What is the UN Doing?

Ian Williams



uring the Iraq War, many people asked, what is the UN doing? In fact, in a quietly significant way it was refusing validation for an action that Kofi Annan has called “not in conformity with the UN Charter,” or when pressed “illegal.”

The actual United Nations is often slow and inefficient in activity. When it does things, it often does them too late, or is too deferential to states-perpetrators. But perversely, simply by existing, it is supremely effective – which is one of the reasons why so many American conservatives hate it.

The constant stream of visitors, tourists and others who make the trek to the United Nations, testify to its intangible numinous qualities. The U.N. Headquarters, international territory, is a symbol for billions across the world that there is more to global society than grim Hobbesian struggle between the governments and states.

That idea has evolved steadily. When founded, there were many countries that were refused membership. Now, the only country that, in my opinion, shamefully, is excluded is Taiwan. Statehood and sovereignty are now almost coterminous with membership of the world organization. The last few stragglers were the motley set of microstates who rushed to join after the invasion of Kuwait, thinking they were taking out anti-annexation insurance by doing so.

The very existence of the organization acts as a catalyst for the processes which are building a truly global society. In some of them, the United Nations, in the narrow organizational sense, of the Secretariat, the Assembly and the Security Council, may for a superficial observer, only have a tangential role, but on closer examination, it is clear that the U.N. is like the speck of sand in the oyster, the seed of a growing pearl of international order.

Ironically, although Americans may be loath to admit it, once a state achieves a U.N. seat establishing it is an accepted sovereign country, it also surrenders some of that sovereignty. It commits itself to abide by the United Nations Charter. Like all law, it is, as Shakespeare said, sometime honored more in the breach than the observance.

Cynics may point to the seeming impunity of recent U.S. and UK unilateral actions in Iraq, but this does not negate the point. At first, the two tried desperately to stay within the letter of the Charter even if they stretched it close to tearing point, and even as they broke it, they attempted to plead that they were in fact upholding it. Crimes may be committed in any society, but their commission does not negate the law, and in this case the “criminals” did not deny the law, rather they claimed to be interpreting it!

Indeed, the U.S. and UK positions were in their way reminiscent of Israel’s in the wake of the recent ICJ opinion on the Wall. Their apologists simply disagreed with everyone else’s interpretation of the Charter and International law. In the U.S. and UK case, while there was a clear consensus from the rest of the world that the Coalition had strayed beyond the Charter, no one actually put this to the test with a vote, in the Council, in the Assembly or in the ICJ.

In the case of Israel, some of their apologists concluded that since Israel did not agree with the Court’s opinion, it was not binding, since International law is only consensual.  Without negating the usefulness of consensus in both diplomacy and international law, this is, of course, nonsense. No system of law, international or domestic, can depend upon the consent of the lawbreaker to be effective.

Indeed, often when looking at the U.N. in operation, the principle of consensus is frustrating for activists and lobbyists. But trying to achieve a genuine consensus in an international context is often no bad thing, generally preferable to conflict.

However, in the end, whether we consider domestic law or international law, it is the views of the overwhelming majority of either national or international societies, not a complete consensus that validate legal systems.

In the end, law depends upon self-enforcement by those to whom it applies. People in general do not resort to robbery, rape and murder when there are no policemen present. Most people respect the law because they accept it has validity, both in terms of ethics, for its own sake, and also because of pragmatic reciprocity. We do not want to be robbed, raped or murdered, so it is to our advantage to uphold the laws forbidding such practices. Police action, in general, is only necessary to deal with the small minority who break the law.

In international terms, policing is even less reliable and frequent than in a domestic context, and consensus between states is more important. Increasingly, with the spread of democracy, internal consensus within states on international law is also important to keep governments in line. Most of the people in most democracies have a generally healthy respect for International Law, the United Nations, and its agencies – and governments that fail to do so will pay an electoral price, as Spanish Prime Minister Aznar discovered.

Ironically, the only way for Blair to get a substantial part of British opinion behind him was to pretend that the invasion was on behalf of the United Nations! Even the Bush administration’s attempts to get a U.N. resolution were motivated not only by the need to get an international consensus, but also to mobilize domestic support for it..

Back in the first Gulf War, Bush Senior’s administration consciously used their ability to leverage support for Desert Storm in the Security Council to appeal to enough Democrat legislators to vote through the legal authorization for the American led liberation of Kuwait – out of respect for the United Nations...

Last year’s refusal of the members of the Security Council to vote for the invasion of Iraq was in its own way an important victory for the United Nations and what it stands for. The failure to secure a vote for the invasion certainly rankled with the British– and had dire consequences for the Bush administration, which found that even the U.S. operates in a global environment, where the rule of law is of primary importance. 

