The United Nations Security Council did not authorize the NATO bombing campaign against Serbian forces in the Kosovo crisis, nor has it explicitly permitted the establishment of no-fly zones over Iraq. But in the intense talks now under way among council members, great effort is being made to make sure that any authorization of force against Iraq over weapons inspections comes through the council. RFE/RL examines the council's role in authorizing military force.
United Nations, 23 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. officials say that if the United Nations Security Council approves the revised draft resolution it has submitted, the United States will have the authority to undertake military action, if necessary, to disarm Iraq of suspected weapons of mass destruction.
They also say the U.S. can use military force against Iraq without Security Council authority.
Washington's assertions, supported by some scholars and UN experts, illustrate the difficulties involved in the Security Council discussions over Iraq. The outcome, they say, could be a critical test of the council's primacy in authorizing force in international crises.
It has been five weeks since U.S. President George W. Bush challenged the council to enforce its resolutions on the elimination of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. The UN risked irrelevancy, he said, if it failed to respond to Iraqi defiance.
Since then, council members have all spoken of the need for a vigorous new inspection regime in Iraq. But permanent members France and Russia have so far rejected U.S. proposals for a resolution that could trigger military force in the event of Iraqi noncompliance.
But all powers on the council recognize the importance of reaching a unified position on Iraq, says Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government: "It's in the American interest to do this multilaterally, as contrasted with unilaterally. And it's in the UN's interests to have enforcement of its resolutions. But the UN wants to maintain, or the major powers want to maintain, some sort of control over what's done and the Americans obviously don't want to have the controls so tight that they can't do anything. So that's what the bargaining is about."
There are mixed opinions on whether a new resolution is even necessary, based on interpretations of the council resolutions on Iraq adopted in 1991. But Nye tells RFE/RL a new resolution is important for political reasons, if not legal ones: "There are UN resolutions in place which Saddam Hussein has violated and those resolutions were under Chapter 7, which allows enforcement. And I suppose the U.S. could argue that the new resolution isn't needed because the existing resolutions of 1991 have not been replaced and have not been enforced. But in a political sense most people think you need a new resolution."
There have been recent instances when force was initiated by permanent members without council approval. For example, after the Gulf War, the United States, Britain, and France set up the two no-fly zones over Iraq to protect Shiite Muslims in the south and the Kurds in the north.
The no-fly zones were not specifically authorized by Security Council resolutions. France no longer takes part in policing them. The United States and Britain continue to insist that their bombing of Iraqi targets while policing the zones is covered by international law.
Another often-cited example of military action outside the bounds of the council was the NATO-led bombing campaign of Yugoslavia in 1999 in response to President Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
After it became clear Russia would veto any proposal in the council authorizing military force, the United States and its NATO allies went forward with their campaign, citing international humanitarian law.
The incident raised questions about the consequences for international law but there was strong moral support for the action, says Daniel Serwer, director of the Balkans Initiative at the U.S. Institute of Peace: "The intervention was undertaken without a firm legal basis but with a pretty firm moral basis and I think that's come to be, de facto, accepted by a lot of people, a lot of people who would say it wasn't legal but would say it had to be done anyway."
One nation directly affected by the bombing campaign, Bulgaria, saw it as a necessary measure leading to Balkan stability, says Bulgarian Deputy Foreign Minister Petko Draganov.
Draganov's country now serves on the Security Council and is expected to support a U.S. resolution when it comes to a full council vote. He told RFE/RL in a recent interview at UN headquarters that the Kosovo campaign fulfilled the will of the international community despite avoiding council input: "If you look at the situation today in Kosovo, there's a tremendous improvement no matter what the problems may be. I think it's obvious now that the international community and those countries that decided to act at the time took the right decision and I'm proud we were able to be part of it."
The moral support for action in Kosovo could, in part, be attributed to the failure of the international community -- notably the Security Council -- to act to stop the ethnic genocide in Rwanda in 1994, says Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
But Boot tells RFE/RL that the humanitarian intervention cited in the Kosovo campaign was by no means unprecedented: "This notion that anything a country does within its own borders is sacred and cannot be touched by other countries has just never been, in fact, the practice. It didn't start with Kosovo. European powers have been involved with each other's affairs, certainly in the internal affairs of other countries around the world for many, many hundreds of years."
An article in the latest issue of the respected publication "Foreign Affairs" calls on the Security Council to give fresh consideration to its "responsibility to protect" and establish guidelines for approving military intervention of sovereign nations in cases of humanitarian crises. The article was written by former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans and former Algerian diplomat Mohamed Sahnoun, who co-chaired the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty.
The article says if the council repeatedly fails to carry out its responsibilities in what the authors called a "conscious-shocking situation" like Kosovo, the stature of the UN could suffer long-term consequences.