The basic provisions of the charter defining the functions of the Security Council and the General Assembly are summarized here, but fuller accounts will be found in the chapters on those bodies, which complement the present chapter.
1. Relative Powers of the Security Council and the General Assembly. Under Article 24 of the charter, the Security Council has "primary responsibility" in questions of peace and security. It is invested with special powers enabling it to decide, on behalf of the entire UN membership, to take collective action when peace is threatened (Articles 39–42) and is empowered to negotiate agreements with individual members of the UN for the provision of armed forces necessary to maintain international security and to determine how many members shall participate in any collective action undertaken (Articles 43–48).
The General Assembly, on the other hand, is empowered only to consider and make recommendations, either to the Security Council or to particular states, on matters pertaining to peace and security. Moreover, under Articles 11 and 12, it may discuss but may not make actual recommendations on any special dispute between nations that is currently under consideration by the Security Council. However, though the Assembly is not expressly empowered to take action, neither is it expressly prohibited from doing so. In the only charter provision touching on the subject, paragraph 2 of Article 11—which is the focus of conflicting interpretation in the long-standing constitutional controversy on the financing of certain General Assembly-sponsored peacekeeping operations—the actual wording is as follows: "Any such question [of international peace and security] on which action is necessary shall be referred to the Security Council by the General Assembly either before or after discussion."
2. Bringing a Dispute or Serious Situation Before the UN. Although the charter firmly establishes the primacy of the Security Council over the General Assembly in matters of peace and security, it does not stipulate that disputes or serious situations must be discussed in the Security Council before they are discussed by the General Assembly. A dispute may be brought before the UN in a variety of ways specified in the charter without order of preference. One or more of the disputing parties may bring the matter before the Security Council voluntarily, or the council itself may choose to exercise its constitutional right to investigate a dispute at its own discretion; or any UN member, whether or not it is involved in the dispute, may propose the matter for discussion by the General Assembly; or a non-UN member that is a party to the dispute may—under certain conditions—bring it to the attention of the General Assembly; or the Security Council may ask the General Assembly to discuss the matter.
Despite these liberal provisions, the charter does not stipulate that all political disputes between states should be brought before the UN. Article 33, for example, enjoins UN members "first of all" to seek a solution to their differences on their own initiative (though if they fail to take this initiative, the Security Council is empowered to call upon them to do so). Only after their efforts to achieve a peaceful settlement have proved fruitless are the disputing parties obliged by the charter to refer the matter to the Security Council. Again, the UN was never intended by its founders to be regarded as the sole international agency for dealing with political disputes. Thus, Article 52 states that nothing in the charter "precludes the existence of regional arrangements or agencies for dealing with such matters relating to the maintenance of international peace and security as are appropriate for regional action" and that members participating in such regional arrangements or agencies "shall make every effort to achieve pacific settlement of local disputes through such regional arrangements or by such regional agencies before referring them to the Security Council."
POLITICAL BACKGROUND TO THE UN'S PEACEKEEPING ACTION The UN's efforts to preserve international peace and security are the most contentious aspect of its entire work, because of the inherently political nature of its role and the fact that both the Security Council and the General Assembly are essentially political bodies, not courts of law that apportion blame and impartially hand down judgments drawn from a set of established legal codes. Their task in disputes brought before them is to find a compromise solution that is at once satisfactory to all parties, based on the political realities of the world situation and consistent with the principles of the charter. In this way, each local dispute brought before the UN automatically becomes a dispute involving the entire membership, as nations express differing views on the appropriate action to be taken by consensus of the membership.
The involvement of the general membership in all disputes is precisely what the founders of the UN intended—as a means of ensuring collective international responsibility for political solutions that are both just and realistic. However, in order to provide a counterweight to the unavoidable taking of sides, they established the principle of unanimity among the great powers by bestowing the right of veto on the permanent members of the Security Council. The workability of this principle in practice presupposed a basic measure of cooperation among the great powers. As events turned out, however, unanimity among the great powers proved to be a chimera. Within a year of the signing of the charter, the world was in the throes of the cold war, and the United States and USSR were engaged in a power struggle. The effects of this unexpected political development on the UN's work in maintaining international peace and security were immediate and devastating. Each dispute between the smaller nations that came before the UN was subsumed under the developing power struggle between the giants. As a result, between 1945 and 1990, the Security Council was deadlocked again and again by 279 vetoes. Furthermore, the charter requirements for agreement on the provision of armed forces for the UN could not be met.
Whereas the USSR looked to the Security Council and the veto as its power instrument in the UN, the United States looked to the support of the majority vote in the General Assembly. In order to circumvent the Soviet veto in the Security Council, and being at that time confident of majority support for most of its substantive policy objectives, the United States spearheaded a drive to turn the General Assembly into a body for action in periods of international crisis. This drive culminated in the adoption in 1950 of the Uniting for Peace Resolution, which empowered the General Assembly to undertake collective measures for maintaining or restoring peace when the Security Council found itself unable to act in times of emergency (for the terms of the resolution, see the chapter on the General Assembly). It was the United States, represented by Secretary of State Dean Acheson, that originated the proposal for the resolution. Although some of the small nations expressed reservations about certain clauses, most of them were eager to participate more fully in the UN's peace and security responsibilities. Only India and Argentina abstained in the vote, and only the Soviet bloc voted against the resolution, branding it as illegal and contrary to the charter.
The Uniting for Peace Resolution has been invoked in three major crises: the Korean War, the Suez crisis, and the Congo crisis (discussed under Case Histories below). In all three instances, the Security Council found itself deadlocked, and General Assembly action was deemed essential by the majority of members. Nevertheless, despite its proven usefulness as an instrument of restoring peace in these instances, the resolution seems unlikely to be invoked in future disputes. Certain countries questioned the legality of the resolution and of the General Assembly's action taken under it, and they felt justified on these grounds in refusing to contribute to the costs of the Suez and Congo peacekeeping operations.
At the end of the 1980s, the demise of the Soviet Union and the cold war dramatically changed this state of affairs. Within a few short years the entire Soviet bloc was dissolved and a new era of cooperation between the United States and the Russian Federation raised hopes that the Security Council would begin to fulfill the function foreseen for it by the organization's founders. However, the political vacuum created by the collapse of the East-West stalemate was followed by an eruption of intransigent, deadly regional conflicts and civil wars, particularly in Africa and Eastern Europe. While 13 operations were established between 1948 and 1988, more than 40 new operations have been authorized since 1988. At its peak in 1995, total deployment of UN military and civilian personnel reached almost 70,000 from 77 countries. By the end of 1996, 16 peacekeeping operations were severely taxing the ability and political will of member states to respond with personnel and financial contributions. And in 2002, the number of current peacekeeping missions was holding steady at 15.