The Charter of the United Nations: A Primer



In the course of a 37-year military career, which included UN peacekeeping missions in Cyprus, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Croatia, I never once read or even saw a copy of the Charter of the United Nations. I don’t know of any other officers who did, nor did I ever even hear it discussed. And, as for our understanding of our employment and of our missions, that was pretty much it for my generation of officers. And still it seems today that much current debate, even at very high levels, is little better informed and no less careless of details than were my generation.

This is just not good enough. Ill informed debate is not useful discussion, and we have learned the hard way that unrealistic expectations produce ill judgement, which can and often does lead to self-fulfilling prophecies of failure.

To the extent that the United Nations is the pre-eminent system and authority for, inter-alia, the maintenance of international peace and security, and to the extent that we really do care about these issues, we need to know the Organization better, and there is no better way to know this Organization than through familiarity with its mighty Charter. (As you can see from the illustration above, I have since put a lot of miles on my copy of the Charter, even, as you can also see, while I was in fact working Chapter VIII.)

The Charter of the UN is a remarkable document. Drafted in 1945, and entering into force just six months after the drafting, it has been amended on only four occasions, the last over 40 years ago.

We will in this article describe and explore the following Chapters of the Charter of the United Nations:

Chapter I: Purposes and Principles
Chapter III:  Organs
Chapter IV: The General  Assembly
Chapter V: The Security Council
Chapter VI: Pacific Settlement of Disputes
Chapter VII: Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression
Chapter VIII: Regional Arrangements

Chapter I: Purposes and Principles

Article 1 of the Charter provides that the purposes of the UN are, inter alia, “to maintain international peace and security,” and it is principally for this that the UN is known, and for the absence or the breaches of which it is most frequently criticized.

Article 2 states (in Paragraph 1) that “The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its members.”  Paragraph 7 takes this a little farther:  “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of of any state …”  This paragraph has been repeatedly abused as a shield for widespread abuses of human rights, and more than that (as we wrote on this site in January 2010):

It is just that “domestic jurisdiction,” plus “national sovereignty,” which seem to have fused into an inertia of rest, limiting where not preventing altogether international or regional intervention in the affairs of a member state of the United Nations, …  domestic jurisdiction has become, to paraphrase Dr. Johnson, the last refuge of a scoundrel.


But the usually-ignored final clause of 2.7 concludes:

but this principal shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter VII.

And to just this issue we will return when we come to that Chapter VII.

Chapter III: Organs

The United Nations is quite far from the monolith its detractors like to portray it as being.

Article 7 provides that:

There are established as the principal organs of the United Nations: a General Assembly, a Security Council, an Economic and Security Council, a Trusteeship Council, an International Court of Justice, and a Secretariat.

We will be considering the General Assembly (GA) and the Security Council (Sec Co) in more detail. But the interesting thing about this basic organizational description is what it does NOT provide for, and these are the so-called specialized agencies.

These are:

  • The International Labor Organization (ILO);
  • The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO);
  • The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization  (UNESCO);
  • International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO);
  • World Health Organization (WHO);
  • World Bank Group: this consists of four separate institutions: the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development; the International Finance Corporation; the International Development Association; the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency.  An important function of the World Bank is the production of the annual World Development Report.
  • The International Monetary Fund (IMF – this and the World Bank are often referred to as the Bretton Woods organizations, as they were founded in the course of a conference at Bretton Woods in 1944).
  • Universal Postal Union (UPU);
  • International Telecommunications Union (ITU);
  • World Meteorological Organization (WMO);
  • International Maritime Organization (IMO);
  • World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO);
  • International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAO);
  • United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO);
  • International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA);
  • World Trade Organization (WTO).

