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Affirming our duty to protect
Description: Iraq has returned with a vengeance to the agenda of the United Nations.
Date: 07 September 2003
Author: Iraq has returned with a vengeance to the agenda of the United Nations.
Source: National Post
Affirming our duty to protect

Lloyd Axworthy
National Post
Sept. 8, 2003

Iraq has returned with a vengeance to the agenda of the United Nations. This time U.S. President George W. Bush is seeking a stamp of approval for an international rescue operation of his faltering regime of occupation. And, just as there was contention over his initial request for a mandate to invade, there is equal concern over giving him the cover of the UN flag for post-conflict operations when he is unwilling to share, in any significant way, the authority to decide what those operations should be.

The Security Council is set for either a repeat of the acrimonious debate and division that took place last March, or a capitulation to the present U.S. demands to use the UN as fig leaf, not as an effective partner in the rebuilding of Iraq. In neither case would the cause of multilateral global co-operation, nor the interests of the people of Iraq, be served.

If ever there was a time for a display of creative statesmanship it is now. There must be voices raised to offer alternatives and give direct guidance to Security Council members on how to manage the dilemma in a way that can be constructive for the international community.

Canada can play a leadership role by taking this matter to the UN General Assembly and helping to affirm the need for a human security approach as the appropriate answer to present-day risks as represented by Iraq.

On Sept. 16, the 58th session of the UN General Assembly opens for business. This autumn ritual of the international political circuit has over the years become a less than noteworthy event, having fallen prey to far too much empty rhetoric and too little real accomplishment. Its primary value is to provide a convenient venue for various diplomats to engage in a "meet and greet" minuet with their counterparts and to worry over the parlous state of the world at long and languorous lunches.

There are times, however, when debates at the Assembly can take on importance and drive the member states of the UN towards effective action and constructive co-operation. A General Assembly emergency session in 1956 dealing with the Suez crisis gave Lester B. Pearson the opportunity to present the idea of a UN peacekeeping force. In the 1960s, the Assembly became the crucible for determining policies on de-colonization. And in 2000, there was a remarkable gathering of world leaders that gave broad approval to the Millennium Goals for Development, setting standards to mark progress towards a more equitable sharing of the world's wealth and resources. It is possible for delegates to the General Assembly to rise to the occasion and set new directions.

In the aftermath of the UN Security Council's failure to manage the crisis last March, when it went from being the centre stage of diplomatic action to simply a standby observer of the invasion, there has been a huge loss of faith by many people around the world in the UN's role as a peacemaker. In reconstruction plans the UN was marginalized. All the talk among learned commentators was the ascendancy of an American empire that would govern according to its self-defined right to undertake pre-emptive action any place and at any time of its own choosing, all in the name of counter-terrorism. The era of multilateral decision-making, of international treaties and the advent of humanitarian law were coming to an end -- or so they opined.

The tragic explosion of UN headquarters in Baghdad demonstrated the further vulnerability of the organization and appeared to portend even further problematics on the UN role. Yet, in a paradoxical way this event, combined with the follow-on blasts destroying a sacred mosque in Najaf and the ongoing killing of Iraqi civilians and coalition soldiers denotes a turning point. Out of the rubble of the crushed concrete and spectacle of the twisted, maimed bodies of the victims of these atrocities is emerging recognition that the United States and its coalition partners can't provide protection and security for Iraqis and UN diplomats alike. They need the help that only the UN can provide.

The hard scrabble of rebuilding a broken society, of restoring conditions of stability sufficient to give Iraqis confidence that a new day can dawn and that the present occupation can one day come to an end is a vocation that the UN has acquired in various missions around the world. It is a chance to reassert the value of developing co-operative, collective international action predicated on the fundamental principle of protecting people, not advancing geopolitical interests.

This cause should be taken up with vigour and intelligence at the 58th session. It is the opening to establish the importance of the UN as a peacemaker, not just a handmaiden to pick up post-conflict debris. The U.S. administration must see that in return for a broader sharing of the tasks of nation-building there must also be a sharing of responsibility for the protection and security of the Iraqi people, of developing a timetable for self-government and of establishing impartial tribunals of law.

Canada can be a key player in shaping that debate and helping to construct a resolution that gives new life and definition to the UN role in Iraq. We are in a very unique position. Under the rubric of our human security agenda we have championed the necessity of the UN to assert a primary role in the protection of civilians against global predators. We authored a major international commission that sets rules for international intervention and proposes various means to assure the security of individuals.

The report of this commission called "The Responsibility to Protect" establishes a broad scheme for shifting the onus of intervention from the rights of the intervener to the rights of the victim. It shows how and why the UN should be the appropriate forum for international decision-making, including both the Security Council and the General Assembly; what tests should be applied to assess the risks to individuals; and how to establish effective nation-building strategies. It makes the case for strengthening the UN capacity to take action in both preventing conflict and managing the scene after the conflict ends. One particular idea whose time has come, and must be given serious consideration in light of the bombing of the UN facilities and the pull-out of development agencies, is the notion of a UN constabulary, available to protect both civilians and aid workers.

We have a blueprint that could well provide the forthcoming assembly session with a framework in which to rewire the UN system to make it an effective instrument of responding to the contemporary risks of civil conflict and global criminality. The Prime Minister took up the task of presenting the "responsibility to protect" argument at the recent London meeting of progressive- minded governments. He should now do the same at the UN General Assembly, followed by a full-court diplomatic effort to translate the principles into a document commanding support from the full membership of the world body.

This is the place where a real contribution to a serious issue affecting all of the international community can be made. This is a moment when Canadians can help make a difference in achieving a safer, more just world. This is a time when Canadian diplomacy should exercise the noble art of "carpe diem" -- seize the day.

Lloyd Axworthy is director and CEO of the Liu Centre for the Study of Global Issues and former foreign affairs minister from 1996-2000. His upcoming book is Navigating a New World -- Canada's Global Future (Knopf).

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