‘Law, Legitimacy and United Nations’ by Professor Ramesh Thakur

by Melbourne Journal of International Law

[Ramesh Thakur is a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, and Professor of Political Science at the University of Waterloo in Canada.]

The UN is the site where power should be moderated by lawful authority. Legitimacy connects authority to power. The greater the gap between power and justice in world affairs, the greater the international legitimacy deficit. The gulf between law and legitimacy is a potentially serious crisis for the UN.

Developing countries are objects but not authors of international norms and laws, whose roots can mostly be traced to Europe. Thus the very universality from which the UN draws its legitimacy is in some crucial respects more token than real.

If Kosovo was an illegal and yet legitimate intervention, the reverse is true of many sanctions regimes. The Security Council is legally competent to impose sanctions. But as these sanctions became discredited for their harsh humanitarian consequences, instead of the UN legitimizing sanctions, the latter erode the UN’s legitimacy.

With respect to the use of international force to avert or halt atrocity crimes inside states, the old norm of non-intervention is giving way to the responsibility to protect. But the continuing rhetoric-action gap will undermine faith in the UN system for ‘timely and decisive action.’

There is also skepticism among developing countries that the motive for intervention is disinterested humanitarianism rather than self-serving commercial and geopolitical calculations. Moreover, they resent the evident double standards. The Bush administration’s dismissal of Charter prohibitions on aggression undermined the principle of a world ruled by law. The West wants to hold the rest’s use of internal force to international account, but exempt its own use of international force from independent accountability.

This will widen the law-legitimacy gulf of the ICC. Force is used most often by the powerful who, however, exempt themselves from the ICC’s purview. An initiative of international criminal justice meant to protect vulnerable people from brutal national rulers has been subverted into an instrument of the powerful against vulnerable countries.

Similarly, for the five NPT-licit P5 to insist that nonproliferation is an enforceable obligation while disarmament can be postponed indefinitely compromises the Security Council’s authority as the anti-nuclear enforcer.

The P5 also determine the choice of Secretary-General. After several rounds of indicative balloting, Ban Ki-moon was the only one to escape the threat of a P5 veto, and his choice was ratified by the General Assembly by acclamation. Having been given neither voice nor vote in his selection, why should the ‘international community’ accept him as ‘their’ leader and spokesman?

The Security Council suffers from a broader fourfold legitimacy deficit. Its performance legitimacy suffers from an uneven and a selective record. It is unrepresentative from almost any point of view. Its procedural legitimacy is suspect on grounds of lack of democratization and transparency in decision-making. It is unanswerable to the General Assembly, the World Court, the nations or the peoples of the world.

The UN’s legitimacy has also suffered because of the oil-for-food scandal even though, in the total sweep of the scandal, UN lapses were minor. The real UN scandal of recent years has been predatory peacekeepers.

The full article can be accessed here.


One Response

  1. Such sounds are welcome here. Until now we heard mostly people telling us that they are free to kill us with drones whenever they like, while they never think about the obvious that we should be able to sue them if we didn’t agree with being killed.

    ==The West wants to hold the rest’s use of internal force to international account, but exempt its own use of international force from independent accountability.==

    Indeed, maybe one could explain to me why can’t Iraq sue the United States at the ICJ for the invasion? (Maybe not now, but why not during the first days of the invasion?). Or why couldn’t Georgia sue Russia? Is it because those weaker states don’t like the idea or is it because, as you say, they are no subjects but just objects of international law?

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