by Edward Howell
Thursday, 16
June 2022

The UN is powerless to control rogue states

Its failure to rein in North Korea lays bare our anarchic global order
by Edward Howell
Two rogues. (Photo by Alexander Zemlianichenko / POOL / AFP) (Photo by ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Crises are engulfing international politics, most recently with Russia’s blatant disregarding of international law in Ukraine and with North Korea’s consistent breaching of the nuclear non-proliferation norm. But at a time when states are acting outside of the rules-based system, our main forum for regulating these violations, the UN, is demonstrating its limited power to enforce or control rogue behaviour.

That international institutions remain tools of great power politics is far from uncontroversial. The UN developed the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine in the early 2000s, designed to bind member states to ending violence and persecution. Yet, despite enshrining normative standards for state behaviour, R2P’s impotency was confirmed whenever the UN Security Council had to make decisions: its permanent members displayed formidable inertia during the ongoing Syrian Civil War, for instance. The UN remains paralysed by the form of its foundation: created and led by states, for states. But it was always going to be this way, and we must accept this reality.

The UN’s inability to discipline North Korea over the years forms a further case study of this failure in practice. Next January marks the twentieth anniversary of North Korea’s notorious withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (making it the only state to have joined and withdrawn from the Treaty). But last week, North Korea assumed the chair of the Conference on Disarmament. This is a multilateral forum with links to — but officially independent from — the United Nations, aiming to negotiate arms control and disarmament. Global nuclear disarmament is becoming little more of a liberal pipe dream and even North Korea realised the farcical nature of this Conference.

Its ambassador to the UN, Han Tae Song, instead used the occasion to regurgitate Pyongyang’s age-old diatribe against its adversaries, exclaiming: “My country is still at war with the United States.” And only yesterday, Kim Jong Un expressed his “full support” for Vladimir Putin, euphemistically justifying Putin’s invasion as a “just cause of defending the dignity and security” of Russia. This was a rare but telling reaffirmation of North Korea’s rhetorical support for its former Cold War patron which, in 2014, agreed to write off nearly 90% of the North’s Soviet-era debt, amounting to over $10 billion.

UN sanctions have done little to prevent North Korea from accelerating its nuclear and missile development, as demonstrated by this year’s flurry of missile testing. The North ordered the United Nations’ nuclear agency’s inspectors out of the country in 2009, and unless the terms are to the DPRK’s favour, they are unlikely to return any time soon.

Pyongyang’s egregious violations of its population’s human rights continue. Any actual change remains in the hands of states, rather than the United Nations. As John Mearsheimer once posited, international relations reflects the “tragedy of great power politics”. With the UN sometimes resembling little more than a talking shop, the North Korean case leads us to ask how we can dampen the self-interested desires of states both within and without international institutions, if they refuse to play by the rules.

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Andrew Currie
Andrew Currie
8 days ago

The author has summed up his own article really. The UN was indeed “created and led by states, for states”, however, if “it was always going to be this way” then what exactly was the UN supposed to be for? One problem would appear to be that “all states are equal, but some are more equal than others”, as shown by the veto held by Permanent Members of the Security Council. One would have thought, however, that the invasion of one member-state by another would be sufficient grounds for automatic expulsion of the latter until they withdrew, but not even this amount of basic “security” can be taken for granted. It is, particularly at the moment, difficult to see what the point of it all is, other than the maintenance of the current world order.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
8 days ago

The people that built the UN never really intended it to be anything other than a place for discussion and discourse. They gave hostile nations, USA and USSR, veto power over each other knowing full well it would paralyze the organization’s ability to act. That wasn’t a bug, it was a feature. The UN wasn’t supposed to do anything, lest its attempts to ‘punish’ a ‘rogue state’ end the same way as the allies attempt to punish Germany after WWI. It’s intention was symbolic and meant for the general public, a very visible gesture for a global public weary of war. It was later generations that projected their hopes for an international law enforcement body or a prototype world government onto the existing UN. It was always going to fail by that standard.

Edwin Blake
Edwin Blake
8 days ago

Ironic isn’t it that the whole North Korean situation was caused by one of the times the UN acted decisively? It was a UN action that gave the US the fig leaf covering its bombing of the country back into the stone age.
Classic example of be careful of what you wish for.

chris redman
chris redman
7 days ago

The UN has no military force of its own and is not a world government. It is a useful tool none the less for discussion between representatives of member states. Occasionally it can be a focus for international military and policy action. It has and will continue to be ignored by the Great Powers including Russia, The United States, and China, and even second or third ranks powers like Britain and France, with impunity.