Sixteen of them! And this list of UN bodies is not complete, as it does not include the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF); the International Organization  for Migration (IOM), nor the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

We won’t go into more detail here about them, but there are two important characteristics of this Gang of Sixteen (plus):

  1. They enjoy and they actively promote for themselves an astonishing degree of autonomy, especially in respect of all other organs and agencies of the United Nations. They each have their own flag, their own supervisory board or commission, usually their own direct donors and thus their own budget.
  2. They cannot always be expected to work together nor even necessarily to cooperate constructively.  As I wrote in my book Military Forces in 21st Century Peace Operations:  No Job for a Soldier?  (Routledge, 2006):

It seems that the surest way to create divisions among the international agencies, who are supposed to be cooperating , and who must cooperate, is to have similar organizations pursuing similar goals – we lose no time in running Occam’s Razor down nearly invisible lines, but separating from each other elements more alike than different. Is the similarity of roles itself a threat, making competition a perceived imperative, like the territorial behaviour of humans (as well as other animals)? … Perhaps our most serious differences will indeed arise when we do the same or nearly the same things for different reasons.

Sigmund Freud called it “the narcissism of small differences”. The more alike organizations might be, the more likely they are to compete rather than to cooperate. So don’t expect great inter-agency cooperation from, for examples, from WFP and FAO; nor from UNDP and the WB (the tensions here may stem from the fact that, with very similar missions, the WB has 14 times the budget of UNDP); WHO may have very strained relations with the Red  Cross and with Medicins sans Frontieres (and, it almost goes without saying, they with each other).

A notable exception to the competition-instead-of-cooperation syndrome seems to be occurring now in and around Syria, where the IOM works in the country to alleviate the misery of the displaced, and UNHCR operates refugee centres around the perimeter of the country, in Lebanon,Iraq, Egypt, Turkey and Jordan. Although strictly speaking a refugee is one who has left their country, UNHCR has not been too strict on that: in Bosnia most of the distressed population there were displaced persons rather than refugees, and the UNHCR response to and management of those problems was magnificent.

Chapter IV: The General Assembly

Article 9 provides that

The General Assembly shall consist of all the Members of the United Nations.

… all 192 of them.

Think of it as the UN’s lower house, but this is also no monolith. The most precious issue to each Member is its “sovereign equality”. Think of each Member watching all the others over a rough stone wall, top-lined with shards of broken glass, and the whole place and all their proceedings fairly bristling with their “domestic jurisdictions.”

Fortunately, the whole is more than  the sum of its parts: everybody does belong, and the UN is its members. This makes criticism of the UN somewhat difficult – unless you’re Swiss (and if you’re Swiss you’re excused many things).

Even in this cat herd,  some interesting things do happen. For example, peacekeeping was born there.  We’ve written about this on this site before (see Peacekeeping in our Time: Past the Age of Consent, 14 May 2012):

… on October 30, 1956, (there was a) veto in the Security Council, by France and Britain, of a U.S.–sponsored resolution calling upon Israel to withdraw from territories she had occupied in the wake of the Anglo-French invasion. …The next day, the Yugoslav representative offered a resolution under the “Uniting for Peace Resolution”  (also  referred to as “The Acheson Plan”)  to move the issue to an Emergency Special Session of the General Assembly – as this was a procedural matter, it was not subject to veto  (see Article 27.2).  The referral was passed over the objections of France and Britain, and the Special Session convened (at 1700 hours) on November 1.

Let’s look a little more closely at that “Acheson Plan.”

It had been proposed by the U.S. Secretary of State, Dean Acheson and was approved in the GA in November 1950. It provided that in the case of failure of the Security Council to act in a “threat to international peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression”  the GA might act immediately and could recommend collective measures, which  might include the use of armed force.

“The Uniting for Peace Resolution”, to give it its proper title, fits nicely into a very important Charter provision on voting in the GA; Article 18.1 provides that

Decisions of the General Assembly on important questions shall be made by a two-thirds majority of the members present and voting. (emphasis added) … These questions shall include: … international peace and security …

So you had to be  there, and you had  to vote. Abstentions and boycotts wouldn’t work. And then, despite all the huffing and puffing and threats to blow the house down, in the early morning darkness of Sunday, 4 November 1956, after nearly 60 hours of sitting, peacekeeping was born in the General Assembly.

Lester Pearson, whose idea this had been all along, was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize (and had an internationally famous peacekeeping training centre named after him).

