The United Nations: Challenges of Our Time
№1 2005 January/March
Yevgeny Primakov

Full Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, President of the Russian Federation Chamber of Commerce and Industry, member of the Editorial Board of Russia in Global Affairs, former prime minister of Russia (1998-1999).

Due to the events of recent years – especially the 9/11
terrorist attack on the U.S – peace and security have moved to the
forefront of global issues. The 9/11 tragedy has made everyone
realize how serious the danger of international terrorism is. This
form of terrorism manifested itself in the worst possible form: a
self-sufficient organization that is not connected to any state and
which seeks to become an independent international player. The
terrorist organization al Qaeda, which is not supported officially
by any state, stands to win this menacing position in the

The threatening goal of this organization has been explicitly
expressed by its leader Osama bin Laden – to create a single
Islamic caliphate. The method for achieving the declared goal is to
destroy the secular regimes in the Moslem-populated countries (such
as Turkey, for example), as well as the moderately secular states
(Saudi Arabia). At the same time, bin Laden has declared a
“merciless war” on the United States, which he argues supports such
regimes, as well as on those countries that oppose extremist
Islamic groups advocating the ideas of separatism.

The demarcation line between al Qaeda and traditional
international players does not run along the
civilizational-religious axis. The confronting sides are composed
of the dangerous extremist movements, which are preaching a
medieval “zoological” attitude toward peoples and nations, and the
rest of the world that is guided by the values of modern

International terrorism has acquired a fundamentally new form
and is now becoming dangerously intertwined with many traditional

  • the threat of WMD proliferation, which has been aggravated by a
    real possibility of its coalescence with international
  • unsettled regional conflicts, especially that in the Middle
    East, which create an attractive ground for the spread of
    international terrorism;
  • the ominous existence of ‘failed states’ where the authorities
    are incapable of preventing humanitarian catastrophes, genocide,
    mass exodus of refugees, etc;
  • narcotics trafficking as a source of financing international
  • religious extremism (not fundamentalism, but precisely
    extremism), which in some countries is teaming up with
    international terrorism, and thereby inflaming separatism (this
    factor has already had its destabilizing effect in some states and
    may lead to even more disastrous consequences);
  • the threat of the world being divided along the
    civilizational-religious axis, which has manifested itself in
    sweeping attacks against Islam as a “dangerous” religion which are
    splitting the world community, spurring terrorist acts and
    undermining efforts to counter international terrorism.

There is a real threat that international terrorism may use
globalization, as well as scientific and technological progress,
for carrying out its attacks.


The newly emerging challenges to mankind are creating a
fundamentally different international environment that requires new
approaches to the security problems of individual states and the
global community as a whole. It is necessary to determine what
these approaches should be.

Some politicians and pundits divide the threats into ‘hard’ and
‘soft.’ On the one hand, there are threats to security that emerge
either as a result of aggressive actions by another state or as a
consequence of an unstable situation. On the other hand, there are
the so-called ‘soft’ threats: poverty, diseases, unemployment, etc.
It is argued that the UN should fight against the soft threats
since its mechanism is not tailored to a rapid and efficient
reaction to security threats.
However, such conclusions are groundless.

First, the UN Charter provides for all possible ways to
collectively counteract threats to security and stability. True,
the UN Security Council has sometimes failed to optimally use its
authority, while its efficiency should be improved on the basis of
coordinated agreements. However, in practical terms, the Security
Council has proven that it is able to assume a fundamentally new
approach to applying provisions of the UN Charter. For example,
following 9/11 the Security Council provided an essentially new
interpretation of Article 51 of the UN Charter which provides for
the use of force in self-defense in case of an attack by a
non-state entity. Furthermore, the UN Security Council endorsed
sanctions against the Taliban movement and created the
Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC). It has made decisions on the use
of force in support of democracy and human rights (for example, in
its Resolution 940 of July 31, 1994, the Security Council
authorized all member countries “to form a multi-national force…
and use all necessary means” to restore democracy in Haiti).

The Security Council has demonstrated its ability to adapt to
new challenges and threats, and this international body has a major
responsibility for maintaining international peace and security.
So, there is no need to bypass the Security Council in taking
decisive steps or implementing use-of-force actions.

Second, the ongoing events in Iraq graphically demonstrate the
shortcomings of those tactics that ignore the UN and rely, instead,
on unilateral actions. It is noteworthy that after the failure of
the U.S. operation in Iraq, those who only recently were obsessed
with the idea of unilateralism – that is, the independent and
preventive use-of-force actions that ignore the UN and are regarded
as “legitimate” – are now returning to this international
organization. It has become obvious that the U.S. has no chance of
extricating itself from the Iraqi deadlock without assistance from
the UN.

