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2002 In Review: Iraq Crisis Puts UN's 'Relevance' Under Scrutiny

  • Robert McMahon

The United Nations ended 2002 in an unaccustomed spotlight as it emerged as the main forum for dealing with the Iraq crisis. U.S. President George W. Bush challenged the UN to prove its relevancy by pursuing the vigorous disarmament of Iraq. But some also observed that the U.S. decision to press its case through the UN strengthened international rule of law and the UN's indispensable multilateral role.

United Nations, 16 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Relations between the United Nations and its strongest and most influential member state -- the United States -- now appear to be defined by the process of weapons inspections in Iraq. But the relationship is actually in the middle of a complex transformation that began before the Iraq crisis took center stage late in 2002.

Through the year, Washington continued to follow a unilateral course on a number of key issues, notably its rejection of the International Criminal Court. But it recognized the importance of remaining engaged in the UN in other areas it sees as crucial to its overriding priority -- the global fight against terrorism.

UN experts say this engagement, including an unexpected pledge to increase development aid earlier in the year, carries with it important implications for a number of UN objectives. And they say Washington's decision to deal with Iraq through the UN -- at least for the moment -- reflects an awareness of the benefits of multilateral action.

U.S. President George W. Bush's speech to the UN General Assembly on 12 September challenged the UN to hold Iraq to account for its failure to comply with resolutions seeking to disarm its weapons of mass destruction. He invoked the weaknesses of the League of Nations and said the UN's own relevance was at stake. But Bush said he also wanted to bolster the credibility of the UN by stirring it to action on Iraq. "The United States helped found the United Nations. We want the United Nations to be effective and [respected] and successful. We want the resolutions of the world's most important multilateral body to be enforced, and right now those resolutions are being unilaterally subverted by the Iraqi regime."

Bush's address followed an appeal by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan for nations to seek a multilateral approach to international security and the Iraq crisis. Annan later welcomed Bush's decision to work through the UN, saying that the president's comments had galvanized the international community into taking concerted action on Iraq.

Two months later, diplomats at the UN heralded the 15-0 vote in the Security Council to resume tough inspections in Iraq as a sign of new unity.

But since Bush's speech, Annan has also defended the organization against charges, frequently coming from Washington, that its legitimacy was at stake if it failed to deal properly with Iraq. Annan's spokesman, Fred Eckhard, told RFE/RL that the United Nations must be viewed in the broader context of its work. "Everyone is focused on Iraq, and therefore everyone, at least as far as today is concerned or this week or this month, is going to judge the UN based on its performance on Iraq. But, of course, Iraq is just one of many things we're doing, and I assume that member states vote with their pocketbooks."

Eckhard noted that leading UN members, including the United States, continue to finance a wide array of UN programs and agencies, supporting everything from health care to refugee resettlement.

But U.S. moves to press a tough line against Iraq and repeated threats of possible military action have aroused concern among UN members. During the past several months, diplomats expressed alarm that the United States was bending the UN to its will, through its role as a permanent member of the powerful Security Council.

In the middle of the council's debate on a new resolution on Iraq, the nonaligned movement of states called for a council meeting to allow members to air their concerns. The 16 October session, in which nearly half of the UN's 191 members spoke, was at times as much a discussion of reforming the Security Council as disarming Iraq.

South African Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo, speaking on behalf of the nonaligned movement, said members were troubled by the way the Iraqi issue was being handled. He raised concerns, repeated again this month, that the permanent five members are reserving too much power for themselves on sensitive issues. "The Security Council represents our collective security concerns and should ultimately be accountable to the entire United Nations. The maintenance of international peace and security is a core function of the United Nations. Therefore, the Security Council cannot be party to increasing the humanitarian suffering of civilians who are caught up in conflict situations."

Many Arab and Muslim states also accused the council of maintaining a double standard by taking a hard line against Iraq but not enforcing its resolutions aimed at securing peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Some UN observers say the impression of Washington bullying the UN is exaggerated. Those who regularly follow the UN General Assembly and other UN bodies are aware that the United States does not dictate outcomes, said Anne Bayefsky, an adjunct professor at Columbia University Law School and a member of the governing board of Geneva-based UN Watch.

Bayefsky noted that the United States in 2002 was on the sidelines of the annual meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission, after failing to get re-elected. It will be back on the commission next year.

She is also critical of the numerous General Assembly resolutions condemning Israel for its actions against Palestinians in the occupied territories. She said the refusal of Arab states to consider Palestinian attacks against Israelis as terrorism has frustrated efforts to agree to a comprehensive antiterror convention. "The United Nations still to this very day doesn't have a definition of terrorism, can't adopt a comprehensive convention to fight terrorism, and won't use the counterterrorism committee of the Security Council to take issue with specific attempts at exempting certain human beings."

But the United States also registered successes in pressing antiterror efforts through the UN in 2002. In Afghanistan, for example, it continued to lead a coalition of military forces pursuing remnants of Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in Afghanistan, while the United Nations ran the enormous programs aimed at trying to stabilize the country. And the Bush administration's willingness to compromise on the Iraqi disarmament resolution could help it gain support for future antiterror initiatives.

One often overlooked gesture by Washington this year was its agreement to increase foreign aid by $5 billion by 2006, said Jeffrey Laurenti, a senior analyst at the UN Association of the United States, an independent think tank. The agreement, announced in March, marked the first major increase in U.S. development aid since the end of the Cold War.

Laurenti told RFE/RL the foreign aid decision also indicated a shift in administration thinking about the root causes of terrorism. "There has been the gradual acknowledgment, the gradual recognition that, indeed, there are roots of terrorism. They are not, in the view of the administration, simply poverty, but they recognize that there are some social factors that make certain situations more likely to produce a violent and terrorist response than others."

UN spokesman Eckhard says since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, UN officials have raised concerns about poverty serving as a breeding ground for terrorism. Noting the Monterrey conference in March, in which both Washington and the European Union pledged large sums of development aid, Eckhard said many governments now see a link between terrorism and poverty. "It's probably a good investment to put money into development, to make that development sustainable from an environmental point of view and basically try to harmonize development efforts with political objectives which are aimed at making the world more secure, more safe, and more livable."

UN officials also say they are pleased to see the United States rejoining the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which the United States withdrew from nearly 20 years ago.

But Laurenti said the Bush administration's multilateral moves are still balanced against the interests of what he calls its special constituents. He said that makes unlikely any major change in positions such as the administration's opposition to the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and attempts to set up a monitoring mechanism for the Biological Weapons Convention.