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Dow Jones Reprints: This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To order presentation-ready copies for distribution to your colleagues, clients or customers, use the Order Reprints tool at the bottom of any article or visit www.djreprints.com
It's strange enough that the Obama Administration is hyping last week's toothless statement by the United Nations Security Council condemning North Korea's recent rocket launch. Even more amazing, it says the U.N. move is "legally binding" on member states.
Those were the words used by Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., and repeated by a State Department spokesman. Ms. Rice is badly misinformed. As she ought to know, a "presidential statement" issued by the Security Council is legally binding on no one.
A presidential statement is agreed to by all 15 members of the Security Council and issued by the rotating president. Invented in 1994, such statements aren't even mentioned in the Security Council's procedural rules and impose zero obligations on members. They are a last resort when the Security Council can't summon the will or agreement to pass a resolution.
That's what happened after North Korea's April 5 missile launch, when neither China nor Russia would agree to the U.S. wish for a resolution. Legal experts -- including the Permanent Five's attorneys in a 2005 memo -- agree that the only U.N. pronouncement that is legally binding is a Security Council resolution issued under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, which sets out the Council's powers to maintain peace. Such resolutions can be enforced with sanctions or military action. Resolution 1718, passed in 2006 after North Korea's nuclear and missile tests, falls in this category.
The distinction between "Chapter VII resolutions" and other U.N. utterances is important -- as the example of Israel illustrates. Since the Jewish state has never been subject to a Chapter VII resolution, no Israeli "violation" of a U.N. pronouncement can give rise to sanctions. Even the famous Resolution 242, issued at the end of the 1967 Yom Kippur War, was not issued under Chapter VII. If the Obama Administration considers even U.N. presidential statements "legally binding," it's an invitation to the U.N. to ramp up its attacks on Israel.
Last week's statement on North Korea is binding only in the sense that it calls on member states "to comply fully" with their obligations under Resolution 1718, which bans sales of weapons, weapons parts and luxury goods to North Korea. Resolution 1718 is legally binding, but it has never been enforced. This speaks volumes about the sincerity of promises made at the U.N., and about the failure of the Obama Administration to win Security Council support for a serious response to North Korea's missile launch.
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