U.N. allowed a small say

THE UNANIMITY THAT the U.N. Security Council displayed on Friday while authorising the resumption of the oil-for-food programme for Iraq must be reassuring to the international community after the tensions, controversies and bitterness of the past fortnight had raised grave doubts about a role for the global organisation. The Council's resolution did make adjustments for the changing ground realities in Iraq, giving the Secretary-General control for 45 days over the humanitarian side of a programme which till its suspension was being run by the U.N. and the Iraqi Government. Launched in 1996 in an effort to alleviate the sufferings of the civilian population from crippling sanctions imposed on Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, it was suspended a day before the U.S. launched its war more than 10 days ago. An estimated 60 per cent of the 22 million Iraqi population depended on the programme for daily supplies. Today, with the havoc being caused by the bombing campaign, the dependence must be total. The U.N. acknowledged this through an appeal for emergency relief of $2.2 billions, its biggest ever, launched minutes before the Council voted on its resolution even as a UNICEF official in Geneva said that as many as half a million traumatised children in Iraq might need psychological help.

The passage of the resolution and grant of control over the programme, even if for a brief period, gives the United Nations a foot in the door after being sidelined by the actions of the U.S. Tough negotiations had preceded the vote in the Council and even some posturing outside by the United States whose Secretary of State, Colin Powell, asserted that the U.S. (perhaps also the U.K.) was not about to give up its rights in a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. France and Russia and other opponents of the war in the Council underlined that their support for the resumption of the humanitarian programme should not be taken in any manner as legitimising the U.S. action, widely considered as illegal in international law without the sanction of the U.N. Russia and Syria also opposed using the oil-for-food programme as a channel for emergency war relief, which under Geneva conventions is the ultimate responsibility of the "occupying power".

As the war nears the end of the second week, it is clear that the United Nations needs to be involved and engaged more. The world body should remain with the people of Iraq in their hour of trauma and tragedy. While it must be absurd to talk of a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, considering the surprisingly fierce resistance being put up by his forces, it is crucial for the Security Council to give early and active consideration to the long-term needs of that country which has faced four disastrous wars and continuing sanctions in two decades. "Obviously, if the U.N. is going to be on the ground, we will have to determine the relationships between the U.N., occupied Iraq and the occupying power," said Kofi Annan, the beleaguered and bitter Secretary-General, during the weekend. The Council is discussing what role the U.N. would play "down the line" in Iraq, Mr. Annan said. The unanimity on the Council vote may not presage a new phase of international cooperation but there should be no doubt that the U.N. must be at the centre of the effort to assist with the economic, social and political reconstruction of Iraq, notwithstanding the hostile signals coming from Washington. For his part, Mr. Annan can rest assured that in his effort to put the world body back in the picture and bring multilateralism to centre stage again he has many allies, including perhaps the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, of New Labour just now in the camp waging war.

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