Purposes and Principles of the UN Charter
Expected Council Action
In February, there will be a ministerial-level briefing on the purposes and principles of the UN Charter in the maintenance of international peace and security. Secretary-General António Guterres is expected to brief.
Kuwait is organising the briefing this month, which coincides with the 27th anniversary of the expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait by a broad international coalition, authorised by the Security Council through resolution 678 of 29 November 1990. This is often viewed as a highpoint for the Council, an example of how the collective security machinery outlined in the UN Charter was used to address a breach of the peace.
The briefing will be an opportunity for members to discuss in depth the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, with a focus on Chapters VI (“Pacific Settlement of Disputes”), VII (“Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace and Acts of Aggression”), and VIII (“Regional Arrangements”), and article 99 of Chapter XV, which says that the Secretary-General “may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security”.
A number of long-standing and fundamental issues related to the implementation of the Council’s Charter mandate may feature in the discussion. These could include issues such as:
- how the Council can strengthen its approach to conflict prevention, including through the use of tools such as “negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement” and other peaceful means highlighted in Chapter VI;
- how sanctions (i.e. article 41 of Chapter VII) can be used to pressure parties to a conflict to engage constructively in peace processes;
- how relationships between the Council and regional and sub-regional organisations can be strengthened to prevent and resolve conflicts; and
- how the Council can best support the Secretariat’s good offices efforts.
The briefing may also offer the Secretary-General an opportunity to update the Council on his proposals to reform the UN’s peace and security architecture. It builds on ministerial-level open debates that the Council held in 2015 and 2016 that focused on the UN Charter, in both cases featuring briefings by then Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
On 23 February 2015, a ministerial-level open debate was convened at the initiative of China on the UN Charter, with the intention of reaffirming commitment to the purposes and principles of the UN Charter at the time of the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the founding of the UN. The meeting was chaired by China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, and 79 member states participated, including those on the Council. Ban underscored that at “the heart of the Charter is a commitment to the prevention of armed conflict through the peaceful settlement of disputes and the protection of human rights”. He also referred to the importance of sovereignty to the international order, but emphasised that sovereignty comes with responsibilities and that timely “action to prevent conflict and protect human rights helps to strengthen sovereignty, rather than challenge or restrict it”, given that human rights violations “kill and displace people, divide communities, undermine economies and destroy cultural heritage”.
Venezuela initiated a ministerial-level open debate on 15 February 2016 in which 64 member states participated, including Council members. The meeting focused on the topic “Respect for the principles and purposes of the Charter of the United Nations as a key element for the maintenance of international peace and security”. Venezuela’s foreign minister, Delcy Rodríguez Gómez, presided. In his briefing, Ban reiterated his emphasis on prevention “through both early warning and early action”. While he noted the importance of respecting sovereignty and of cooperation in engaging with states, he maintained that “it is violence and conflict—and not our attempt to help member states prevent them—that threaten state sovereignty”, a point he made in the 23 February 2015 debate. Ban also referred to the importance of article 99 during the meeting, underscoring the importance of “alert[ing] the Council when we see situations that we feel require its engagement”, positing that “[w]hether or not Article 99 is formally invoked may be secondary”.
Key Issues and Options
The key issue for the Council is linking the principles and tools of the Charter to concrete situations related to international peace and security. One possible option is for a chair’s summary of the briefing to be produced. This could serve as a useful reference to highlight the instruments at the Council’s disposal and how they have been used to promote international peace and security. In recent years, such summaries have been helpful in capturing the key issues raised in Council meetings. Most recently, Kazakhstan announced that it would produce a summary of the 18 January high-level briefing on the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Given that the Charter is the overarching document guiding the work of the Council (and the UN system), it could be helpful for Council members to continue to engage in dialogue regarding ways in which the Charter has been applied in maintaining international peace and security. One possibility is for an Arria-formula meeting to be held with current and former senior Secretariat officials and UN scholars to discuss creative applications of the Charter in the past and how these examples could serve as a model for the Council in other situations.
A significant challenge is how to manage the contrasting world views and political challenges that often come with efforts to apply the tools outlined in the Charter. Differing views on the nature of state sovereignty—as well as political divisions among the P5 and other influential member states—have frequently made it difficult for the Council to decide when, how and even whether to intervene at early stages of crises.
Different interpretations of the Charter will most likely be discussed following the briefing. There is a tension in the Charter between state sovereignty and human rights that is evident when the Council addresses a number of country situations, as reflected in recent years by deliberations on Burundi, Iraq, Syria and South Sudan, among other cases. Some Council members tend to emphasise elements of the Charter related to political independence, territorial integrity and non-interference in the domestic affairs of states. Such views have been most strongly expressed by Bolivia, China, and Russia in the Council. Other members, such as France and the UK, among others, have maintained that state sovereignty should not be a shield against actions to protect civilians from massive human rights violations, while highlighting the need in some instances for coercive measures to fight impunity, promote accountability, and combat the violence of actors undermining international peace and security. Some Council members may express views somewhere between these two positions.
|Security Council Letters
|1 February 2016 S/2016/103
|This was a concept note circulated by Venezuela for the open debate on the topic of “Respect for the principles and purposes of the Charter of the United Nations as a key element for the maintenance of international peace and security”.
|3 February 2015 S/2015/87
|This was a concept note circulated by China for the open debate on “Maintenance of international peace and security: reflect on history, reaffirm the strong commitment to the purposes and principles of the Charter of the UN”.
|Security Council Meeting Records
|15 February 2016 S/PV.7621
|This was a ministerial-level open debate on the topic of “Respect for the principles and purposes of the Charter of the United Nations as a key element for the maintenance of international peace and security”.
|23 February 2015 S/PV.7389
|This was the meeting record of the open debate on the UN Charter, marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the UN and to commemorate the end of World War II.