Mon, May 26, 2003 - Page 9 News List

How the war changed the UN

Some experts believe the international body is facing the worst crisis in its history

By Jonathan Steele  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

ILLUSTATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

The scene seems familiar. The US tables a draft resolution on Iraq at the UN Security Council. Delegates huddle behind closed doors.

Briefers make positive noises about the need for unity. In capital cities ministers call for changes. An amended draft is put forward.

The cycle resumes.

As ambassadors of the council's 15 member-states go into new discussions on Iraq this week, an outsider might think we are back to last autumn when six weeks of argument produced resolution 1441 and a new mandate for UN weapons inspectors to return to Baghdad. Wrong.

The war US President George W. Bush launched in mid-March not only changed Iraq. It changed the UN. The current arguments over an international role in post-Saddam Iraq may look the same in form, but the context is new.

The worldwide attention given to every report the inspectors made to the Security Council was unprecedented. Not since the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 had the council's proceedings been followed so avidly.

Yet in the end the UN was humiliated. The US went to war regardless. A triumph of international debate ended in a tragedy of unilateralism.

"Since the end of the cold war, the UN has never been so weak. The situation is disastrous," says Volker Stanzel, the director general for political affairs at Germany's foreign ministry.

What Bush did was not a total novelty. His brazen unilateralism is built on tendencies which have never been absent from US foreign policy. Clinton used military force at least three times without Security Council authority: in Bosnia in 1995, in bombing Baghdad for four days in December 1998, and in attacking Yugoslavia over Kosovo in 1999.

But Bush's behavior was different on three counts. His drive for war on Iraq was prompted by a new doctrine of pre-emption. During the council debates, Washington, echoed by London, used the old UN language of saying Iraq posed an imminent threat to international peace and security, but Bush had made it clear several months earlier that the US would act against states even before they posed an actual danger. This was a dangerous carte blanche for interventions almost anywhere.

Secondly, Bush was trying to achieve regime change in Iraq. Clinton's three unsanctioned uses of force had more limited objectives. No wonder countries such as France and Russia felt they could not allow the UN to approve the attack on Iraq.

Bush's third innovation was to issue a direct challenge to the UN. When Clinton intervened against Yugoslavia, it was clear that Russia and China would veto action and so the US never drafted a resolution calling for force. Bush bluntly demanded the UN show its "relevance."

"All the world faces a test and the UN a difficult and defining moment. Will it serve the purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant?" he said.

In fact, every veto since 2000 has been cast by the US.

But the UN's current crisis cannot be blamed on the US alone. Dominique Moisi, deputy director of France' s Institute for International Relations, believes the Iraq issue only brought long-festering problems to the surface.

"The old concepts of legality and legitimacy have split. The Kosovo war showed that what is legitimate is not necessarily legal. The UN stands for legality but not for legitimacy," he says.

The real issue, he believes, is how to define and reach a consensus on when intervention can override state sovereignty. The danger he sees is that some groups in Washington are ready to ignore the UN now. Others want the broadest possible mandate for intervention and seek structural reforms in the UN, such as a change in the veto system and more power to countries from the developing world on the lines of the "old Europe" versus "new Europe" split, now translated into a global context.

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