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

Tue, Dec 07, 2004 - Page 9

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.

It would be good to think that the debacle over Iraq, which prompted this report, could yet end with the UN emerging stronger and reshaped to face the challenges of the present day rather than of the past century. Six million people have been killed in conflicts in the past decade. None of these was a war of aggression between states of the kind that preoccupied the founding members of the UN, but all were internal conflicts of the kind for which the high-level panel urges the international community to accept a responsibility to protect.

Whether the vision of the high-level panel is now converted into reality depends crucially on whether the government of the UN's most influential member can overcome its hostility to multilateral institutions and its reluctance to be bound by international agreements. That will not be the first instinct of many of those now being handpicked by US President George W. Bush for his second administration.

He has just appointed Alberto Gonzalez as attorney general, who has dismissed the Geneva convention as "quaint." That is not an opinion that sits easily alongside the high-level panel's call for the international rule of law.

If the Blair government in London does indeed retain any influence over the White House, it should now exercise that leverage to support this new vision for the UN and to prevent Britain ever again being confronted with a demand by Washington to back another unilateral adventure without international agreement.

Robin Cook is a former foreign secretary of the UK.