The UN can still hold the world together

During the cold war, the United Nations was quite used to being denounced as a useless or impotent talking-shop. Then there was a flurry of enthusiasm after 1987, when the end of the cold war appeared to offer a chance that the Organisation could actually be what its founders intended – a collective security system, with the great powers acting in concert to guarantee the safety of all states large and small.

This euphoria came to an abrupt end in 1993, with the débâcle in Somalia and the gruesome stalemate in Bosnia. The Clinton administration blamed both these on the UN, although they were mainly caused by the US’s own mistakes and those of its European allies. Then in 1994 came the genocide in Rwanda – which none of the great powers made any attempt to halt until it was almost over – and then the loss of both houses of Congress to the Republicans. After that, Bill Clinton was unwilling to take any risks to defend the UN. In 1996 he even vetoed a second term for Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, in order to deprive his presidential opponent of a campaign issue.

Kofi Annan, who replaced Boutros, adopted a low-key approach and had had some success in improving UN-US relations by 2001, when the terrorist attack of September 11 dramatically reawakened US interest in the rest of the world, including the UN, and temporarily won sympathy for the US around the world. Within weeks, the Security Council not only affirmed the US’s right to defend itself against the attack (without specifying where or when), but also adopted a highly intrusive US-drafted resolution requiring all states to cooperate in hunting down terrorists and their sources of income.

A year later President Bush came to the UN General Assembly to lay out his case against Iraq in terms of previous Security Council resolutions, and to demand that the Council now take action to enforce them. In the six months that followed the Council was at the centre of an extraordinary drama. As its five permanent members slid into confrontation, the ten elected members found themselves asked to choose sides between the US and their own public opinion. In all but two cases (Spain and Bulgaria), the latter won. This infuriated the Bush administration, but cheered many other people by showing that the UN was not, after all, an automatic rubber-stamp for US wishes.

What the Council could not do, however, was actually to prevent the war. Ironically this led many opponents of the war to reach the same conclusion as George Bush and his supporters – that the UN had become futile and irrelevant – even if for the opposite reason.
Both sides apparently had expectations of the UN that its track record scarcely justifies. There have regrettably been hundreds of wars in the world since 1945. Very few of them were authorised by the Security Council. In fact there are only two major examples: the Korean war in 1950 and the Gulf war in 1990-91. In the Kosovo crisis of March 1999 the Council failed to agree but NATO went ahead with military action anyway, much like George and Tony in March 2003. The main difference was that then France and Germany – and millions of Muslims around the world – were on the US side.

It is sad that the Council failed to solve this latest Iraq crisis, but those who were disappointed should not give up hope. Governments on both sides of the argument found it very bruising, and they are now trying to come together again and find common ground on Iraq’s future.
Already the UN is playing a leading role in bringing humanitarian relief to Iraq’s people. And the Security Council has been able to agree on extending the oil-for-food programme until 3 June, allowing the Secretary-General direct control of food shipments for which the now defunct Iraqi government had signed contracts.

It is increasingly clear that France, Germany and Russia – the countries that led the opposition to the war – now want to be involved in the peace. They are anxious to mend fences with the US, and to keep it engaged in the UN. France has said that it will propose immediate suspension of the sanctions on Iraq. The US, flushed with victory, is playing hard to get – it would prefer to keep Iraq fully under its own control until it has groomed a new Iraqi government to which it can hand over. But until sanctions are lifted no one will have a clear legal right to sell Iraq’s oil. This gives the other members of the Security Council some leverage. They will want the US to comply with earlier resolutions – the very ones it went to war to enforce – that say that Iraq’s disarmament must be verified by UN inspectors. They will want the oil-for-food programme phased out gradually, so that the two thirds of Iraq’s population that depend on it are not faced with sudden starvation. And they will want some form of accountability, so long as Iraq is under foreign occupation, to ensure that its oil resources and revenues are indeed being used for the benefit its people.

They will therefore probably be willing, if the US meets them half way, to frame a UN resolution giving some kind of international legitimacy to a post-war Iraqi government. That is what happened in Kosovo, where the Russians – who had frightened NATO away from the Security Council before the war by threatening a veto – co-operated in drafting the peace settlement in the form of a Council resolution.

That resolution set up a UN civilian administration in Kosovo. The same is unlikely to happen in Iraq, which neither wants nor needs to be run by foreigners – it has many qualified technicians and administrators. International administration was a useful compromise in Kosovo because there was no agreement about whether it should become independent, or remain part of Yugoslavia. But one thing all parties agree on about Iraq is that it should remain a single, independent state with its present borders.

A closer precedent might be Afghanistan, where, after the fall of the Taliban, the UN presided over a political process enabling the Afghan parties to agree on an interim authority, and then sent an assistance mission, which is now helping that authority to rebuild the country. Certainly any new Iraqi government will want to be recognised by the rest of the world, and accepted as representing Iraq in the UN.

The examples of Kosovo and Afghanistan should also remind us that the UN has an agenda far beyond Iraq. It is involved in peacekeeping and peace-building in many countries around the world. Its Development Programme and other specialised bodies are working in almost every developing country. They are at the forefront of the worldwide battles against poverty, ignorance, disease and environmental degradation. They are also working to promote human rights, including women’s rights, and better governance.

They are not there as unsolicited busybodies, but to carry out mandates from the UN’s member states – most notably the Millennium Declaration, adopted by all the world’s political leaders at the Millennium Summit in 2000. Among the pledges given there are the eight Millennium Development Goals, most of which are supposed to be achieved by 2015 – including the halving of extreme poverty, universal primary education, equal access for both sexes to all levels of education, reductions in child and maternal mortality, and a halt to the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Whether these goals will be achieved is, in the last resort, up to the world’s peoples, who must keep their governments up to the mark. But it is by success or failure in implementing that broad agenda, not just what happens in Iraq, that the UN’s utility should be judged.
The UN can work, if the peoples of the world want it to, and put enough pressure on their governments to make it happen.

New York, 25 April, 2003.

Edward Mortimer is Director of Communications in the office of the UN Secretary-General. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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