Chapter IV: The Security Council

Article 24 provides that

… to ensure prompt and effective action by the United Nations, its Members confer on the Security Council  primary responsibility  for the maintenance of international peace and security ..

This is the UN’s upper house, and it has also its divisions.

There are five permanent members, called in the vernacular the P5. They are the U.S., the U.K., France, Russia and China.  Aside from their permanence, they have one other distinguishing characteristic – they have The Veto. This is a very contentious issue to which we shall shortly return.

There are also 10 non-permanent members, called the NP 10. These are elected from the membership in the GA for a period of two years. Five new members are elected each year. They of course do not have veto powers.

Voting in the Sec Co is prescribed in Article 27; paragraph 3 of that article provides that “Decisions of the Security Council on all other matters (i.e. other than strictly procedural) shall be made by an affirmative vote of nine members  including the concurring votes of the permanent members …” That is to say, absent a P5 member veto.

There has been much rumbling about Sec Co reform – it is a cyclical thing. When there is periodically widespread discontent with the UN, there are urgent calls  for reform. These calls usually are primarily concerned with the veto, and with Sec Co expansion.

The  veto-holders, the P5, have of course the power to halt any action of which they, individually or severally, may disapprove, and they emphatically will not approve anything effecting their veto powers. It might be called “Catch 27.”

Discussions of the composition of the Sec Co, which inevitably means expansion, is another thorny issue. It is argued that the P5 is too restricted, consisting entirely of the victors of WWII, and in no way representative of the distribution of power or of population today. It is argued that the permanent membership of the Sec Co should be expanded, and that that might include, for example, India, Brazil, Japan, even Germany has been suggested. It has also  been suggested that additional Sec Co members might not have the veto, thus creating (or suggesting) a second-tier of the permanent membership. Among the several difficulties here, aside from the obvious reluctance of the P5 to allow any dilution of their power, is regional representation: if Germany is considered, that would be an unacceptable increase in Euro-centrism, while there is no membership from Latin America, and none from Africa. And Africa has nearly one-and-one-half times the total population of the EU, if North Africans are included. 1  You see the problem.

The theme is a hardy perennial, but is usually taken up in frustration with the UN, and not from a genuine  spirit of reform. It has even been suggested that discussion of Sec Co reform is a deliberate wrench-in-the-spokes manoeuvre.

There is in the Sec Co a little-known, oft-violated final clause to that Article 27, which prescribes voting in the Sec Co:

… in decisions under Chapter VI (see next section) and under paragraph 3 of Article 52 (of Chapter VIII – see that section of this article) a party to a dispute shall abstain from voting.


Nevertheless, in voting in the Security Council on October 30, 1956 on a US-sponsored resolution calling for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Egyptian territory which she had occupied in the wake of the Anglo-French invasion of Suez, France and the U.K. were allowed to cast their vetoes. It was that resulting paralysis of the Sec  Co which led to the removal of the issue to the GA, where the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) was born.

But this abuse of Sec Co voting rules was to be repeated a generation later. Rwanda had been elected to a non-permanent seat on the Sec Co on 1 January, 1994, and in April, at the hight of the crisis, was allowed to cast a her vote in the Sec Co against an arms embargo – on Rwanda.

Deja vu all over again: in August of 2013, Rwanda, again on the Sec Co since 1 January, voted against UN sanctions on two M23 leaders, as well as a Sec Co press statement condemning the death of a Tanzanian peacekeeper.  Rwanda, while not officially a “party”, was widely considered to be among the major supporters of M23, and would undoubtedly have been at least reproved in any resolution.

And still:

In December 1994 Ukraine signed the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and thereby relinquished all nuclear weapons on her territory. In return, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States reaffirmed “their commitment to Ukraine, … to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine”; ..and reaffirmed “their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial  integrity or political independence of Ukraine …”  These promises were contained in  a letter delivered to the Security Council on 7 December 1994; the  letter was signed by, among others, Sergey V. Lavrov, the present Foreign Minister of Russia.

In March 2014 the Crimea was “annexed” by the Russian Federation. Following seven failed attempts to convene  the Security Council to consider the matter, in  which Russia threatened  to veto any discussion, the issue was taken up by the General Assembly, which passed a non-binding Resolution (68/262) on 27 March 2014.

