Can the U.N. be reunited?

NEW DELHI MARCH 30. The United Nations had always suffered from internal imbalance — partly it was inherent in its structure, partly it was caused by the unipolar order after the cold war. The world body took all that in its stride. But it faces a crisis now that the United States has hurled a major challenge at it so audaciously, with a unilateral attack on Iraq. The U.N. stands divided. Could it be reunited?

The conservatives in the U.S. had never made secret of their disdain of the U.N., especially when it appeared to show the temerity of not going along their government's wishes. The challenges to the U.N. authority in the past were confined to non-official think-tanks or to side observations by U.S. representatives in the U.N. committees.

From September last year onward, if not earlier, the Bush administration had been stepping up pressure on the world body to accept its line on Iraq. It wanted the U.N. authorisation for attack in pursuit of the objective, which kept on changing — at one point, it was the regime change, at another stage, it was the break of the nexus between international terrorism and Baghdad and, lately, destruction of deadly weapons.

The inspection process, mandated by the U.N., was meant to address this last concern of Washington. The progress in the inspection exercise and a fair degree of cooperation by the Iraqi supremo, Saddam Hussein, ought to have satisfied the Americans. It had had the opposite effect. Fearing that Mr. Hussein's compliance would deprive them of the pretext to carry out their plans, they upped the ante, as a matter of conscious, deliberate policy, rejecting the inspection process as wastage of time and went ahead with invasion of Iraq. Theirs was unilateral action, not merely lacking the support of the majority in the Security Council, but opposed by them.

Washington did not mince words on Iraq. It said it would act according to the authority of the U.N., if possible, without that, if necessary.

The White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, quoting the President, George W. Bush, had this to say: "If the United Nations does not disarm Saddam Hussein, there will be another international organisation. It will be a coalition of the willing that will be made up of numerous nations that will disarm Saddam Hussein. Another group will be the source of international action. It will be multilateral, it will be international, it just won't be the United Nations.''

The U.S. efforts to sideline the world body comes in the wake of bids in the past to control it, to ensure that it does Washington's bidding. Sometime back, the U.S. virtually vetoed the move for a second term for Boutros Boutros-Ghali as the Secretary-General of the U.N. because it did not like his projection of an independent image. He had to pay the price for not obliging the U.S. And for no fault of his, the new Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, started his tenure with an unflattering image — of pliability to Washington. His' was a hard task of living down that reputation. Even now he is misunderstood — most of the time, unjustly.

In 1998, the U.S. by-passed the U.N. and went ahead with bombing Kosovo. Its action did not come into a sharp focus, because the West was not divided and, from among the permanent members, only Russia made public its reservations. It was a different story now — the U.S. was backed, from among the P-5, only by the U.K. but bitterly opposed by France and Russia and, by the majority of non-permanent members, notably Germany.

The stand taken by the U.S. in the Security Council had a serious contradiction. At one stage, it said it did not need the fresh authority of the U.N. for armed operation against Iraq, this mandate being there in resolution 1441.

When this interpretation was challenged by others, the U.K., obviously at the behest of the U.S., circulated a new draft, seeking to expressly authorise the use of force.

And when the U.S. did not find sufficient support, it reverted to the earlier stand and did not press the new resolution for vote. Resolution 1441 was not adopted in a vacuum — it was the extension of a process that began with "678'' in November 1990, on the use of force (to end Iraqi occupation of Kuwait) and "687'', specifying the world body's demands on Iraq, notably elimination of weapons of mass destruction, with inspection by a specially appointed team. The U.S. ignored all that and, putting its own interpretation on the Council's decisions, went ahead with its unilateral action.

What is to be done now? A lot will depend on the outcome of the current military operation. In case it drags on, because of resistance by Iraqi troops, the U.S. may be amenable to suggestions for U.N. involvement in processes to end hostilities. If the Iraqi resistance collapses, the U.N. would have to reckon with a fait accompli.

Then there is the urgent question of humanitarian help and reviving the oil for food programme.

This programme has some 8 billion dollars in a Paris bank and is to be operated by the U.N. There is a case for reactivating it, without loss of time.

It is the Iraqi money and is meant to be used for the people of Iraq, especially when their need is the greatest. In no case, the world body is to bless the Iraq invasion retrospectively.

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