United States vs Nations

The UN is being invited insolently to share in the cleaning. It is time to make a realistic assessment of the UN in a unipolar world.

india Updated: Apr 16, 2003 13:17 IST

Last year, American Vice- President Dick Cheney advised President George W. Bush to tell the United Nations: “You are not important.” To keep up appearances, the US moved the UN Security Council, secured a resolution on false assurance, but reneged on them once it found it could not secure its backing for a war on Iraq.

The UN is being invited insolently to share in the cleaning. It is time to make a realistic assessment of the UN in a unipolar world, with its flaws and potentialities, and draw lessons from them.

Those who laud the collapse of ‘the old international order’ because India had little say in its management overlook the fact that it would have even less in a new one sans the UN. The say comes with power. The weak can only rely on diplomacy. It is the more effective with the UN.

There is not one country in the world of any significance — India included — which has not complained of the UN at some time or the other. The plaints would subside if people think of it as ‘they’ — the United Nations — and not as ‘it’. As H.G. Nicholas noted: “It has no will of its own. It is a forum in which wills can be expressed and harmonised.” It is, by its charter “a centre for harmonising the actions of nations in the attainment of… common ends”. He, however, added: “Though it remains the creature of its members, [it] now has in addition a life of its own… It gives visible and continuing expression to certain canons of behaviour which members have agreed to observe.” The UN became a source of legitimacy and developed the law through a host of international legislation.

The first complaint of significance was by British Foreign Secretary Lord Home in a famous speech at Berwick on December 28, 1961. There was “a crisis of confidence” in the UN and it was aired that it “openly condones aggression”. His Metternichian outlook explains a lot we have seen since. The charter “named the great powers as permanent members in the expectation that they… would deal together (sic) with any breach of peace by the smaller powers” — not by themselves.

While submitting the charter to Parliament in 1945, the British government published ‘A Commentary’ on it which said: “Power must be commensurate with responsibility, and it is on the great powers that the charter places the main responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. The Great Powers have, however, accepted great limitations on their power to act. They themselves give solemn undertakings that they will not use force or the threat of force for national ends. They promise to submit disputes which threaten the maintenance of international peace and security to pacific procedures and, if these fail, to the Security Council itself… only when enforcement action is necessary is the complete unanimity of the Great Powers always required.”

That unanimity was absent in the war on Iraq. The disingenuous sophistry in which we have been treated cannot conceal the fact that the US and Britain prepared two draft resolutions to win the Security Council’s sanction (February 24 and March 7) and went to war when they failed to get it. When Resolution 1441 was adopted on November 8, 2002, Russia, France and Germany said explicitly in a joint statement that “in case of failure by Iraq to comply with its obligations” the fact would be reported to the council and “it will be then for the council to take a position on the basis of that report”.

The US representative, John Negroponte, said that the Resolution had “no ‘authomacity’ with respect to the use of force”. On November 11, US Secretary of State Colin Powell said that if the council failed to act on Iraq’s breaches, “then the US certainly, as does any other member of the Security Council, retains its ability to act in self-defence”. This is the only ground on which a member can act unilaterally. A day earlier, in a calculated fudge, he said that the US “retains its option to act if the Security Council doesn’t act”. This option is not legally available except in self-defence.

Rebuffed at the council, Bush demanded on March 17 that President Saddam Hussein must leave Iraq within 48 hours. Powell said his draft of March 7 “will die anyway because it had a built-in date of March 17” for Iraq’s compliance. The US thus gave an ultimatum not only to Iraq but also to the UN. It launched a war on March 19 for its ‘national ends’. Its Iraq Liberation Act, 1998, enjoined it “to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq”. But none of the council’s resolutions did; a fact which the British Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, a personal friend of PM Tony Blair, ignored studiously. He damaged his credibility by his pathetic quibbles.

Under Paragraph 12 of Resolution 1441, the council was “to convene immediately” after the inspectors reported “in order to consider the situation”. Joshua Rosenberg, legal editor of Daily Telegraph, wrote: “It is on that word (‘consider’) that Lord Goldsmith’s entire argument hangs. If further decision had been needed, he explains, then the resolution would have said so.”

The council is, surely, not a debating society but an organ set up by the charter “to ensure… action”. The words that followed the expression “consider the situation” remove all doubt — “and the need for full compliance with all of the relevant council resolutions”. That a vast majority of the council saw no ‘need’ for military action itself implies ‘decision’. Ambassador Robert Blackwill’s ipse dixi, “no further resolution was required”, is utter nonsense. Neither Resolution 1441 nor Resolutions 678 (1990) and 687 (1991) uses the words used in the resolutions of June 27, 1950, on Korea, or November 24, 1961 on Katange, or April 9, 1966, on Rhodesia. They explicitly sanctioned use of force. The expression “serious consequences” belongs to diplomatic exchanges. It is inapt and inadequate as a sanction for war.

Rosenberg noted that Goldsmith “did not put his name to the full Foreign Office paper (on the subject), that he did not publish it sooner and did not speak on it in the Lords debate”, on March 17. The Acts received his deserts that day from Lord Goodhart QC, a Liberal Democrat, and from Rabinder Singh, QC. Far more telling was the resignation of Elizabeth Wilmhurst, a legal adviser to the Foreign Office for many years.

The concept of collective security on which the UN is based is inherently flawed. It implies that States judge aggression — or for that matter, terrorism — impartially when, in fact, they judge it in the light of their national interest. The UN fails when States fail to unite in action. But they sometimes reckon with the larger interest. The council connived for a decade at Iraq’s impoverishment at the US’s behest. It recoiled from murder. Like others, India faced the dilemma. Friendship with the US had to be balanced against its naked display of brute power. We witness what Jessica Tuchman Mathews, president of the Carnegle Endowment, called the spectacle of “a US that seems to want to decide for the world”. That is a challenge all other nations must face today.

Disparaging the UN is no answer. Tear apart the gift-wrapping and you have what Andrew Boyd called “a do-it-yourself kit, with incomplete instructions and a price tag”.

First Published: Apr 15, 2003 00:01 IST