What Is the United Nations Seizing, Anyway?

The U.N. Security Council is considering a new U.S.-backed draft resolution that would authorize the use of military force against Iraq. The resolution ends with the phrase, “Decides to remain seized of the matter”; the same idiom concluded Resolution 1441, which launched the latest round of weapons inspections. What does that snippet of stilted English mean?

The Security Council finishes virtually all of its resolutions with that awkward phrase, as a means of staking out its bureaucratic turf. According to Article 12 of the U.N. charter:

While the Security Council is exercising in respect of any dispute or situation the functions assigned to it in the present Charter, the General Assembly shall not make any recommendation with regard to that dispute or situation unless the Security Council so requests.

So by remaining “seized of the matter”—or, in the vernacular, by formally keeping the issue on the front burner—the 15-member Security Council is officially telling the 191-member General Assembly to keep its mitts off for the time being. There have been occasions when the General Assembly has discussed a matter being handled by the Security Council, but the “decides to remain seized of the matter” expression pretty much precludes the body from taking any meaningful action.

A small number of international legal experts also consider the phrase a linguistic maneuver to head off unilateral action. The theory goes that the Security Council is actually hinting to various national governments to hold off on, say, sending tanks across the Euphrates River, since the dispute is still being adjudicated. If that is indeed the case, the phrase’s power seems somewhat dubious—nations routinely ignore Security Council pleas to remain idle.

An extra word is sometimes added to the phrase, so it becomes, “Decides to remain actively seized of the matter.” Though no formal rules govern the addition of the adverb, it’s often used when a Security Council member wishes to appear unusually keen on a certain issue, often for arcane political reasons. Perhaps the organization will see fit to insert “actively” as the potential invasion of Iraq draws even closer.

Next question?

Explainer thanks Michael Byers of the Duke University School of Law.