Tue, Dec 07, 2004 - Page 9 News List

The UN floats a blueprint for the 21st century

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's report, in a radical development, gives short shrift to pre-emptive strikes and backs direct action in protecting individuals' rights

By Robin Cook  /  THE GUARDIAN , London


A visit to the US is a salutary reminder that Europe and America are divided not only by an ocean but by an equally deep difference in their media agendas. One of the major stories on US television last week was the news that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's son had been in the pay of a Swiss company that participated in the UN oil-for-food program. When I was interviewed by CNN, the presenter demanded to know if I agreed with senior figures in the US Congress that Kofi must resign, a question that would have appeared off the wall to a European broadcaster.

Part of the problem with their negative coverage of the UN is that the US media tend to talk about the UN as if it were a different continent that readers could find somewhere on their home atlas. They offer no perception that one of the biggest problems of the UN is the ambivalence toward it of its richest, most powerful member state.

Fortunately, the US, and the rest of us, has just been presented with a comprehensive blueprint to render the UN fit for the challenges of the 21st century in the report of the high-level panel published this week. The commission was appointed in the wake of the invasion of Iraq, in an atmosphere of deep depression at the damage to the UN.

At the time there was a sharp division between the contention of the Anglo-Saxons that the UN had been weakened by its refusal to act, and the view of nearly everyone else that it had been weakened by its failure to prevent the US and Britain from acting alone. With the advantage of hindsight, it is clear that the damage to the UN would have been much greater if it had been persuaded by US Secretary of State Colin Powell's discredited presentation of the Iraqi threat, and sanctioned an invasion to disarm those elusive weapons of mass disappearance.

In the event, the report's 101 recommendations provide a balanced package that should steer the UN through any future Iraq crisis.

The Bush doctrine of the pre-emptive strike gets short shrift. It warns: "Allowing one to so act is to allow all."

The rejection of unilateral action gains authority from the presence on the panel of Brent Scowcroft, who was a key figure in the administration of former US president George Bush.

On the other hand, the report gives official endorsement to the doctrine of intervention on humanitarian grounds that British Prime Minister Tony Blair set out in his Chicago speech five years ago. This marks a radical and welcome development in the approach of the UN.

When the nations of the world met amid the rubble left by World War II, they were preoccupied with preventing it from happening again, and wrote a charter for the UN that stressed the sovereign rights of states to deter wars of aggression. Yet the same nations adopted a universal declaration of human rights. The dilemma with which the UN has wrestled for the past generation is the tension between the right of states to be protected from outside intervention and the right of individuals to be protected when their state oppresses them.

The high-level panel has ruled unequivocally that the rights of individuals take precedence over the rights of states. The international community not only has the right to override state sovereignty in cases of major breaches of humanitarian law, such as genocide in Rwanda or ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, but it has the responsibility to protect the human rights of the victims.

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