The Forgotten Power of the General Assembly

For 30 years, America’s veto policy in the United Nations has been central to its foreign policy. More than 70 times the United States has shamelessly used its veto in the UN, most recently to crush a Security Council resolution condemning the Israeli killing of the British UN worker Iain Hook in Jenin last December.

Most of America’s vetoes have been in support of its ally Israel. It has vetoed a resolution calling for the Israeli withdrawal from the Syrian Golan Heights (January, 1982), a resolution condemning the killing of 11 Muslims by Israeli soldiers near the al-Aqsa mosque (April, 1982), and a resolution condemning Israelis slaughter of 106 Lebanese refugees at the UN camp at Qana (April, 1986).

The full list would fill more than a page of this newspaper. And now we are told by George Bush Junior that the Security Council will become irrelevant if France, Germany and Russia use their veto? I often wonder how much further the sanctimoniousness of the Bush administration can go. Much further, I fear.

So here’s a little idea that might just make the American administration even angrier and even more aware of its obligations to the rest of the world. It’s a forgotten UN General Assembly resolution that could stop an invasion of Iraq, a relic of the Cold War. It was, ironically, pushed through by the US to prevent a Soviet veto at the time of the Korean conflict, and actually used at the time of Suez.

For UN resolution 377 allows the General Assembly to recommend collective action “if the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security”.

This arcane but intriguing piece of UN legislation – passed in 1950 and originally known as the “Uniting for Peace” resolution – might just be used to prevent Messrs Bush and Blair going to war if their plans are vetoed in the Security Council by France or Russia. Fundamentally, it makes clear that the UN General Assembly can step in – as it has 10 times in the past – if the Security Council is not unanimous.

Of course, the General Assembly of 1950 was a different creature from what it is today. The post-war world was divided and the West saw America as its protector rather than a potential imperial power. The UN’s first purpose was – and is still supposed to be – to “maintain international peace and security”.

Duncan Currie, a lawyer working for Greenpeace, has set out a legal opinion, which points out that the phrase in 377 providing that in “any case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression”, the General Assembly “shall consider the matter immediately” means that – since “threat” and “breach” are mentioned separately – the Assembly can be called into session before hostilities start.

These “breaches”, of course, could already be alleged, starting with the American air attack on Iraqi anti-ship gun batteries near Basra on 13 January this year.

The White House – and readers of The Independent, and perhaps a few UN officials – can look up the 377 resolution at www.un.org/Depts/dhl/landmark/amajor.htm If Mr Bush takes a look, he probably wouldn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But today the General Assembly – dead dog as we have all come to regard it – might just be the place for the world to cry: Stop. Enough.

Robert Fisk

Middle East correspondent for London’s Independent, often outspoken and out of step with the rest of the mainstream media