United Nations Major Roles

By | October 5, 2021

Military means

As a last resort, the UN has the possibility, in accordance with Chapter VII of the Charter, to impose military coercion on a country that has violated peace or in a situation that is considered to threaten international peace and security. The first time the UN approved the use of military force was in the Korean War 1950–1953 (see Emergence). Thereafter, the Cold War put obstacles in the way of further military action, as the great powers could not agree. It took until January 1991 and the Kuwait War before the UN carried out a new purely military operation (see Emergence). Check areacodesexplorer to see other organizations of United Nations, such as UNESCO.

However, neither the Iraq nor the Korea operation complied with the wording of Chapter VII of the Charter. In the Charter, the founding members of the UN set out the guidelines for a joint UN force consisting of troops from all member states. A Military Staff Committee was set up, with the highest military representatives of the Permanent Council members, to coordinate the UN force. However, the UN did not manage to set up any permanent forces. The great powers were skeptical of giving the UN command over its own force, when they could not be sure that the organization would act in their interest. The forces used during the Korean and Iraq wars were not under UN command either, but under US command.

Today, many observers argue that it is unrealistic for Member States to line up with military forces under UN command. Instead, the development that is becoming practice should be accelerated. The Security Council has on several occasions since the early 1990’s approved military action under the leadership of one or more countries or regional organizations in difficult conflicts. An early example was the Australian-led force that restored stability in East Timor in 1999. Among later examples of military operations approved by the UN Security Council but where a country or groups of countries were responsible for the actual implementation is the operation in Libya in 2011, which was mainly led of NATO countries France, the United Kingdom and the United States, but in which several other countries participated. In the autumn of 2012, the West African regional organization Ecowas received the Security Council’s approval for an intervention in Mali, where Islamist rebels tried to take control. In early 2013, France, with the support of the Security Council, intervened in support of the Malian government (seeMali). The threat posed by pirates off the coast of Somalia was another threat that prompted the UN Security Council to give the go-ahead for regional organizations and countries to use military force a few years into the 21st century. Pirates have hijacked ships on several occasions and demanded large ransoms from the owners (see Somalia).


During the 2000’s, the fight against terrorism has become an increasingly important UN issue. Today there are several conventions concerning terrorism and in the autumn of 2006 the General Assembly agreed on a comprehensive anti-terrorism strategy. The strategy includes guidelines for coordination in terrorist attacks with nuclear weapons, attacks on the Internet and more, and the idea is that UN member states will be supported by the strategy in the national anti-terrorism work. A special Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force provides advice to Member States and coordinates the fight against terrorism within the UN system.

Following the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, the US Security Council adopted a new resolution against terrorism (1373). Above all, it was a matter of restricting the financing of terrorism and denying terrorists a sanctuary. A special committee was set up to monitor the compliance of the states with the resolution.

A special UN agency, UNODC, provides technical support to countries wishing to accede to terrorist conventions and obtain advice on how to comply with them.

However, despite decades of attempts, Member States have failed to agree on a common definition of terrorism. The then Secretary General Kofi Annan presented a proposal for the 2005 summit, but the UN countries could not agree on this either. The difficulties are due to the countries’ different political motives: China and Russia, for example, want free rein to define separatist movements within the country as terrorists.

The UN and the Arab Spring

When the Arab wave of popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East spread to Libya in early 2011, the situation soon became a matter for the UN. A special envoy was sent to Libya to discuss with the parties to the conflict there while several UN missions sought to reach a solution to the problems in Yemen (see Yemen). In February, the UN Human Rights Council launched an inquiry into the situation in Libya, where its leader Muammar Gaddafi had launched a military operation against protesters. The Security Council imposed sanctions on the regime, demanded that humanitarian aid be allowed to enter the country, and referred the issue of human rights abuses to the International Criminal Court (ICC) (Resolution 1970). However, Gaddafi’s regime continued relentlessly with attacks on regime opponents. When the Security Council subsequently adopted Resolution 1973 on the establishment of a no-fly zone and allowed the use of all necessary means under Chapter VII of the Charter, the principle of civil protection (R2P) was an important motive.

But many wondered why the international community could act in Libya but not in Syria, where thousands of civilians were killed in the bloody civil war between government forces and various rebel groups. The rebel side is dominated by Sunni Muslims while President al-Assad belongs to a Shia Muslim minority, the Alawites. China and Russia blocked resolutions tabled in the Security Council imposing sanctions on the regime and allowing the ICC to take a stand on the massacres. The issue appeared to be increasingly acute in connection with the deteriorating situation in Syria. In the spring of 2014, the civil war had claimed more than 150,000 lives while 40 percent of the country’s population was on the run (see also Syria).