WASHINGTON. — The Iraqi government's merciless treatment of its Kurdish and Shiite minorities has not only created excruciating human problems for more than 2.5 million refugees, it has precipitated a confrontation between some basic principles of international order.
The conflict between the human rights of refugees and the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of states has already delayed effective protection of Kurdish and Shiite minorities. How the international community deals with this conflict will have an important impact on the new world order that is still taking shape.
A breakthrough occurred April 5 when the Security Council passed a resolution that condemned Iraq's repression of the civilian population as a threat ''to international peace and security'' -- and therefore the proper business of the Security Council.
With this resolution, the Security Council affirmed by a 10-3 vote two important principles. First, that at least in some circumstances, there is a relationship between internal repression and international peace. And second, that massive human rights violations may be a legitimate, appropriate concern of the Security Council.
Both these principles are consistent with the U.N. Charter, but neither is normal U.N. doctrine. Until Resolution 688 was adopted, even the most brutal repression by a government of its own population was treated as an ''internal matter'' not within the jurisdiction of the Security Council -- even if it created tens of thousands of refugees and put pressure on neighboring states.
The principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of states prevented action against even the most terrible human-rights violations. When Idi Amin killed 10,000 civilians a week, the Security Council took no action. When Pol Pot starved, shot and worked to death 2 million Cambodians, the Security Council took no action. When Ethiopia's Mengistu Haile Merriam created a massive famine with his forced ''villagefication'' policy, the Security Council took no action. All were judged purely internal matters. Only South Africa has regularly had the treatment of its own population scrutinized and condemned by the Security Council.
Resolution 688 could be passed because the Cold War had ended and the system of bloc politics has collapsed, and because of changing views about the proper business of the U.N. Security Council.
The next step toward saving the Kurdish refugee population confronts the Security Council with the conflict between basic -- principles: the protection of human rights and human life versus respect for ''territorial integrity.'' Britain's Prime Minister John Major made a clear choice when he argued for creation of secure enclaves inside Iraq protected by the United Nations and large enough to include population centers. The European Community has supported Mr. Major's position in spite of reservations by the United States (and the Soviet Union and China) about the violation of Iraq's ''territorial integrity.''
In fact, the U.N. Charter is somewhat ambiguous. Article 2, Paragraph 4 requires that ''all members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.'' This requirement was clearly violated by Iraq with its invasion of Kuwait, so there are excellent grounds for arguing that Iraq, having violated the conditions of membership, should be expelled from the United Nations.
That does not seem likely to happen, although the suggestion of the European Community, now backed by Rep. Stephen Solarz, D-N.Y., that Saddam Hussein's resignation should be made a precondition of lifting the U.N. embargo is another interesting proposal to interfere in the internal affairs of Iraq.
These moves suggest that the new world order may have higher standards than the old and give greater priority to rights of people as well as to the rights of governments. This is greatly to be welcomed. But it is probably not yet safe for democracies to vest the definition of the most fundamental rights of citizens in the votes of an international body most of whose members still do not enjoy such rights.
Jeane Kirkpatrick is a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.