Third, it is counterproductive to build a hierarchy of threats,
or set them into opposition; threats are interrelated. Although
international terrorism is not directly rooted in poverty, which is
the fate of the majority of people on the planet, it is, to a large
extent, the result of the past, or present, discriminatory policies
toward those who live beyond the ‘golden billion’ countries.
Discrimination – whether it is political, economic or cultural in
nature – nurtures terrorism.

Fourth, the significance of the various threats is viewed
differently in different parts of the world. In Africa, for
example, the main threat is considered to be AIDS, which is
responsible for approximately 30 million deaths. In actuality, many
countries beyond the golden billion are threatened not by terrorism
but by diseases, poverty and hunger.


Under the UN Charter (Chapter VII), the Security Council is
responsible for determining the presence of a threat, an act of
aggression or a violation of the peace. It also considers measures
that should be taken to maintain and restore international peace
and security. And, finally, it organizes and implements these
measures, including urgent military actions.

The UN Charter directly mentions the possibility of taking
compulsory measures as preventive means (Article 50). At the same
time, the Charter does not contain the criteria for resorting to
the use of compulsory measures, including preventive ones.
Therefore, it is necessary to define such criteria. The following
is a list of those circumstances which should require coercive
actions from the UN Security Council:

  • an acute humanitarian crisis, such as the mass murder of
    civilians, gross violations of international humanitarian law,
    rights to life and property, and the mass exodus of refugees. More
    often than not such circumstances occur in tandem with the collapse
    of a country’s central government or a severe internal
  • inability of the central government to take control over
    non-state entities that operate on the country’s territory and pose
    a threat to international security;
  •  violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty,
    especially if there is a possibility of nuclear arms being
    transferred to a terrorist organization;
  • any state harboring international terrorist organizations which
    are found to be launching large-scale terrorist acts against other
    states (in this case the state under attack also has the right to
    self-defense in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter).

Under Chapter VII of the Charter, the “criteria of interference”
can be approved by a resolution of the UN Security Council. At the
same time, there is no need to make amendments to the Charter
itself. The abovementioned circumstances are not related to
shortcomings of the UN Charter, but to flagrant violations of its
provisions and those documents which were adopted to improve

Naturally, specific circumstances will require detailed
consideration before there can be any legitimate interference in a
state’s internal affairs. The possibility of such interference
should not be ruled out in situations where there is a regional or
international threat to peace and security. This premise does not
mean a rejection of the principle of states’ sovereignty per se,
rather, it emphasizes that the ban on interference in a state’s
internal affairs is firm unless internal developments there present
a real threat to either part or all of the global community. What’s
more, preventive interference cannot be undertaken if it is based
on a party’s subjective decision concerning the threat level of a
particular regime, or on the decision to implement a unilateral use
of force. Both the determination of the threat level and the
resolution on the use of force should only be based on a joint

The preventive use of force should be preceded by a UN demand
that the government of the state in question should take urgent
measures to stop activities that threaten the global community. A
refusal or inability to meet this demand should be taken by the
Security Council as the basis for sanctioning coercive –
use-of-force or non-use-of-force – measures. Accepting the
possibility of using force in principle, the world community should
specify that any intervention by force is permissible in strictly
limited situations as a last resort and only following a decision
by the UN Security Council. Any subsequent actions must be under
control of the Security Council and with full observance of
international law.

The decisions of the Security Council should be based on
apparent and uncontestable facts, as well as proven information.
The unfortunate experience of military action against the Federal
Republic of Yugoslavia and Iraq, unauthorized by the UN Security
Council, proves that establishing facts for justifying the use of
force was the weakest point. It is in our common interest to give
this factor most serious consideration.


Raising the efficiency of the UN Security Council is of primary
importance. The combination of two principles – justice and UN
capability – may be used as a conceptual approach to this problem.
Of course, the composition and structure of the Security Council,
which emerged as a result of the disposition of forces after WWII,
cannot remain intact forever. The time has long passed since
Germany and Japan were set apart from the rest of the world by
their defeat in the war. Since the UN came into existence 60 years
ago, other crucial changes have taken place in the world, as well.
A significant number of former colonies and semi-colonies have
turned into sovereign states; today they play an active and
independent role in international politics, while enhancing their
status in the global economy (India stands as a good example).

It is imperative that the composition of the UN Security Council
be brought into line with the present-day realities. Therefore, the
primary goal is to increase the number of its permanent and
non-permanent members. Furthermore, there should be stricter
observance of the principle of geographic representation in the
Security Council, particularly as concerns Africa and Latin
America. At the same time, too great an increase in the number of
Security Council members would contradict the idea of maintaining
and consolidating the capability of the UN. As regards the right to
veto, it should be made clear that, as a multilateral mechanism
efficiently acting in the name of peace and security, the United
Nations cannot exist without the power of the veto. The history of
the League of Nations is quite instructive in this respect. Yet it
would be no less destructive for the UN to grant the veto right to
many countries. I believe that only five permanent UN Security
Council members should enjoy this right.

