Fix the U.N.

November 28, 2003|By Jules Witcover

NEW YORK -- Amid all the talk and effort about reconstructing Iraq, the United Nations could stand some of the same in the wake of the damage inflicted on the principles and image of the world organization by President Bush's pre-emptive invasion of that country.

That essentially unilateral act bucked the U.N. Charter's only two justifications for use of force -- a specific U.N. authorization of it and self-defense, with the charter sanctioning the latter only in response to an "armed attack," which was not present in Iraq.

Sashi Tharoor, a U.N. undersecretary-general, says: "Try as they might, international lawyers dancing on the heads of pins have not been able to find an interpretation of either of those two provisions that would seem to justify pre-emptive military action."

At the same time, the president's warning that the United Nations risked becoming "irrelevant" in rejecting his bid for the world body's blessing insulted a U.N. officialdom that remains active and dedicated in a range of conflict-resolving, humanitarian and peacekeeping efforts.

U.N. officials note that Mr. Bush contradicted his own allegation in coming hat in hand to the United Nations to help pull his chestnuts out of the fire in the chaotic aftermath of the invasion.

In seeking, though largely failing, to get significant financial and manpower help from major member states, the president acknowledged that the United Nations was relevant after all.

This is not to say that the Iraq invasion has not posed a major new challenge to the world body in dealing with the peril of terrorism in the post-9/11 world. Mr. Bush's action has obliged U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who personally opposed the invasion, to take steps to adapt the United Nations to that threat.

Mr. Annan told the U.N. General Assembly in late September that the invasion in the absence of any armed attack "represents a fundamental challenge to the principles on which, however imperfectly, world peace and stability have rested for the last 58 years," since the U.N. Charter was written in 1945.

"My concern," he went on, "is that, if it were to be adopted, it could set precedents that resulted in a proliferation of the unilateral and lawless use of force, with or without justification."

Because the United Nations had "come to a fork in the road," Mr. Annan said, he would appoint a high-level panel of respected diplomats to review "fundamental" U.N. policies and the organization's structure, focusing on issues of peace and security.

In another speech in Pittsburgh last month, the secretary-general pointedly lectured the United States that its leadership, as the sole superpower, "is most effective when it is pursued by means of persuasion," through "the patient building of alliances through diplomacy. For it is diplomacy, rather than the exercise of unchallenged military power, which is the true fulcrum that moves the world."

Mr. Annan's 16-member panel, including as the American participant retired Gen. Brent Scowcroft, a national security adviser under two Republican presidents, is to meet early next month to begin the review. Its deadline is the summer, in time for a report to world leaders at the General Assembly in September.

Undersecretary-general Tharoor says Mr. Annan chose General Scowcroft on his own without clearing it with President Bush, but he adds: "It's a safe assumption that he would not appoint someone Washington would not have approved of." Mr. Scowcroft has a long reputation as a moderate and conciliatory figure in foreign affairs.

The idea of the review predated the Iraq invasion but, a U.N. staff member acknowledges, "the new Bush doctrine of pre-emption rang some warning bells" with Mr. Annan. So did what is called in the U.N. Secretariat "U.S. exceptionalism" -- that the rules apply to everyone but the superpower.

Mr. Tharoor observes that while there is "no legal justification for pre-emption" under the U.N. Charter, Mr. Annan recognized "the need to face new realities" created by the new vulnerability to terrorism. While the charter is generally viewed here as sacrosanct, he says, it is in some ways out of date and the review is in order.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau and appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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