Since April 2014 there has been a virtual state of civil war in the Eastern Ukraine region of Donbas, allegedly waged by pro-Russian and ethnic Russian separatists; it was estimated that by the end of that summer nearly 80% of those “rebels” were in fact Russian Federation soldiers.

In 2014 the Security Council held 272 meetings. Only four concerned the situation in Ukraine: these four took note of letters to the Security Council from the Russian and the Ukrainian delegations; there  is no record of any discussion of their contents. So far in 2015 the Security Council has held 81 meetings; seven letters have been received from the Russian and the Ukrainian delegations – there is no record of any discussion.

There is a strong case to be made that the Russian Federation is acting in contravention of Articles 1, 2, 27 and 33 of the Charter of the United Nations, of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (The Helsinki Act, 1 August 1975) and of that “Memorandum on Security Assurances in connection with Ukraine’s accession to the Treaty on the NPT” (1994).  But that case cannot be presented, it can not even be considered, in the UN Security Council.

It seems to  us that Article 27.3 is perfectly clear: “… a party to a dispute shall abstain from voting.”

Chapter VI: Pacific Settlement of Disputes

Article 33.1 of the Charter provides that:

The parties to any dispute, the continuance of which is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security, shall, first of all, seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice.

It is a curiosity of the Charter that the term peacekeeping, for which the UN is best known, occurs nowhere in that Charter.  Nevertheless, it is this Chapter which is used to mandate what has in the past nearly 60 years come almost to embody the entire persona of the United Nations – the Blue Berets.  Dag Hammarskjold referred to the mandate of that first peacekeeping operation, UNEF,  as “Chapter 6 1/2.”

Inherent, but far from explicit, in this Chapter are several seeds of what came to be called “traditional peacekeeping” or “classical peacekeeping”:

  • Peacekeeping missions would be deployed only with the full consent of the parties, especially of the host government (or governments).
  • Peacekeepers would use force only as a last  resort and only in self-defence, as specified in Article 51.
  • The role of a peacekeeping force would be largely passive, seeking to create the time and space and atmosphere in which substantive negotiations to resolve the conflict might take place.

This largely passive force concept was as good as it was to get, especially during the Cold War, in a world characterized by rigid bi-polarity, with the international community largely managed by superpowers with their allies,clients and satellites.  When in 1967 the-then Defence Minister of  Canada, Paul Hellyer, said that “The enforcement provisions of the Charter have been tacitly abandoned”, he was for that time speaking pretty much the truth.

By the end of the 20th Century, however, it was clear that this was just not good enough as the anticipated brave new world turned out to be far more volatile, violent and unpredictable than the recent past had been. For example, when in October 1993 the mandate of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) was established (United Nations Security Council Resolution [UNSCR] 918), the mandate was a “classical”, “Chapter VI” force. It was not until May of 1994, by which time 12 Belgian peacekeepers and hundreds of thousands of Rwandans had been murdered, that the Sec Co finally authorized (UNSCR 918) the expansion of the UN Force, citing Chapter VII as the basis for the mandate. Nevertheless, when in May 1994 the UN Force Commander asked for the means to jam hate radio in Rwanda, he was denied that capability because of cost and a perceived violation of Rwandan sovereignty.

We need now to look in some detail at Chapter VII of the Charter.

Chapter VII: Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Agression

Article 39 of the Charter provides that:

The Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42, to maintain or restore international peace and security.

Thus Chapter VII  begins with “measures not involving the use of armed force” (Article 41) and, should the Security Council consider these inadequate, “it may take such action by air, sea or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security” (Article 42). Actions mandated under this Chapter of the Charter are referred to as “enforcement operations”, and give to this Chapter its popular title of “the Enforcement Chapter.”  A Sec Co resolution under this Chapter will frequently contain the phrase “taking all necessary measures” (it may or may not otherwise refer directly to Chapter VII).

