Academic journal article Global Governance

The Role of the UN Secretary-General: The Power of Persuasion Based on Law

Academic journal article Global Governance

The Role of the UN Secretary-General: The Power of Persuasion Based on Law

Article excerpt

In an address to the UN General Assembly on 12 September 2002, delivered fifteen minutes before President Bush's statement on Iraq, the secretary-general (SG) made it clear that he believed new military action against Iraq should occur only on the basis of a new Security Council (SC) resolution. Without stating explicitly that such authorization was necessary, he suggested that respect for international law and the "unique legitimacy provided by the UN" required it. He added, however, that should Iraq continue to defy its obligations, the SC "must face its responsibilities," implying that it must be prepared to threaten or authorize the use of force. (1)

A year earlier, in August 2001, the SC adopted a little noticed resolution on conflict prevention, which invites the SG to refer "cases of serious violations of international law" to the SC. (2) The request would seem to fly in the face of a decision taken in 1945 not to empower the SG to bring to the attention of the SC violations of the legal instrument that bears most directly on its work--the UN Charter itself. (3) While the SG was expected and encouraged to perform independent political functions, the UN's founders did not anoint him guardian of the charter. And yet, with little fanfare, resolution 1366 seems to call upon him to play precisely that role with respect to the charter and much charter-based law.

These two events--the SG's intervention in the debate over military action in Iraq and the invitation in Resolution 1366--highlight an important and poorly understood dimension of the role of the SG. In addition to being chief administrative officer of the UN and the world's top diplomat, he is an influential participant in the legal discourse that infuses much of global politics. Despite the defeat of the proposed amendment to Article 99, this is a role the SG has played (and could not help but play) since the earliest days of the UN. He is a key member of an interpretive community associated with the implementation and elaboration of charter-based law. With little formal authority and no material power, the SG's influence depends largely on his persuasive powers. (4) That influence, moreover, is wielded within an institutional and normative context that he helps shape. By examining the SG's role as a legal actor, this article aims to shed light on the sources of those persuasive powers. I argue that the political and legal roles of the SG are intertwined, and that his political influence is reinforced by his ability to draw upon values and principles embodied in the UN Charter.

I begin by reviewing the legal basis of the SG's authority and evolving conceptions of that authority under successive secretaries-general. I then offer a brief account of international law as a process of justificatory discourse, the terms of which are set and constrained by an interpretive community associated with a particular field of practice. As a participant in the practice of peace and security, the SG contributes to the interpretation, hardening, and progressive elaboration of charter-based law in that field. In the third section, I examine how various SGs have intervened in legal discourse and argue that the voice of the office carries considerable weight. The article concludes by summarizing the sources of the secretary-general's persuasive powers, laying stress on what may be called the normative authority of the office.

The Secretary-General as Legal Actor

The legal basis for the secretary-general's role lies in Articles 7 and 97 through 101 of the UN Charter. Article 97 names him chief administrative officer of the organization; Article 98 stipulates that he shall perform functions entrusted to him by the deliberative organs of the UN. More interesting from a constitutional point of view is the independent political role derived from Article 99, which reads: "the Secretary-General may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security. …

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