because the US acted unilateral with the objective of securing its own security interests (O’Neill and Rees, p.3).

But there are a lot of different interpretations if and how this unilateral war had and still has an impact on the role of the UN in general and in the future.


[1] I will refer to the Iraq War in 2003 as the Second Gulf War like most the English-speaking literature. In contrast the German literature and also some English literature, which I also used, are referring to this war as the Third Gulf War.


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Title: The UN Security Council as a pivot for security management? A discussion on the Iraq Crisis