This Chapter has of course been on the books since 1946, but that doesn’t  mean we’ve had 70 years of experience with enforcement mandates and enforcement operations. During the Cold War – that Age of Consent – there were only two enforcement operations: Korea in 1950 and the Congo in 1962. Since 1990, however, most UN peace operations have been or have become enforcement operations; indeed the Security Council has mandated the invasions of three member states (Iraq, Haiti and Somalia). In the period 1991-1994, the Security Council passed eleven resolutions under Chapter VII of the Charter in respect of the Former Yugoslavia and Bosnia Herzegovina.

And therein lies a major problem  with enforcement operations. It is known in the field as mission creep, and it occurs when a mandate is escalated without effective changes to structures and resources.  For some examples:

  • UNAMIR  (Rwanda) was mandated by UNSCR  872 of 10 October 1993, under Chapter VI of the Charter, and with an authorized strength of 2,500. Following the massacre of the 10 Belgian soldiers and the withdrawal of the Belgian contingent, and with genocide in full swing, the  Sec Co  on 20 April 1994 reduced UNAMIR  to 250 troops. When the mandate of UNAMIR was upgraded to an enforcement mandate by UNSCR 981 (l7 May 1994), the authorized strength of the Force was raised to 5500, this to be achieved in 31 days. On the day that increase was to have been effected, the UNAMIR Force strength stood at 503. But they had an enforcement mission, as long as they didn’t violate their hosts’ sovereignty by jamming their hate radio.
  • The United Nations Protection Force had originally been mandated to conduct “Chapter VI” peacekeeping operations in Croatia, but the urgent humanitarian situation in Bosnia Herzegovina could not be ignored, and the mission quickly (four months into its deployment) segued into a Chapter VII operation in Bosnia.  A marginally adequate troop increase was authorized for this expanded mission.  However, the UN involvement in Bosnia again deepened with the establishment of the Safe Areas, the first of which was proclaimed in Srebrenica on 16 April 1993, when the Security Council, acting under Chapter VII of the Charter, adopted UNSCR 819. This demanded that ‘all parties treat Srebrenica as a ‘Safe Area’, which should be free from any armed attack or other hostile act’. On 21 April, UNPROFOR troops entered Srebrenica,mostly Canadians detached from their parent battalion at Kiseljak. On 6 May, with the passage of UNSCR 824, Sarajevo, Tuzla, Sepa, Gorazde and Bihac ‘and their surroundings’, were added to the list of Safe Areas. On 4 June, that mandate was again expanded to ‘deter attacks … monitor the cease fire, to promote the withdrawal of military or paramilitary units other than those of the Bosnian Government and to occupy some key points …’. It was at this point that mission creep was born: although the UNPROFOR Force Commander had estimated that 34,000 additional troops would be required “to obtain deterrence through strength”, the Secretary General “noted that it was possible to start implementing the resolution under a ‘light option’, with a minimal troop reinforcement of around 7600. That option represented an initial approach and had limited objectives. It assumed the consent and cooperation of the parties and provided a basic level of deterrence”. Despite the sorry experiences of the UN with consent, cooperation and deterrence from the outset of the missions in the former Yugoslavia, the Security Council authorized that ‘light option’ of 7600 additional troops by the adoption of UNSCR 844 on 18 June.  None of those troops had arrived when the final assault on Srebrenica, guarded by about 150 lightly armed “peacekeepers”, began on 6 July 1995, and the town fell on 11 July. Zepa fell 14 days later. “The moral responsibility of the international community is heavy indeed,” the Secretary-General concluded.  Indeed.
  • The United Nations Mission in Somalia was originally mandated by the Sec Co, acting under Chapter VI of the Charter, on 24 April 1992. The mission was to provide a secure environment  to humanitarian workers there. That having come to be seen as less than adequate, the mission  was expanded by UNSCR 775 of 28 August to include security of air and sea ports essential to the landing and distribution of supplies. Deployment was to begin in December. A final troop contributor coordinating conference was held in mid-December at the U.S. Central Command HQ in Florida. At that time, the Canadian contingent was already on the move, and ships were loading in Montreal. The Canadians had formed and briefed and trained for a “traditional” peacekeeping mission, and were to have been based on a French Army base in Djibouti.  However, at that very critical moment, all was changed: the Sec Co, acting under Chapter VII of the Charter, re-roled the emerging  force as an enforcement operation. The Canadians were to be based in Mogadishu, and were to operate convoys well inland, and might expect to be involved in heavy fighting. Chaos ensued. What were the new rules of engagement? How were they to be disseminated? A “peacekeeping” forces differs not only on paper from an enforcement operation: the very structure of the Force must change to reflect a very much more challenging mission and much more significant dangers and therefore use of force. And how to disseminate this to soldiers already on the move from their home bases? In the events, the tragedies which befell this mission and many of its members, were the direct result of this mission creep.  You can look it up.

