The UN General Assembly has condemned Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory. On 12 October, 143 countries supported a resolution condemning the recent referendums in Ukraine and demanding Russia reverse its annexation declaration.

The Assembly also condemned Russia’s invasion as illegal in a resolution on 2 March 2022. It also deplored the humanitarian situation created by the invasion on 24 March 2022.

These resolutions have been politically and legally significant. A third resolution from April, for example, suspended Russia’s membership of the UN Human Rights Council.

But is this the limit of what the General Assembly can do? This Insight explores what powers the UN has for responding to this type of situation.

How does the General Assembly get involved?

The main body for responding to issues of international peace and security is the UN Security Council. It has far-reaching powers to restore international peace and security, including the authorisation of military action and mandating sanctions that every state should impose.

But Russia is a permanent member of the Council and has a veto over any action. Even where a permanent member is accused of being the aggressor, the veto still applies.

So, the Security Council is deadlocked – and Russia has already used its veto to block any reaction to the situation in Ukraine.

But the UN General Assembly still has a residual responsibility for maintaining peace and security under Articles 10 and 11 of the UN Charter. Because of this, the Security Council activated the so-called ‘Uniting for Peace’ procedure on 27 February 2022 in a vote where the veto does not apply, which created the 11th Emergency Special Session of the Assembly.

‘Uniting for Peace’ process

The ‘Uniting for Peace’ process is set out in resolution 377A(V) adopted by the General Assembly on 3 November 1950. Under this process an emergency special session of the United Nations can be convened within 24 hours when the UN Security Council is unable to act.

The Uniting for Peace Resolution foresees that the Assembly needs to recommend Member States take ‘collective measures’ to maintain or restore peace.

What are the General Assembly’s powers?

Legal experts from the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect have produced guidance on the General Assembly’s powers, some of which are highlighted below.

All resolutions and decisions of the General Assembly are ‘recommendations’ under Articles 10-14 of the UN Charter. This means that, unlike some Security Council decisions, General Assembly resolutions are not legally-binding and Member States are not bound by them.

Peacekeeping

The Uniting for Peace procedure was used in 1956 during the Suez Crisis to establish the UN’s first peacekeeping force. This was because the Security Council was unable to agree a way forward due to vetoes by France and the UK at the time. This mission set a precedent, and now peacekeeping missions are usually based on the consent of all parties to a dispute, and are meant to play an impartial role in monitoring a ceasefire or peace process.

The possibility of peacekeeping in Ukraine has been raised by some states earlier in 2022, but there has been no movement in supporting this option.

Military action

According to the Uniting for Peace resolution, the General Assembly could, if it wished, recommend that states use military force to restore international peace and security.

The exact legal basis for this is still debated by experts, with some suggesting this might only extend to force that would already be legal, such as defending a state from an aggressor. The General Assembly has rarely made such a recommendation, with the most clear example being a resolution adopted during the Korean War that called upon UN Members to assist the UN force established there after recommendations by the Security Council.

Legal experts also note that, although the power to recommend force might be available, states don’t always consider it appropriate because of the risks of escalation this could cause. In Ukraine, the preference of allies has been to support Ukraine through military aid rather than direct military assistance, to avoid direct confrontations with Russia.

Adopting sanctions

The General Assembly could also recommend that states adopt sanctions. The exact legal basis for this is undetermined, but some legal experts have suggested states can rely on the doctrine countermeasures, allowing sanctions to be coordinated through the General Assembly. No such recommendations have been made by the Assembly regarding Russia and Ukraine so far. Some Western states have adopted sanctions against Russia individually, but these have not coordinated within the UN.

Countermeasures are a specific legal response to a prior breach of international law. They have defined safeguards to prevent their abuse and misuse. Established international law, based on the work of the International Law Commission, recognises the right of injured states to take countermeasures.

There is a growing pattern in which allies of an injured state adopt sanctions as a response to another state’s unlawful conduct, especially in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. These states do not usually say they are acting under the law of countermeasures, but some legal commentators suggest this can provide the legal basis for such sanctions.

Calls for more UN action

Finally, some academics have been calling for the General Assembly to establish an international tribunal to prosecute the crime of aggression, which Russia is alleged to have committed against Ukraine.

The General Assembly does not have the power to impose a tribunal, and legal commentators highlight precedents of ‘hybrid courts’ such as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, which were created upon the recommendation of the General Assembly, and the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which was created on the recommendation of the Security Council. Both had the consent of the states involved.

Other avenues for action through the General Assembly, such as suspending or expelling members, have been labelled ‘rabbit holes’ by the former UN Assistant-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs, Larry D. Johnson. This is because those decisions require a recommendation by the Security Council and are therefore subject to the veto of permanent members.

Further reading

Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, The Powers of the UN General Assembly to Prevent and Respond to Atrocity Crimes: A Guidance Document, 29 April 2021.


About the author: Dr Patrick Butchard is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in international law.

Photo by Mathias Reding on Unsplash