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UN: Security Council Credibility Seen At Stake Over Iraq

  • Robert McMahon

U.S. officials continue to press for the UN Security Council to authorize military action against Iraq, saying the chamber's very relevance is at stake if Baghdad continues to defy its resolutions. But UN members opposed to force say that bowing to U.S. demands would also threaten the legitimacy of the council. RFE/RL examines the longer-term consequences of Security Council actions in the weeks ahead.

United Nations, 28 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. decision last summer to press for Iraq's disarmament through the UN Security Council is widely credited with galvanizing international action to resolve the crisis.

In the past six months, U.S. diplomats have worked strenuously at the United Nations to build a case for multilateral action against Iraq. But as the UN Security Council begins a final, intense round of talks on Iraq, the White House has cast the issue as a challenge to the council itself.

U.S. President George W. Bush, speaking on 24 February, again called this a defining moment for the council's authority. "It's a moment to determine for this body [the United Nations] that we hope succeeds to determine whether or not it is going to be relevant as the world confronts the threats to the 21st century. Is it going to be a body that means what it says? We certainly hope it does. But one way or the other, Saddam Hussein, for the sake of peace and for the security of the American people, will be disarmed," Bush said.

On the other side of the issue, a number of UN member states that support continued inspections in Iraq say the council's credibility would be damaged if it voted to authorize force under U.S. pressure. That message was repeated at a public debate last week, in which dozens of non-council states addressed the chamber.

South African Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo, speaking on behalf of the 114-member Non-Aligned Movement, said the council needs to fully explore other options before resorting to war. If not, Kumalo said, it would mark a failure by the council to carry out its mandate of maintaining peace and security. "The United Nations is the most authoritative voice in the world of complex multilateralism and independence. It is an organization founded on the need to preserve international peace and security. We should not allow its legitimacy and credibility to be undermined by [the Iraq issue]," Kumalo said.

Many UN representatives say it is crucial for the council to resolve the crisis in a unified way.

At the moment, the council is deeply divided. Earlier this week, two separate factions on the council -- one led by the United States, the other by France -- submitted competing initiatives on how to increase the pressure on Iraq to verifiably disarm.

The United States, joined by Britain and Spain, sponsored a draft resolution saying Iraq has missed its final opportunity to disarm peacefully. The resolution implies the council's endorsement of force to disarm Iraq. They are seeking action by mid-March.

France, supported by Germany and Russia, has circulated a memorandum calling for intensified inspections under a timetable that extends them until July.

As council members grapple with the issue, it is unfair for either side in the debate to judge the council's relevancy by how it acts on Iraq, said David Scheffer, a former senior U.S. diplomat and currently vice president of the nonpartisan United Nations Association.

Scheffer told RFE/RL that so far, the council is functioning according to design. "It's acting with extreme relevance in this crisis. Now, granted, the United States has constructively compelled the Security Council to take very serious measures and to take seriously the challenge of Iraq -- and that is to the credit of the United States government -- but having now entered into a new phase of focus and attention on Iraq, the Security Council has established a discipline of decision-making on this which is something that demonstrates in spades its relevance."

But Scheffer said the council's prestige could suffer if its members fail to reach consensus and the United States goes ahead with plans to lead a coalition against Iraq. If council members move to condemn the U.S. actions, that could have destructive consequences for the council, Scheffer said. "If the council continued in turmoil after the launch of the intervention then you've got, sort of, a prospect of extreme bitterness and turmoil within the council and I think then the long-term credibility of the council would be in jeopardy," he said.

The council could have avoided this predicament if it acted more forcefully in the 1990s, says James Phillips, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a think tank that supports the Bush administration's policy on Iraq.

Phillips told RFE/RL that France, in particular, is at fault for breaking the unity the council displayed in adopting Resolution 1441 unanimously. He says France has undermined UN resolve by shifting the resolution's focus from disarmament to inspections. "If the UN fails to enforce its own resolutions, then it threatens to become a self-made obsolete institution and that's a risk I think that France is, in foremost, imposing on the UN," Phillips said.

Still, UN experts say the United States continues to seek Security Council backing for action against Iraq because it needs the world body's help on other issues, including postconflict reconstruction in Iraq.

John Ruggie is a professor of international affairs at Harvard University and a former top adviser to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He told RFE/RL that if Washington decides to act without Security Council authority against Iraq, it could damage its efforts on key issues such as weapons proliferation. "The U.S. isn't going to launch preemptive war against all would-be proliferators. It's silly to think that. We need a concerted approach. We need collective instruments to do that, which is why this Iraqi thing is so important and why I have every expectation that at the end of the day, some compromise will be reached," Ruggie said.

Some diplomats at the UN say the situation is reminiscent of early 1999, when the Kosovo crisis was intensifying. At that time, a threatened Russian veto in the Security Council prompted the U.S. to decide to launch air attacks against Slobodan Milosevic's regime through the NATO alliance.

Some had voiced alarm that the move would threaten the legitimacy of the United Nations. But when the campaign had ended, the UN began setting up a virtual protectorate that continues to run Kosovo. A similarly quick campaign in Iraq, observers say, could spare the Security Council any lasting damage.