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Law Conference Brings Together Diplomats for Talk of U.N. Reform

February 1, 2005

Diplomats don’t like to make apocalyptic predictions, “but we really are at a fork in the road,” said Sir David Hannay during his keynote speech at a law school conference about  “Reforming the United Nations: The Use of Force to Safeguard International Security and Human Rights.”

The U.N. charter prohibits individual nations from using preventive force against potential future threats, Hannay said in his address, but empowers the Security Council to authorize force in such cases. 

“The risk to global order is too great,” according to a major new report that Lord Hannay focused on his address.

Hannay is one of 16 members of a high-level panel that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan convened following fierce debates over Rwanda and Iraq. In December 2004, the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change released its ambitious report, “A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility.”

To make sure the report doesn’t simply collect dust and to combat misinterpretation of its contents, Hannay, a former permanent U.N. representative of the United Kingdom, urged worldwide debate before serious discussions begin in a few months in the U.N.

Use of force must be a last resort, Hannay said. Many threats can be compounded by use of force, and the report, he said, stresses that causes, often mischaracterized as “soft” threats, as well as symptoms of terrorism must be addressed. 

But the U.N. charter does not preclude collective action over a threat, when the use of force can’t be avoided. Even so, Hannay said, “every use of force still needs to be debated” and could have serious deterrent effects. 

He pointed to the report’s guidelines for considering the use of force, which include seriousness of the threat, proportional means of combating the threat and consequences of using or not using force. The panel recommends that the Security Council authorize military intervention when necessary to stop mass atrocities.

Hannay offered a brief history of the U.N. from its creation, strongly supported by the United States following “two massively destructive wars,” to its paralysis by the Cold War, to its changing dynamics with peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and elsewhere beginning at the end of the 1980s to “the brief moment” in 1991 that the Security Council publicly recognized that international terrorism and weapons of mass destruction were threats.

“But the moment passed, and no fundamental review took place,” he said.

Hannay pointed to the U.N.’s failure to take fundamental steps to address threats that faced the post-Cold War world and its ineffectiveness in dealing with complex peacekeeping operations.

That said, the panel strongly supports the U.N. “Without it,” the report states, “the post-1945 world would have been a bloodier place.” The panel also believes that the issue “is not to find alternatives to the Security Council as a source of authority but to make the council work better” and proposes that the U.N. Commission on Human Rights be expanded to include all U.N. member states.

“Reforming the United Nations” was the fourth annual Transatlantic Dialogue organized by Northwestern University School of Law Professor Douglass Cassel, with the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. The conference was co-sponsored by the law school and its Center for International Human Rights at the Bluhm Legal Clinic with the Northwestern University Journal of International Human Rights and the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium.

Topics: Campus Life