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War Won't Kill the UN
Description: Listen to the naysayers and one could be excused for thinking the United Nations is finished as a global security institution. The Bush administration has repeatedly warned that, if the Security Council thwarts its ambitions to depose Saddam Hussein,
Date: 12 March 2003
Author: Andrew Mack, Director - Human Security Centre
Source: Ottawa Citizen
Listen to the naysayers and one could be excused for thinking the United Nations is finished as a global security institution. The Bush administration has repeatedly warned that, if the Security Council thwarts its ambitions to depose Saddam Hussein, it will go to war anyway. If it does so, the UN will be consigned to irrelevance.

The U.S. is signaling that it will play by the rules of the world security institution that it helped create if -- and only if -- that institution bends to America's will.

It now seems highly likely that the U.S.-British war resolution will be withdrawn, voted down or vetoed, and that the U.S. and its small band of allies will go it alone. This will indeed be a blow, both to the council and to the always fragile fabric of international law. But, despite its manifest failings, the UN remains an extraordinarily resilient institution and one that is anything but irrelevant.

First, the Bush administration and the increasingly isolated government of Britain's Tony Blair are going to extraordinary lengths to cajole, bribe or coerce the six "swing votes" on the council to support the war option. Clearly they would not be doing so if they thought the UN was irrelevant. George W. Bush and Mr. Blair are deeply convinced of the moral righteousness of their cause, but they still want the United Nation's imprimatur to give their war the stamp of political and legal authority it will otherwise lack.

Second, public opinion around the world is broadly opposed to any war with Iraq that is not authorized by the Security Council. This alone makes the UN highly relevant. As The New York Times recently noted, mobilized public opinion has become the world's "second superpower." Moreover, as the extraordinary global media coverage around the world attests, this crisis has also brought the council's deliberations unparalleled attention around the world.

Third, under international law nations only have the right to use force in self-defence, or when authorized to do so by the Security Council. Except in cases of self-defence, only the council can decide whether or not it is lawful to go to war -- not the United States, not Britain, nor any other state. Once again, the relevance of the UN is demonstrable, except to those who have little regard for international law.

The U.S. and Britain argue that existing council resolutions on Iraq -- including the 1991 ceasefire agreement -- provide sufficient authorization for war and that a new resolution is therefore not necessary. Some international lawyers agree. But if the U.S.-U.K. resolution is voted down, as seems likely, the council effectively will have declared the war option illegal and the U.S. will have torpedoed its own legal basis for marching on Baghdad.

Fourth, those who argue that war without council authorization will render the UN irrelevant are either disingenuous or have very short memories. During the Cold War, superpower rivalry prevented the UN from playing any effective global security role. Only in the most rare cases, such as the Korean War (when the Soviet Union foolishly was boycotting the council), was it possible for the use of force to receive UN authorization. Yet the United Nations survived this sorry period, as well as the disasters of Srebrenica, Somalia and, worst of all, Rwanda. It will survive the current crisis as well.

If there is another war with Iraq, the United Nations will again be called on to play a crucial role. This is precisely what happened in Kosovo when a "coalition of the willing" last went to war without UN authority. The U.S. and its allies fought the war; the UN led the arduous but critical task of post-conflict reconstruction. Far from being irrelevant, the UN's role will be just as pivotal in the Iraqi case.

Fifth, there is the question of the veto. Many critics have argued that the veto system in the council is an outmoded relic of the Cold War. They have a point. But the United States is in no position to criticize other permanent council members. France has exercised its veto relatively rarely and usually only in concert with its allies. Russia, which had the dubious distinction of casting the most vetoes during the Cold War, has been similarly restrained over the past decade.

Since the end of the Cold War, it is the United States that has wielded the veto most frequently, almost always to block broadly supported resolutions critical of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians. If France and Russia do veto a war against Iraq, they, unlike the U.S., will be reflecting world opinion, not rejecting it.

The Bush administration's oft-repeated claims that the UN will be rendered irrelevant if it refuses to endorse a war to depose Saddam should be seen for what they are -- wholly self-serving, and patently false.

Andrew Mack is director of the Human Security Centre at the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia. From 1998 to 2001, he was director of strategic planning for UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.


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