U.S. violated U.N. primacy in Iraq attack

Bombing: Air strikes on Baghdad ignored the fact that no United Nations resolution allows unilateral military acts to punish Iraq.

January 10, 1999|By Phyllis Bennis

IRAQ WAS NOT the only target of last month's missile attacks. They also represented a lethal U.S. assault on international law and the legitimacy of the United Nations.

Despite Clinton administration claims to the contrary, the air strikes were in complete violation of U.N. decisions. There is no United Nations resolution that calls for, allows or accepts unilateral military acts to punish Iraq for real or alleged violations.

U.S. officials usually refer to two possible Security Council resolutions to justify military strikes. Both claims are false. Resolution 678, passed Nov. 29, 1990, authorized the use of force to make Iraq "withdraw immediately and unconditionally all its forces" from Kuwait. That authorization expired when the last Iraqi soldier left Kuwait, in March 1991. International law does not allow any country, including the United States, to use an old resolution, drafted to accomplish one goal, to justify bombing Iraq for a completely different reason eight years later.

Resolution 1154 passed March 2, 1998. After heated debate, then-U.S. Ambassador Bill Richardson persuaded the council to include the threat of "severest consequences" for Iraq if Baghdad again violated its commitment to provide access to United Nations weapons inspectors. The council, however, decided explicitly that "severest consequences" did not mean automatic authorization for any government to take military action on its own. The resolution's final paragraph states that only the council -- not any country -- had the authority to "ensure implementation of this resolution and peace and security in the area."

No wonder United Nations Secretary Kofi Annan was so angry about the U.S. attack. Annan told reporters that the bombing marked a "sad day" for the United Nations, and for him personally.

Annan was not alone. Throughout U.N. headquarters, from secretariat officials to diplomats from across the globe, there was palpable resentment at Washington's arrogant, unilateral appropriation of United Nations decision-making.

Objectivity compromised

The Clinton administration claimed the air strikes were the only possible response to the report by Richard Butler, chief of the inspection agency UNSCOM, on Iraq's latest noncompliance. But the report's objectivity was compromised by official U.S. involvement with it even before the report was officially presented to the Security Council. President Clinton and his top aides were reading a draft of the report as they flew back from the Middle East 1 1/2 days before the report was released.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs committee and a key Clinton ally, announced that he had met with Butler at length, two days before the report was issued. Butler and U.S. Deputy Ambassador to the U.N. Peter Burleigh acknowledged that Butler withdrew his inspectors from Iraq at the suggestion of the United States, before the council had discussed the report. Butler said his only concern was for the safety of UNSCOM and allied International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors. He did not notify or arrange for evacuation of the United Nation's humanitarian workers, of whom about 300 international and 850 Iraqi staff remained in Iraq when the bombing began.

The report is ambiguous. It describes several instances of Iraqi noncompliance with UNSCOM. And because Iraq's February 1998 agreement with Kofi Annan promised "unconditional and unrestricted" access, those instances represent a violation. However, Butler's language indicates that those instances of defiance took place in a broader context of cooperation. According to the report, "the majority of the inspections of facilities and sites under the ongoing monitoring system were carried out with Iraq's cooperation."

The accompanying International Atomic Energy Agency report goes further, stating unequivocally that Iraq "has provided the necessary level of cooperation to enable the above-enumerated activities to be completed efficiently and effectively."

But Butler concludes that "the Commission is not able to conduct the substantive disarmament work mandated to it." There is no balancing the inconvenient fact that this same report states UNSCOM had been able to conduct "the majority" of inspections. Only Washington could benefit from such a skewed judgment. Based on that conclusion, the United States sent more than 400 cruise missiles (at an average cost of about $1 million each) against Iraq.

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