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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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!
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
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.
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
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.
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