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The United Nations is the most important and powerful international organisation in the world. It was established after World War Two and aims to work towards global peace and security. One way it does this is through issuing resolutions and establishing international laws. However, there have been many times countries have ignored the UN. So what happens if they do? What consequences can a country face if it goes against the United Nations?
Countries that go against the UN can face sanctions, trade embargos or military action. However, the UN cannot enact these itself and requires member states to take action when countries break resolutions. As a result, often nothing happens when country disobeys the UN as member states are unwilling to act.
That’s a broad overview of what happens with countries defy the United Nations. However, the full extent of the impact of going against the UN, and exactly why member states don’t often take action, is a bit more complicated…
What Can Happen If A Country Violates A United Nations Resolution?
United Nations resolutions are formal expressions of the UN’s position. They can be issued by the Generally Assembly or the Security Council. UN resolutions can cover all types of issues. Many include demanding ceasefires, calling for improvements to human rights, requesting countries to withdrawal from occupied areas or demanding better environmental and labour standards.
If a country chooses to defy a UN resolution the United Nations can call on member states to impose sanctions. These put controls and limits on the economic, diplomatic, travel and cultural activity of that country. However, the UN cannot enact sanctions itself, so if a country goes against it, it must call on member states to impose sanctions.
Another action the United Nation can take if a country breaks a resolution is to call for a trade embargo. This limits the amount and type of trade that can be done with a country, or imposes tariffs and additional costs on doing trade with it. Like with sanctions, if a country goes against the UN, it is member states who must impose trade restrictions, the UN cannot do so itself.
If a country deliberately defies a UN resolution, the most extreme course of action is for the United Nations to call for military intervention. As the main aim of the UN is to work for global peace and security, it rarely requests military action towards states that violate resolutions. However, when it does, it is also member states that must act as the UN does not have its own military force.
A further option open to the United Nations when a country acts against its wishes is to limit their engagement with that country. This could mean pulling out of UN operations, reducing the amount of UN funding or personnel to a country, or denying that country voting rights within the General Assembly. These almost never happen, but it is one course of action the UN can take when countries violate its rulings.
Another thing that can happen to states that go against the UN is that they become internationally and politically ostracized. Nations that break treaties or defy international norms will struggle to find countries to partner with and their reputation and prestige on the world stage is diminished. This rarely stops countries from going against the United Nations, but countries that regularly flout UN resolutions can see a reduction in their global standing.
Why Often Nothing Happens When A Country Goes Against the UN?
Although there are a range of options open to the UN when countries defy resolutions, in fact, rarely is significant action taken. Why is this? We know the United Nations must rely on member states to take action on its behalf, but if the UN is the most powerful international body, why do member states so rarely do anything?
The first, and probably most important, reason why no action is taken against most of the countries that defy the UN is because the United Nations does not have its own enforcement agency, army or police force. It entirely relies on member states to take action and if none are willing to then no action is taken.
The second reason often little or no action is taken by member states when a country goes against the UN is because they do not wish to act alone, and cannot build an alliance of nations to act. Most countries work in their own self-interest and put their own national priorities above the calls by the United Nations to act on its behalf.
Another reason why often no action is taken when a country defies the UN is because imposing sanctions and trade embargos can hurt both the economy of the countries imposing them, as well as the one being sanctioned. Very few countries are willing to take the economic, as well as political and diplomatic impact, of sanctioning a country on behalf of the United Nations.
A reason why countries that go against the UN do not change their actions is because they refuse to accept the authority of the United Nations. Although almost every country in the world is a UN member state, when a country is told to change actions by a UN resolution they often decry that the UN lacks the authority to dictate what they can do.
United Nations Online Courses
If you want to learn more about the United Nations, and about what happens if a county goes against it, we highly recommend the online course Global Diplomacy: The United Nations in the World offered by SOAS in London. We think it provides one of the best overviews of the UN and its role in the current global order. SOAS is also one of the top universities in the world for international relations and courses related to the UN.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) underpin all of the UN’s work. In order to fully understand the United Nations, and if a country can disobey it, you need a basic understanding of the SDG. We think the online short course The Sustainable Development Goals – A Global, Transdisciplinary Vision For The Future offered by the University of Copenhagen is one of the best introductions to the SDG.
The University of Leiden in the Netherlands offers an online short course on The Changing Global Order. It includes a specific look at how shifting international power dynamics are affecting the current global system and the United Nations. For those wanting to understand the challenges the UN faces, this online course is a must.
Five Examples of When Countries Disobeyed The UN
Now we know what happens when a country defies the UN and why often little or no action is taken, let’s look at a few examples when countries have gone against the United Nations and what followed…
In 2016, a United Nations arbitration tribunal ruled against China in the dispute over the South China Sea. The Philippines had referred the issue to the UN due to military incursions and island seizers by China in the area. However, China ignored the UN’s ruling and has not changed its claim to the South China Sea or curbed its military activity there. No action was taken against China as no member state was willing to impose sanctions or trade embargos against such as a large economic power over the issue, nor to take military action.
In 1948, the United Nations passed Resolution 47 that called for the withdrawal of Pakistani forces from the disputed area of Kashmir. Pakistan refuted the resolution and did not remove its army from Kashmir. Pakistan felt no major repercussions from ignoring the United Nations. Although there have been several conflicts between India and Pakistan in Kashmir since the UN resolution was passed, no other member state was willing to bring significant economic or military force against Pakistan to pressure them to abide by the UN resolution
Israel is the country in the world with the most UN resolutions against it. Most call for its withdrawal from the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Despite many UN resolutions, Israel has always acted against demands to end its occupation. The main reason little action has been taken against Israel for going against the UN is that it is supported diplomatically, economically and politically by powerful states such as the US.
UN Security Council resolution 1701, passed in 2006, calls for Lebanon to gain full control of its southern region and to create a demilitarised zone along the border with Israel. This would involve removing militia groups, such as Hezbollah, from the area. Lebanon has continually disobeyed the United Nations and ignored the resolution. No action has been taken against Lebanon due to the complex context in the Middle East and the lack of appetite among member states for military action.
A final example of a country going against the United Nations is the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. After failing to get a UN Security Council resolution formally approving the invasion, the United States declared ‘diplomacy had failed’ and invaded Iraq in defiance of the United Nations. Neither the UN nor any member states took action against the US for going against the UN; however the failure to get UN approval did help turn public opinion in many places even further against the war.
If you want to learn more about the United Nations, and what happens if a country goes against it, explore our list of the top UN online courses here.