International Law Under Pressure

Professor True-Frost walks and talks with a student in a bright hallway

Written by:
Professor Cora True-Frost G’01, L’01
Bond, Shoeneck & King Distinguished Professor
Laura J. and L. Douglas Meredith Professor for Teaching Excellence, 2024-2027

International law sets the ground rules for state collaboration and conflict resolution. In the tumultuous times in which we are living, the processes for establishing and enforcing those rules are under pressure. It’s an increasingly multipolar global environment, in which strong countries take action in the absence of a clear international leader; uncertainty, not order, increasingly reigns.

With its five permanent, veto-wielding members, the United Nations Security Council (SC or Council) sits at the apex of international power.1 It is the sole UN organ mandated to take decisive and legally binding international-level enforcement action with the aim of avoiding conflict and maintaining international peace and security.2 For some time now, the SC has mostly been unable and unwilling to respond to multiple threats to international peace and security. These threats include global problems such as COVID-19, climate change, cyberwarfare, and interstate conflicts, all of which certainly require interstate comity and global solutions based on international law. This short piece offers an overview of three recent developments at the SC contributing to its inaction as well as a number of innovative attempts by the United Nations General Assembly (GA or Assembly) to address gaps left by SC inaction. It closes by reflecting on of the assertion of UN Secretary-General Guterres that if institutions don’t reflect the world as it is, “it is reform or rupture.”3

The UN Charter

The UN Charter-based international order created after World War II is a forum in which states convene and collaborate to maintain peace; fight and prevent terrorism; pursue sustainable development goals; address climate change; terrorism; and emerging issues. Although this order is far from perfect, since the end of the Cold War, states were willing to collaborate sufficiently that the period saw an increase in aggregate wealth and a gradual
slowing of civilian deaths globally.4

More recently, UN-led efforts to maintain international law and peace have been stymied, as states resort not only to violence in violation of international law, but also employing “economic statecraft” against each other through tariffs, sanctions, and withdrawal of loans.5

Permanent, veto-holding members of the SC (the P5), especially the United States, Russia, and China, are again embroiled in deep contests and competing narratives of world order, far more reminiscent of darker Cold War days. In this precarious multilateral environment, with the U.S. in a weakened position after its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, deep distrust and divisions among the P5 rankle and veto use again becomes the norm, even as the Council has faced, in 2023 alone, the significant escalation of conflict in the Middle East, the impacts of the continued Russian offensive in Ukraine, and multiple continuing conflicts in seven countries on its agenda as well as flareups with missile launches in North Korea and crises in Azerbaijan and Armenia.6 Specifically, three recent trends in the Council have affected its ability to function: 1) the use of the veto to prevent action in Syria, Ukraine, and the Middle East, and to stop existing interventions; 2) Chinese and Russian objections to seemingly trivial procedural working methods, and 3) backlash in the area of peacekeeping and sanctions by host countries with support from permanent members of the SC.7 In 2023, Mali and Sudan, peacekeeping mission host governments, abruptly fired two established UN peace operations, requiring the SC to draw down the missions rapidly.8 In addition, Russia used its veto to block the continuation of an existing sanctions regime in Mali and the continuation of the 2014 aid delivery mechanism for Syria.9 With tensions high, every Council action is contested, for example, Russia objects to procedures such as a video appearance to the Council, or China objects to a meeting format, which has been wellestablished.10

At present there is no viable global alternative to replace the SC, despite the existence of regional and sub-regional organizations, which are assuming increasing roles. Bodies, like the G7, G20, or OAS, might manage internal security relations of their clubs but do not bring all parties to the table, making them insufficient substitutes for the SC.

Enter the UN General Assembly

In light of the Council’s intransigence, GA members have been working in at least four ways to overcome SC inaction. The GA, the UN’s most representative organ, lacks the power to authorize the use of military power or bind member states. It holds the power of the purse, however, and its efforts to exert “soft” power over the SC can be effective. I outline here a few ways the GA is working, 1) collaborating with SC members in the face of veto use; 2) adopting the “Veto initiative”; 3) establishing an Accountability, Coherence, and Transparency group; and finally, 4) exploring possibilities for SC reform.

When Russia used its veto to block SC inaction in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine, the GA collaborated with SC members supporting action. The SC used the 1950 Uniting for Peace Formula, which had been unused for forty years, to send the issue of Ukraine to the GA. The GA was able to adopt a resolution condemning Russia’s aggression in an emergency special session of the GA, marking Russian aggression as a significant violation of international laws.11

In a perhaps more lasting, procedural action, because of the Ukraine gridlock, on 26 April 2022, Liechtenstein pushed forth “The Veto Initiative.” 12 The initiative requires the president of the GA to convene a meeting within ten working days of the casting of a veto by one or more permanent members of the SC to hold a GA debate on the situation as to which the veto was cast, provided that the Assembly does not meet in an emergency special session on the same situation; and it “invites” the Council to submit a report on its use of the veto 72 hours before the relevant discussion. In at least one case, a vetoing state provided its explanation to the GA before it convened in association with this resolution. In May the U.S. explained 13 its 16 April veto of Palestinian statehood to the GA which was meeting14 according to this veto initiative.

