Paul R. Pillar
Israel Palestinian Territories United Nations, Middle East
When North Korea began the Korean War with an invasion of South Korea in June 1950, the armed response was waged under the flag of the United Nations thanks to the Soviet Union having absented itself from the Security Council. The Soviets were boycotting the council to protest the fact that China’s seat had not been given to Mao Zedong’s communists, who had won the Chinese civil war the previous October. With no Soviet veto in the way, the Security Council quickly passed the resolutions necessary to bestow U.N. sanction on the U.S.-led military resistance to the North’s aggression.
The Soviets came to realize that they were not going to get support for their contention that the absence of any of the council’s permanent members should prevent the council from conducting business. The Soviets resumed their seat and began vetoing further resolutions on Korea. To get around this obstruction, U.S. diplomats led by Secretary of State Dean Acheson persuaded enough other delegations at the U.N. to have the General Assembly, where there are no vetoes, assert the power to take action on matters on which the Security Council was unable to act. That assertion, known as the “Uniting for Peace” resolution, passed the General Assembly in November 1950.
The General Assembly has used this power sparingly, in recognition of how it twists somewhat the division of responsibilities envisioned in the U.N. Charter. The power is appropriately looked at as a last resort in the face of obstructionism by any of the veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council. The most recent use of the power came this week, with the General Assembly passing a resolution essentially identical to one that the United States had vetoed three days earlier and had been supported by all fourteen other members of the Security Council. The resolution was the international community’s response to the Trump administration’s declaration that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and stated intention to move the U.S. embassy there.