Even more so was this the case with the American oil companies who knew that courts across the world accepted the United Nations Charter, and international law, and no one would buy Iraqi oil that did not have a clear ownership title from the Security Council. Across the world, national courts had to apply international rules.

As a result within months the Bush administration had to return to the  U.N. because otherwise no one in the world would buy Iraqi oil for fear of litigation.

Even before then, the Bush administration had found that the countries that the U.S. had relied upon to garrison Iraq after its shock troops had toppled the regime there would not come forward to help because of the absence of a U.N. resolution. India, Pakistan, Turkey, not to mention most of the Europeans and Canada would have nothing to do with the invasion nor with shoring up the subsequent occupation.

It was an eloquent demonstration of the power of international law and order in the face of an outburst of lawlessness. Most UN member states sat down and refused to do what the bullying hyper power told them to do, or even to pretend approval. In a strange sense, it was almost Gandhian passive resistance on a global scale!

A cynic may say that the U.S. got away unpunished for its misdeed, but as in Grimm’s fairy tales, getting what you wish for is often punishment enough in itself. Over a thousand dead Americans, approaching two hundred billion dollars spent, and no end in sight for a bloody entanglement vindicate all the warnings from home and abroad that the administration ignored.

Indeed, in terms of real-politik, it is largely because the majority of Security Council members, for whatever reasons, refused to endorse the war that the U.S. is now in no condition to invade any other substantial enemy, since it found, the crowings of isolationists notwithstanding, that it could not pull off such a stunt without the help of allies.

 A year ago, it seemed that there was a real chance that the NeoConservatives in the Pentagon would bring about an invasion of Syria at least, and possibly Iran as well , with North Korea as another possible conflict point. In contrast, this June, the administration that had marched into Iraq waving the stars and stripes was trying to negotiate a withdrawal under the shade of the U.N.’s blue flag!

The position is even more ironic bearing in mind that Bush advisors like Richard Perle a year ago before were crowing, “The U.N. is dead, Thank God.” The rest of the world can now thank the Deity with equal fervor that, for now at least, Perle’s vision of a crusading America has been defeated by the sordid reality.

Some critics have suggested that the other members of the Security Council went too far in accommodating U.S. occupation demands in the resolutions this summer. This is unfair. Against the nugatory benefits of a “principled” stand, they had responsibilities to the Iraqi people, to help ameliorate their plight. In fact, while accepting the de-facto occupation, and the consequent need to work with Coalition Provisional Authority, from the beginning, the resolutions had sedulously avoided in any way vindicating or retrospectively legalizing the invasion.

Indeed, they carefully stated that the occupation had to follow the Fourth Geneva Convention and other provisions of law. Some Americans complained that they felt like Gulliver, tied down by a mass of legalistic Lilliputians. But the Lilliputian consensus won, they only progressively released the bindings in return for signs of the American Gulliver’s acceptance of that consensus. 

It must be said that many states were deeply concerned at the rent that the U.S. and the UK had made in the fabric of the U.N. Charter and international law. It may be an inglorious  and, to some extent, an unjust solution, but there was a feeling that if the U.S. and UK could be encouraged back into the paths of righteousness, their renewed, although in the American case, entirely expedient, deference to the U.N. would, in some sense heal the wound in the Charter. The US is too big to punish, and the current administration possibly too thick skinned to submit to moral force from the rest of the global community.

It may not be a just response to what they did, but as we have seen reality, which includes the overwhelming world support for the Charter as well as the relative failure of their endeavor in Iraq, is constraining them so they will not rush to repeat their error. In that sense, the tear in the Charter has been healed.

It has not been comprehensively repudiated by the “Hyperpower,” which, without admitting that it had broken the rules, at least is signalling acceptance that the rules exist. 

This has been achieved in an almost metaphysical way. In the stage version of Peter Pan, children are all exhorted to declare their belief in fairies in order to revive the dying Tinkerbelle. We could almost say that the rest of the world’s collective belief in international law revived the moribund law-abidingness of the evil Captain Hook, in the guise of the United States administration.

Of course, I do not believe in fairies. Nor indeed in metaphysics. But law is a social construct, so, as Mao said, generally held ideas do have a force in societies – and that includes our global society.  In reality, the US is not susceptible to external compulsion, but American citizens may be able to constrain their government and prevent its illegality, especially when spurred by the consequences for itself.


Ian Williams is author of The UN For Beginners, and UN Correspondent for the Nation.  His latest book is Deserter: Bush’s War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past from Nation Books.