I have summarized here the three worst disasters ever to have befallen the United Nations, its soldiers and those they sought to protect. All three have resulted from radical changes to missions which should have, but in these three cases did not, result in changes to troop strength, force structures and rules of engagement.

In 1996 the United Nations, smarting under these humiliations, commissioned an investigation into its own peacekeeping practices. That commission, entitled the Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations and nick-named for its commissioner Lakhdar Brahimi, the “Brahimi Report”, concluded that

… United Nations military units must be capable of defending themselves, other mission components and the mission’s mandate. Rules of Engagement should be sufficiently robust and not force United Nations contingents to cede the initiative to their attackers. …

(This) means bigger forces, better equipped and more costly but able to be a credible deterrent threat, in contrast to the symbolic and non-threatening presence that characterizes traditional peacekeeping. United Nations forces for complex operations should be sized and configured so as to leave no doubt in the minds of would-be spoilers as to which of two approaches the Organization has adopted. …


To deploy a partial force incapable of solidifying a fragile peace would first raise and then dash the hopes of a population engulfed in conflict or recovering from a war, and damage the credibility of the United Nations as a whole.

And that is what enforcement really means, say we Peacehawks.

There is one more issue with this vital chapter which we need to consider, and this is the There is one more issue with this vital chapter which we need to consider, and this is the military staff capacity of the United Nations. 

Article 46 of the Charter provides that “Plans for the application of armed force shall be made by the Security Council with the assistance of the Military Staff Committee,” and Article 47.1 provides that

There shall be established a Military Staff Committee to advise and assist the Security Council on all questions relating to the Security Council’s military requirements for the maintenance of international peace and security, the employment and command of forces placed at its disposal, the regulation of armaments, and possible disarmament.

In accordance with Article 47.2

The Military Staff Committee shall consist of the Chiefs of Staff of the permanent members of the Security Council or their representatives.

Accordingly, the Military Staff Committee (MSC) was created 70 years ago, and has since remained nearly dormant, meeting semi-annually only to choose and inaugurate successive Chairmen – by now, nearly 150 of them.

It has been said that, just as the Sec Co itself is criticized, the MSC is non-representative of the world body, and that it is a WWII cum Cold War anachronism. Nevertheless,  it is now timely and urgent that we re-examine in full what the Charter actually fully prescribed in founding the MSC.

The drafters of the Charter seem to have anticipated with fair accuracy just the criticisms that have been levelled against the MSC. The same article – 47.2 – which specifies that the MSC be constituted from the permanent five members of the Council, also provides that

Any member of the United Nations not represented on the Committee shall be invited by the Committee to be associated with it when the efficient discharge of the Committee’s responsibilities requires the participation of that Member in its work.

. That article continues, saying (in 47.4) that

The Military Staff Committee, with the authorisation of the Security Council and after consultation with appropriate regional agencies, may establish regional sub-committees.

Of course, the MSC was not to have been just the five generals; it was certainly anticipated that they would have their own staffs and would in time constitute a joint staff at the UN HQ. Of course, that never happened.

Whether or not the MSC can be brought back to life, it is a serious omission that the UN has almost no military capacity.

