Reflections on UN Law Making

by Kristen Boon

Last week at the American Association of Law Schools (AALS) annual conference I had the honor of speaking on a panel on UN Law Making, with Mahnoush Arsanjani, formerly of the UN Secretariat, Kimberly Prost, Ombudsperson for the Al Qaida sanctions regime, and Pablo Castillo-Diaz, of UN Women.  A summary of the matters discussed by the panel is available here.

Our wonderful moderator Prof. Stephanie Farrior asked us to comment on perceptions and misperceptions about how international law is made.  Both the questions and the answers struck me as useful to those of us returning to the classroom in January.

Here are some of Stephanie’s questions:

  • What misconceptions regarding law-making at the UN might students have?
  • What players have a particularly notable influence on law-making?
  • What developments, challenges, or other aspects of the work of the UN do you think are especially important for law professors to be aware of?
  • What are the on the ground realities of law-making by the UN that law professors should know about?

As a general matter, I think UN outsiders (law professors and students included) are at a disadvantage when trying to understand UN law making.  One of the most common forms of UN law making comes through Security Council Chapter VII, resolutions that are binding on all member states under the UN Charter.  Two of the high water marks of Security Council law making power were the creation of ad hoc tribunals (ICTR and ICTY) under UN Charter Articles 41, and the passage of resolution 1373.

Security Council Resolutions, however, are usually crafted during informal negotiations in a heavily political context.  There is no “legislative history” as a result of this system.   The transparency critique of this process is longstanding.

How can you find out what the real story is if you’re not a UN insider?  Three sources of information that I consult regularly are:

  • Security Council Report, an NGO which seeks to increase Security Council transparency.  It  is largely funded by non-Security Council members.  For example, see this interesting recent report on consensus in the Security Council,  that assesses voting patterns, decision-making rules and the role of consensus in the Security Council.
  •  For historical debates, I look at the Security Council repertoire, although there is generally a 2-3 year delay.
  • Finally, for current debates both the UN News website and the UN’s new document system portal has improved transparency considerably, making it much easier to obtain official statements than ever before.  As a general matter, the UN has made it much easier to watch open sessions of the Security Council, and now regularly webcasts these sessions here.

There is a common misperception that a Security Council Resolution can be read like a statute or a treaty.  I tell my students a much different approach is required.  Here are a few of the differences:

  • Often resolutions are not drafted by lawyers, so the language is not chosen with the same specificity as that we would see in legislation.
  • Sometimes what is not said in a resolution is more important than what is said, particularly if sensitive language has been deleted.  The refusal of some countries to permit language on the Responsibility to Protect into resolutions in Syria is an obvious example of this reality.
  • There can be profound differences of opinion amongst Member States about the legal content of resolutions.
  • Vague language is often an end result of the process, reflecting compromise somewhere along the way.
  • Resolutions do not typically spell out the consequences of non-compliance.
  • There is a code to the language of UN Security Council resolutions.  For example, it is much more significant if the Council demands a particular action than if it urges it.  Different levels of language in resolutions contain important legal signals.

How are the resolutions interpreted?   One of the challenges to UN lawmaking that became very apparent to me during my recent sabbatical study of UN sanctions is that the UN system doesn’t offer many ways to resolve ambiguities in interpretation and implementation.  UN sanctions on North Korea, for example, ban luxury goods, but the resolution did not contain a definition of what a luxury good is.  Some clarification was provided in a later Security Council resolution issues in March of 2013, some six years later, see this resolution, but this followed a long period of debate about how to interpret and apply this term.  Essentially, the definition of what constitutes a luxury good was left to the discretion of Member States.

The 1718 DPRK Sanctions Committee eventually issued an Implementation Assistance Notice dated 13 September 2013, to clarify and has identified the following items as constituting luxury goods: jewelry with pearls, gems, precious and semi-precious stones (including diamonds, sapphires, rubies, and emeralds), jewelry of precious metal or of metal clad with precious metal, yachts, luxury automobiles (and motor vehicles): automobiles and other motor vehicles to transport people (other than public transport), including station wagons, and racing cars.

Who can influence Security Council resolutions?

  • Small states can have a big impact on UN law making if their representatives are strategic about using their time as non-permanent members of the Security Council, or during open debates, to push forward a certain issue – the inclusion of language on women, children and armed conflict, for example, were supported by smaller non-permanent member states.
  • Emerging powers are also becoming important contributors to the conversation  – Brazil’s counterproposal on the Responsibility to Protect (entitled Responsibility While Protecting) garnered a lot of attention last year.
  • Academics have played a very important role in defining the Council’s law making powers.  In the sanctions field for example, academics have been supported by some “best practices” states (including Canada, Switzerland and the Nordic Countries), receiving funding to do empirical work, participating in processes like Bonn-Berlin and Interlaken, and even helping to develop a new sanctions app.

Do you have any observations on the questions posed above?   Please chime in via the comments box if you do.

http://opiniojuris.org/2014/01/13/reflections-un-law-making/

2 Responses

  1. Response…Very interesting comments. I agree that often times outsiders (including students and professors) have different perception about the way in which UN works in general, how UN lawmaking happens on practice. Among the examples of the most common forms of UN law making, I’d also list UN Security Council Resolution 1540 on non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Passed under Chapter VII, it mandates all UN Member States to develop and enforce appropriate legal and regulatory measures to make sure that chemical, biological and nuclear weapons (as well as their means of delivery) do not fall into the hands of terrorists. 
    This is one of the key instruments where UN SC is directly engaged in “lawmaking”. However passing a resolution does not mean anything until domestic actors actually implement it. Thus, to me the most important question is how do national authorities respond to this kind of “lawmaking”? How does UN Lawmaking actually impact domestic one? I think students will greatly benefit if they understand from the get go that (i) politics matter a lot when it comes to Int. Law making and implementation, (ii) regions vary dramatically when it comes to implementing UN (Int.) law; and (iii) national priorities play a big role when deciding what aspect of Int. Law to follow/comply with. 

  2. Interesting, but I would be careful to downplay UNSC’s resolutions. Often treaties are crafted during negotiations even more politicized. Just think about the Treaty of Versailles.

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