A test for the UN

The ongoing 57th Session of the United Nations General Assembly is a defining moment in the history of this world body.  Its authority, long eroded by failure to act on urgent issues and by the willful noncompliance of some member-states with its resolutions, will be put to a final test over the Middle East.

The debate on what to do with Iraq has begun.  Last Thursday, US President George W. Bush presented his country’s case against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.  UN Secretary General Kofi Annan urged the United States not to resort to any unilateral action against Iraq, and to give the Security Council another chance to enforce its resolutions. The US demands that Iraq be compelled to immediately re-admit UN weapons inspectors into its territory, and to destroy all weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles in its possession.  Even as he clearly acknowledges the UN’s authority, Bush however leaves open the option of a pre-emptive strike in the name of self-defense.

Great Britain, America’s staunchest ally in the war against terror, is expected to propose a new resolution to the Security Council, setting a deadline for substantial compliance by Iraq.  No problem, says the Iraqi foreign minister, provided no new conditions or limitations are imposed.  This statement alone foreshadows a long debate in the Security Council.  The US has made it known that it will not hesitate, as George W. Bush told the graduating class of West Point in July, “to take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge.”

The US invokes Article 51 of the United Nations Charter as the warrant for the action it contemplates against Iraq.  This article revolves around the right of self-defense of nations: “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.”

But no one is questioning this right.  What is being questioned is the right to pre-emptive self-defense.  The UN Charter states that selfdefense may be invoked only “if an armed attack occurs”.  Yet America insists it cannot wait for this attack to occur.  It was already attacked by terrorists on September 11; it fears another attack with weapons of far more devastating power unless Saddam Hussein is stopped from supplying these to the terrorists now.  The right that the US is invoking is nowhere to be found in Article 51, although one may grant that it does appeal to customary common sense.

As the lone superpower left in the world, the US seeks to rewrite international law by extending its meaning.  Last year, after identifying Osama bin Laden as the mastermind of the September 11 attacks, it located him in Afghanistan and forthwith challenged the Taliban government there to hand him over.  The Taliban’s refusal to surrender Bin Laden became America’s justification to invade Afghanistan.  Nothing in the UN Charter gave America this right, yet the UN stood by and kept quiet.  Sympathy for America over September 11 was fresh and strong, and the Taliban government was an extremely unpopular regime.  Today America is having a hard time persuading its allies.

The US seeks to define Iraq’s long-term effort to acquire nuclear capability and to develop weapons of mass destruction as a hostile act in itself.  The only way it can do this, if it is to avoid being accused of double standards, is to link Saddam Hussein to Osama bin Laden and the Al-Qaida.  That is the reason there is so much talk about AlQaida operatives hiding in Iraq, and Saddam Hussein applauding the September 11 attacks.  The idea is to make Iraq’s development of lethal weapons continuous with the September terrorist conspiracy. Yet, the US has not produced any convincing evidence of this connection.  Until the US does, to support an American unilateral strike against Iraq today is to side with aggression.

America, of course, has enough money, weapons, and soldiers not only to topple governments but to take possession of any country in the world today.  If this were the 19th century, it would not need any excuse to justify even a war of conquest.  But the world has moved a long way from that order of things.  Slowly, a world government with mechanisms of conflict resolution has evolved, which, despite its imperfections and failures, enforces the rule of law and keeps nations from murdering one another.  In an era of nuclear weapons, that is not a mean achievement.  It is this that America threatens today by its insistence on the right to pre-emptive self-defense.  Although couched in very diplomatic language, Kofi Annan’s speech on Thursday was a desperate attempt to keep the US from throwing away a century of human achievement.

If America proceeds against Iraq without UN Security Council sanction, other nations will be lining up to claim the same right. Russia is already poised to go into neighboring Georgia to flush out Chechnyan rebels that have sought refuge there.  Israel will continue raiding Palestinian towns suspected of harboring suicide bombers. And the tension now prevailing over Kashmir between India and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed, can easily give way to reciprocal preemptive adventurism.

If the US goes ahead without UN approval, multilateralism will die. No other nation is strong enough to stop America.  America will enforce the law of the strong.


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