La Sécurité Collective, 1991

By Kirsten Whelan

Presented partially in French and partially in English[1] to the Conseil québécois de la paix, a Montreal-based anti-imperialist group perceived to have had pro-Soviet sympathies[2], less than a month after the conclusion of the Gulf War, “La sécurité collective” briefly outlines the historical thought behind United Nations mechanisms that are designed to “maintain the peace of nations,” otherwise defined as the status quo. Humphrey’s speech reveals assumptions regarding the meaning of peace and raises provocative questions as to the ways in which UN Resolutions have been adopted and employed by member states. He acknowledges that, in light of the Gulf War, UN measures appeared to have failed to keep the peace — yet neglects to incorporate a substantive critique of this fundamental failure.

Humphrey begins his speech with the question of whether or not the mechanisms created by the Charter of the United Nations are adequate for conserving peace, and if not, how more effective measures could be created. “At first glance,” he suggests, “we would be inclined to think that in this case — the role played by the United Nations in this Gulf War — they did exactly the opposite. Didn’t these mechanisms authorize the most brutal war since the Second World War?” It is a question Humphrey refuses to answer, however, deferring to the audience.

Instead of pursuing this line of questioning, he elects to “trace the history of an idea which, if we could put it into practice, would be a means to abolish all wars.” Beginning with the European balance of powers, which he dates to 1805, Humphrey proceeds to outline the logic behind the notion of collective security. Jumping to the interwar period, he isolates Article 10 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, which implored signatories to respect and to protect from all outside aggression the territorial integrity of any member state.

“Simple as it may be to understand,” Humphrey claims, “collective security is not easy to put into practice. At the basis of the concept is the necessity that the status quo be respected, unless all countries agree to change the status quo.” Perhaps most noteworthy here is that this assumption — that peace is synonymous with the status quo — remains unquestioned. Defining peace, implicitly, as territorial sovereignty and the absence of interstate aggression, appears to deny any possibility that the status quo may, in reality, not be ideal.

Humphrey then turns to the UN Charter, contending that the UN Security Council resolution that authorized the Gulf War was not consistent with the relevant articles of the Charter, Articles 41 and particularly 42, which reads as follows:

Should the Security Council consider that measures provided for in Article 41 would be inadequate or have proved to be inadequate, it may take such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security. Such action may include demonstrations, blockade, and other operations by air, sea, or land forces of Members of the United Nations.[3]

Resolution 678 “authorizes Member States co-operating with the Government of Kuwait … to use all necessary means [to uphold prior and future resolutions] and to restore international peace and security in the area.[4]” Humphrey’s argument appears to rest upon a technicality: his comparison to the Korean War, where soldiers intervened under the UN flag rather than those of individual states, suggests that his issue is with regard to who holds the governing power over the intervening forces. Article 42, however, seems broad enough to allow member states to intervene independently with UN authorization. Moreover, even if the problem lay strictly with Resolution 678, Humphrey fails to address whether that absolves the Charter of responsibility for its ineffectiveness.

Whether or not his case is strong, Humphrey suggests here that UN Resolutions have been adopted and employed by member states in a number of ways that may violate international law. Yet because this is the end of his speech, he does not substantially address this provocative claim. His focus on the particular resolution that sanctioned the Gulf War instead of on the UN Charter itself deflects discussion away from the Charter’s weaknesses.

Humphrey begins and ends with unanswered questions that seem to lay bare a fundamental flaw underlying the premise of collective security: its evident failure to promote peace, regardless of how peace might be defined. He outlines the inapplicability of the balance of power to modern international relations, but hesitates to actually criticise the UN Charter’s ineffectiveness, instead isolating a single resolution as having potentially been legally untenable. Ultimately, Humphrey’s speech offers an implicit answer to the first part of the opening question that he refused to address: the mechanisms of the UN Charter are not adequate to maintain peace. Yet he fails to engage in a dialogue as to how this may be improved.

[1] Translations are my own.

[2] Roger Julien, “Les bonnes et les mauvaises,” Le Devoir, April 23, 1982.

[3] UN General Assembly, Charter of the United Nations, “Article 42,” June 26, 1945, Emphasis added.

[4] United Nations Security Council (SC), Resolution 678, “Iraq-Kuwait,” November 29, 1990,


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