Opponents to the UN argue that the permanent members of the
Security Council are often unable to reach a consensus on questions
concerning the use of force in response to the most acute security
threats. Such arguments are unfair with regard to situations which
undeniably threaten international security. In order to increase
the potential for coordinating steps on fundamental security issues
within the Security Council, it is expedient to amend its working
procedure to a certain extent. The existing procedural innovations
should be used on a wider scale, particularly as regards the
expansion of cooperation between the UN Security Council members
and the leading states providing peacekeeping contingents for UN

The permanent members of the UN Security Council should consider
the possible adoption of a joint declaration stating that they will
act with maximum responsibility and restraint from invoking their
veto right (discussions on this proposal have already taken place
and the probability of working out a coordinated document is rather
high at the moment). Furthermore, members of the Security Council
could forward a politically binding statement that they will spare
no effort to reach a consensus in the Security Council on key
questions relating to security and stability.

Other, more significant solutions (not involving amendments to
the UN Charter) are also possible, but it would make sense to
discuss them in detail after determining the format of expanding
the UN Security Council.

The Security Council should focus on specific conflict
situations as stipulated by the UN Charter. To this end, the
Security Council would better free itself of the so-called
‘generic’ debates which deal with questions that fall under the
jurisdiction of the General Assembly (problems involving women,
children, AIDS, protection of the UN personnel, etc.). It is
necessary to direct efforts toward the effective use of other
multilateral structures of crisis management, as well as to adapt
these structures, if need be, to new threats. This concerns, above
all, the Counter-Terrorism Committee and the UN Security Council
Committee on sanctions against al Qaeda, the Taliban and their
associated individuals and entities (Committee 1267).

The planned reorganization of the Counter-Terrorism Committee
and the decision already in effect for strengthening the potential
of Committee 1267 (Resolution 1526 of the Security Council) expand
the opportunities for cooperation between these two bodies in
matters where their terrorism fighting tasks intersect. It is
important that the sanction list of Committee 1267 – the only tool
of its kind to counteract terrorism – be actively used and
constantly revised.

The rich experience which is being gained through the
interaction of the CTC and Committee 1267 can also be applied to
working out a Counter-Terrorism Charter. This charter should
contain a set of specific obligations to liquidate terrorist
organizations and their branches, block financial flows, prevent
the transit of arms, explosives and terrorists, and extradite those
accused of terrorism (as listed by the Anti-Taliban Committee). A
refusal to obey the regime to be established by this Charter should
be regarded as unacceptable. Such a refusal (and not just opinions
of some countries) could provide a basis for condemning a
particular country (or countries), thus prompting subsequent
sanctions against them.

It makes sense to more actively involve other sanction
committees of the UN Security Council, particularly African ones
(considering the growing threats from this continent), as well as
expert groups established by the Security Council to monitor the
observance of the sanctions. Operating under their mandates, these
structures could contribute to determining those threats that may
be linked to regional conflicts.


In order to make the UN a working mechanism, that is, an
alternative to a unilateral decision on the use of force, it should
acquire a military dimension. Thus, it is necessary to continue the
practice of conducting operations approved by the Security Council
within the format of coalitions of interested states (operations in
Albania, East Timor, Afghanistan provide positive examples). It is
no less important to work out a system of measures to strengthen
the UN’s potential for carrying out multifunctional operations to
maintain and, if required, restore peace (using force). In this
connection it makes sense to form permanent UN rapid deployment
forces stationed with regard to ‘hot spots.’ Moreover, the UN could
sign special agreements with certain regional organizations and
individual states stipulating that in case the Security Council
makes a relevant decision, they will employ their rapid deployment
units to conduct operations either under the UN flag or jointly
with the UN.
Another promising direction is to form within the UN a sort of
expert pool comprising representatives of interested states
possessing a solid intelligence potential. Special services of
different countries already exchange information so as to uncover
potential crises as early as possible and choose optimal ways to
neutralize them. However, as was the case with the U.S. prior to
the attacks of 9/11, even the availability of certain information
failed to help them uncover the terrorists’ plans. The U.S.
experience proves the need for joint analysis of information and
the constant monitoring of crisis situations.

The UN should establish a structure capable of performing
practical management functions in post-conflict conditions, such as
the coordination of reconstruction and other UN rehabilitation

The global community was able to overcome the Cold War, which
was an extremely dangerous period in its history. There is no doubt
that it has enough power to cope with the new challenges, and to
find ways to guarantee stability on the planet and the wellbeing of