In 2006 the Secretary General complained that there were in the Secretariat only about 32 military officers. The Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) gives no figures for the current number of officers there, but one source close to DPKO has estimated that there are about 70 officers now employed in the UN Secretariat. However, there are currently over 120,000 military, police and civilians employed on 16 peace operations world-wide.  2

Clearly the United Nations lacks an adequate command and control capacity for wide-ranging and robust military operations, not by prescription, but by omission. Had the world body anything like the military staff resources of any one of its Members, not to say anything like any of the European agencies, it would have or could soon develop the required structures and capabilities.

If for whatever reasons – whether hostility towards the United Nations, or to peacekeeping – the Military Staff Committee cannot be awakened from its long sleep, then it must be replaced by another body which will fulfil the functions the Members, in agreeing to the Charter, have agreed (in Article 43) that the UN is to have.

Chapter VIII: Regional Arrangements

Chapter VIII of the Charter, “Regional Arrangements”, was written, as was the entire Charter, in 1945, to describe the manner in which the U.N. might cooperate with “regional arrangements or agencies” for the maintenance of international peace and security. However, there was at that time only one regional organization in the entire world, and that was the Arab League. But Chapter VIII was prescient, in that it both foresaw a major problem, and prescribed the solution, one we are still working on.

It was to be more than a half-century after the Charter was written that a truly international-regional peacekeeping mission came into existence, when the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) was formed, with “pillars” contributed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the European Union (EU), the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) and, as adjunct members, NATO (which led and largely manned the Kosovo Force – KFOR. 3. However cautious we might be in calling a peace operation  a success, the cooperation of those “pillars” under that “umbrella” (not to mix a metaphor) was just about all that might have been expected by those ancients who had drafted Chapter VIII in the first place. And, given that degree of cooperation at the “operational level”, there was in Kosovo noticeably less of the usual bickering among the inevitable cat herd of NGOs.

Regional capacities to contribute to crisis management or conflict resolution are a very variable constant.  In fact, it seems that the United Nations has inherited some of its worst headaches from failed or absent regional efforts, whether in former Yugoslavia or in Africa – it is hard to say whose intervention has been more disastrous: the Europeans in Yugoslavia or the OAU/AU in Rwanda, in Zimbabwe  and in Sudan. But managing regional problems with regional resources and authorities, under a UN mandate, has got to be the eventual way ahead.  Conversely, absent effective regional conflict management, we get Libya and Syria, which can be blamed on – take your pick – the UN, NATO, the US, the EU – or all of the above. But those headaches are Arab and African, and it’s getting on for time for the regionals to start shouldering their responsibilities.


One of our favourite questions here at Peacehawks is, “So what?”  What have we learned, and what can we do with it?

We hope to have convinced you that the Charter is important, and ignorance of it is no basis for discussion, let alone criticism.

We suggest, if you’re still with us, that you obtain your own copy of the Charter – you can order it at, and it costs U$2.40.  Keep it with you. Whenever you hear discussion of the UN, ask yourself what Chapter or Article of the Charter underlies (even if it might not inform) this discussion, and look it up. You’ll be amazed to see what some prominent people are talking about, and you will right away know if they know what they are talking about.

When you hear discussion of a crisis, ask if there is a mission there, and what of it? Go to, then to the Secretariat, to the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, or if it is a political mission, to the Department of Political Affairs (they may both be active with both types of missions in certain areas). Read then of the mandate, review the cascade of UNSCRs which form the official history of the mission, and read the reports to and by the Secretary-General on the mission.  See what the President of the Security Council has to say.

You will be amazed – we guarantee it!












  1. But of course we really can’t count North Africa as a part of Africa in either cultural or political geography terms; North Africans are Africans about like the British are European: by chance, and not an especially popular one at that.
  2. This is the equivalent of at least six NATO divisions, probably in two corps. If so organized, each of those six divisions would have a staff of over 100 officers, and there would be nearly 500 officers in each of the corps headquarters . Thus, by European norms, at least 1,600 officers would be involved in the operational-level command and control of those 120,000 peacekeepers.
  3. The OSCE proudly proclaims that it was founded “as a regional arrangement in the sense of Chapter VIII of the Charter”; the NATO Charter reaffirms the responsibilities and obligations of members of the UN (Article 5), and confirms the primary responsibility of the Security Council for the maintenance of international peace and security (Article 7)

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