In a further effort to promote appropriate action from the SC some GA members have also established the Accountability, Coherence, Transparency Group (ACT)15 which aims to promote a transparent, efficient UN, and seeks greater inclusivity and wider membership in the Council. In 2015, the ACT group created a Code of Conduct with which, as of May 2023, 129 GA states have agreed.16 The Code affirms that states elected to the SC will act to discharge SC membership according to terms of the Charter and not their individual state interest in cases of genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes.17 This was a France/Mexico initiative to model the behavior sought from all SC members. Many incoming Council members including Greece, Panama, and Somalia, have signed the code of conduct regarding SC action against genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes.

Finally, the GA is also continuing to pursue the difficult prospect of SC reform, specifically by exploring proposals for broadening the Council, which ultimately the SC must approve.18 In this regard, it is notable that in 2023, the US President was one of at least ten world leaders gathering at the GA, to call for SC reform.19

There is no shortage of situations that the world’s UN Charter was designed to address, and which will go unaddressed unless efforts like these succeed in uprooting the SC’s current dysfunction. With persistent self-interest among the permanent members of the SC, a worry in international law is that we may face not only the ravages of escalating conflicts but also the decline or collapse of the SC and the United Nations order, with no available, realistic substitute.

1 See, Cora True-Frost, The Security Council and Norm
, 40 N.Y.U. J. INT’L L. & POL. 115, at 129-44,
174-81 (2007). The author thanks Nik Merz and Lauren
Marsh for excellent research assistance.

2 U.N. Charter art. 42, ¶ 1.

3 António Guterres, Secretary-General, General Assembly,
Secretary-General’s address to the General Assembly (Sept.
19, 2023) (transcript available online at https://www.
). Secretary-
General Urges Statesmanship, Not Gamesmanship and
Gridlock’ to Resolve Global Challenges, Geopolitical
Tensions, Opening Annual General Assembly Debate,

UN Meetings Coverage and Press Releases
(Sept. 19, 2023),

4 See, John Toye & Richard Toey, The UN and Global
Economy: Trade, Finance, and Development passim
(United Nations Intellectual History Project ed., 2004);
Joelle Hageboutros, The Evolving Role of the Security
Council in the Post-Cold War Period
, 1 Swarthmore Int’l
Rel. J. 10, 14-17 (2016).

5 See, Sören Scholvin & Mikael Wigell, Geo-economic
Power Politics: An Introduction
Wigell, Sören Scholvin & Mika Aaltola eds., 2018); Vinod K.
Aggarwal & Andrew W. Reddie, Economic Statecraft in the
21st Century: Implications for the Future of the Global Trade
, 20 World Trade Rev. 137 (2021).

6 In Hindsight: The Security Council in 2023, SECURITY
(Jan. 1, 2024)

7 Id.

8 Id.

9 Id.

10 Id.

11 The no votes on the resolution came from five
authoritarian nations: North Korea, Eritrea, Syria, Russia,
and Russia’s close ally Belarus. See generally, S.C. Res.
2623 (Feb. 27, 2022); U.N. GAOR, 11th Emergency
Spec. Sess., 5th plen. mtg. at 14, U.N. Doc. A/ES-11/PV.5
(Mar. 2, 2022); G.A. Res. ES-11/1 (Mar. 18, 2022).

12 G.A. Res. 76/163 (Apr. 26, 2022).

13 See, Rep. of the S.C., at 4-5, U.N. Doc. S/PV.9609. See
generally, In Hindsight: Applying to be a Member of the
UN: The Palestinian Case, Security Council Support

(Apr. 30, 2024)

14 Meeting Two Weeks after United States Vetoes Security
Council Resolution Recommending Full UN Membership
for Palestine
, General Assembly Debates Ramifications,
UN Meetings Coverage and Press Releases (last visited
Jun. 16, 2024)

15 The United Nations Security Council, UN Office on
Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to
(last visited Jun. 17, 2024).

16 Id.

17 Id.

18 See, G.A. Dec. 62/557, U.N. Doc. A/63/49 (Vol. III), at
106 (Sept. 15, 2008); G.A. Res. 75/1 (Sept. 28, 2020).
See generally, G.A. Res. 76/307, (Sept. 12, 2022).

19 Joseph Biden, Remarks by President Biden Before the
77th Session of the United Nations General Assembly
(Sept. 21, 2022) (transcript available online at https://