UN can survive Iraq

THE results of a review of the functioning of the UN, conducted by a panel appointed by the secretary general Kofi Annan, will soon be on the table. That there is a need to discuss an array of questions is not in doubt — but the fact that the most powerful member of the organisation shows disdain for it is not exactly conducive to a positive intergovernmental debate.

By Hans Blix

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Published: Wed 1 Dec 2004, 10:52 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 1:55 AM

We learned before the invasion of Iraq that in the view of the US administration, the Security Council had the choice of voting with the US for armed action — or being irrelevant. A majority on the council did not allow itself to be pushed into supporting the action, and the invasion took place. Many saw this as a loss of prestige for the council and as a crisis for the UN. In one way it was, and is. Institutions such as the Security Council are like instruments to be played. If members choose not to play or are completely out of tune, no marching music results. It is only when the construction of the instruments is found deficient or outmoded that repair is meaningful.

The refusal last year of a majority of the Security Council to follow the tune that the US wished the council to play can also be seen as the saving of the council’s authority and respectability. How would the world look at the council today if it had endorsed an armed action to eradicate weapons of mass destruction — that did not exist and whose evidence was often concocted, even forged?

Today most countries and most people consider the action launched in Iraq a grave error or worse, and much of American public opinion — perhaps even a majority — shares this view. Yet the new US administration seems to take victory in the presidential election not only as support for strong positions and actions against terrorist threats (probably a justified interpretation), but also as support for its decision to launch the war on Iraq and for its disdainful attitude to the UN.

It is as if the UN had insulted the US. The Republican convention that renominated George Bush erupted in applause when the vice-president said that Bush would “never seek a permission slip to defend the American people”. Fine, except that Iraq was not a threat, not a growing threat, and probably not even a distant threat.

We also see an intense and large-scale campaign of vilification, depicting the UN as “corrupt” because the oil-for-food programme — instituted and supervised by the Security Council and its most powerful members, including the US — enabled Iraq, the buyers of Iraqi oil and the sellers of products to Iraq, to siphon off money and pass it on illegally to Saddam Hussein’s regime.

The fraud, although widely suspected and estimated at about a billion dollars a year in the media, was not easy for the programme administration to track down and prove. The council and its members saw it with open eyes just as they saw the billions that flowed to Saddam from oil exports to neighbouring states. The programme functioned as a reasonably effective break against the import of weapons and dual-use items, which was its major objective. Today it serves as a campaign platform against the UN. So long as the current climate remains, it is doubtful if any meaningful discussion about UN reform can be pursued. There is something paradoxical about the crisis at the UN and the criticism of the Security Council as a talking shop.

We did not hear this during the long years of the Cold war, when the council was habitually prevented from action by the threat or use of Soviet vetoes. There are no automatic Russian or Chinese obstacles to council action today. Large numbers of peacekeeping operations were started in the first period of detente and, to be fair, not so few decisions are still taken by consensus in the council. Yet the atmosphere remains poisoned.

It has been suggested that in the review of the functioning of the UN, an effort should be made to examine the circumstances in which the use of force can and should be authorised. Some would wish to see a greater use of the council’s power to hold members to their duties to protect their own citizens: to intervene by force, if necessary, in situations of genocide, as in Rwanda or Darfur. Others want to search for a reformulation of article 51 of the charter, in order to give some room for pre-emptive action.

Many members will remain sceptical about any international armed interventions. They are suspicious of any outside interference — even by the UN for the purpose of upholding human rights. Other members may not be persuaded to spend resources or risk the lives of their soldiers — unless significant national interests are at stake, as they were at the Gulf war in 1991 and were perceived to be in the Iraq war in 2003. Where intervention will be both justified as the only way to prevent grave violations of human rights and acceptable to a broad membership, I do not think that article 2:7 of the charter [about not interfering in essentially domestic matters] will stand in the way.

I also think it unlikely that any agreed language could be found that explicitly allows members to use force pre-emptively or preventively without authorisation of the Security Council. It is more likely that an answer to the problem will slowly emerge through precedents. It is also important that the Security Council actively considers and monitors threats posed by possible weapons of mass destruction, giving all members the feeling that the issue is taken seriously and that there is a readiness to take joint action, where there is convincing evidence of a threat that is significant and near in time.

The Security Council remains potentially a vital institution. The Iraq war has demonstrated the handicap that followed from not acting with its authorisation. The council would have even greater authority if its composition were modified. In 1945, power was the military capacity of the victor states. When economic sanctions and pressures are to be applied, which are preferable to the application of military power, there is an advantage in the presence of states with much economic power.

For greater legitimacy, the Security Council needs to represent a large part of the world’s population, hence a need for the presence in the council of the most populous countries in all continents. One argument, not infrequently advanced, I find totally objectionable: that those states that pay the greatest contributions to the UN budget should merit a seat. The seats should not be for sale.

Hans Blix was the former UN chief weapons inspector for Iraq. This is an edited extract from a speech given last week at the University of Cambridge; read the full text at www.lrcil.org.

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