Addressing Assembly, Annan warns UN at crossroads over issue of unilateral action
The unilateralism of recent events has called into question the decades-old tradition of global consensus on collective
security and brought the international community to a fork in the road, portending a moment “no less decisive than 1945
itself, when the United Nations was founded,” United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said today.
In an address to the General Assembly on the first day of its annual general debate, Mr. Annan said the UN now had to
decide whether radical change was needed in the face of this new doctrine of pre-emptive force, and announced that he
was setting up a high-level panel of eminent personalities to make recommendations on issues ranging from peace and
security to reform of UN structures.
The new doctrine represented a fundamental challenge to the principles of collective security and the UN Charter, which
had guided the world body since its foundation, Mr. Annan said, and he was concerned it could lead to a proliferation of
unilateral and lawless use force.
While the Charter affords countries the inherent right of self-defence if attacked, “until now it has been understood
that when States go beyond that, and decide to use force to deal with broader threats to international peace and
security, they need the unique legitimacy provided by the United Nations,” he declared.
“Now, some say this understanding is no longer tenable, since an ‘armed attack’ with weapons of mass destruction could
be launched at any time, without warning, or by a clandestine group. Rather than wait for that to happen, they argue,
States have the right and obligation to use force pre-emptively, even on the territory of other States, and even while
weapons systems that might be used to attack them are still being developed.
According to this argument, Mr. Annan continued, countries were not obliged to wait until there was agreement in the
Security Council but instead, reserved themselves the right to act unilaterally, or in ad hoc coalitions. “This logic
represents a fundamental challenge to the principles on which, however imperfectly, world peace and stability have
rested for the last fifty-eight years,” he said.
The Secretary-General said his concern was that if it this principle were adopted, it could set precedents that resulted
in a proliferation of the unilateral and lawless use of force, with or without credible justification. “But it is not
enough to denounce unilateralism, unless we also face up squarely to the concerns that make some States feel uniquely
vulnerable, and thus drive them to take unilateral action. We must show that those concerns can, and will, be addressed
effectively through collective action,” he added.
“Excellencies, we have come to a fork in the road. This may be a moment no less decisive than 1945 itself, when the
United Nations was founded,” he said. “Now we must decide whether it is possible to continue on the basis agreed then,
or whether radical changes are needed.”
Referring to the need for reform, Mr. Annan noted that no UN instrument is more important than the Security Council but
it now had to consider not only “how it will deal with the possibility that individual States may use force
‘pre-emptively’ against perceived threats,” but also with its own constitution.
“Virtually all States agree that the Council should be enlarged, but there is no agreement on the details,” he said of
the body which had 15 members – including the five veto-wielding permanent members – when the UN was founded with 51
Member States, and has the same number now even though the UN has now grown to 191 members.
“In short, Excellencies, I believe the time is ripe for a hard look at fundamental policy issues, and at the structural
changes that may be needed in order to address them. History is a harsh judge – it will not forgive us if we let this
moment pass,” Mr Annan declared.
He said the new high-level panel would report back to him before next year’s General Assembly session on four specific
issues: current challenges to peace and security; the contribution which collective action can make in addressing these
challenges; the functioning of the major UN organs and the relationship between them; and ways to strengthen the UN
through reform of its institutions and processes.