What Should the UN do About Iraq?


Jim Addington looks at the institution's response to what Koffi Annan described as the "fundamental challenge" of America's lawless unilateralism and considers its next move.


Iraq is only the latest, extremely dangerous, symptom of the impotence of the United Nations. But the UN is also subject to manipulation by the stronger powers. These are the post war victors into whose hands were placed the duty to protect, not to dominate. However, after over a decade of the deliberate weakening of Iraq through regular bombing raids and criminal sanctions the international community finally refused in March this year to support an attack by US and UK forces to remove its regime and replace it with another of their own choosing. The occupiers are now in a mess created by their criminal invasion

At the end of September there was a major debate in the General Assembly. It began with Kofi Annan, General Secretary, saying that changes were needed if the UN was to fulfil its original purpose. These included the need to increase the size of the Security Council to make it more representative. The short term members (elected for two years) are chosen by regional governments. Syria, for example, whose government has shown great courage since its election in standing up to the US government, was elected by and represents the Arab states. It speaks for the Arab League. A larger, more representative, Council would bring in more independent members and make it more difficult for the permanent members to dominate the proceedings.

Kofi Annan said that the General Assembly had grown since 1945 from 51 to 191 members, while the Security Council, which is responsible for maintaining peace and security, still  numbers only 15. Ten new members are being proposed, five permanent and five short-term. However although there is general agreement that changes of this nature are required there is no guarantee that all five permanent members, each of whom has a veto, will agree to them.

George W. Bush has not listened to the world-wide concern about his unilaterally aggressive attitude to international relations. He made no apology for attacking Iraq or for continuing the occupation yet asked the rest of the world to help him rebuild it. He is also seeking financial help with the reconstruction. In his speech he said "Iraq needs and deserves our aid, and all nations of goodwill should step forward and provide that support".

The more realistic commander of US forces in the Persian Gulf, General John P.Abizaid, said recently that he was no longer counting on foreign troops to relieve American forces early next year. "Since it doesn't look like we'll have a Coalition brigade, we'll have no choice but to plan for American forces". Earlier, Gen. Peter Pace, of the joint chiefs of staff said that they might have to call up thousands more reservists to support those already in Iraq.

Where does the UN stand in all this? While it has been promised a 'vital role' in Iraq the UN has now become identified with the aggressors and has been savagely attacked on two occasions. Kofi Annan has ordered most of the remaining non-Iraqi UN staff to leave the country because US forces manifestly cannot provide protection. It is unlikely that they will return, together with humanitarian agencies which also require protection, until there is much greater stability.

Nobody could write a scenario for the future in Iraq. The United Nations remains peripheral to the real action which is led, first by those resisting the occupation, and then by the clumsy reaction of the occupying forces. As the Secretary-General said as he opened the debate last week, the pre-emptive attack posed a "fundamental challenge" to the principles on which the UN was founded. Mr Annan said that the challenges faced by the UN were no less than those of 1945 and the UN "stood at a fork in the road".

It seems that no person or group that intervenes in Iraqi affairs can expect to avoid attack from a number of directions, including Iraqi Saddam loyalists, members of rival religious groups and members of the general population. Most of the resistance must be home grown. Nothing is gained by making our flesh creep by adding to the list 'foreign intervention' or 'terrorist' groups.

These dangers apply to the American-selected Iraqi Governing Council, where one member has already been assassinated, and no doubt in due course will apply to its successors and future parliamentarians when a constitution is in place.

While the French government wants the Council to take immediate power it will still require protection from the only forces available to provide it, US and UK forces. Kofi Annan, commenting on a US government draft for a new resolution, said that it must contain provision for a rapid transfer of power to an Iraqi government.

The US and UK still have the duty, as occupiers, to ensure that the process of handing over to Iraqis is done as speedily as possible. Colin Powell's latest proposal to the Council of a six month deadline for the preparation of a new constitution should be accepted now because any delay will further damage the prospects of a peaceful outcome. More power should be passed progressively to the Governing Council, which should be legitimised as soon as possible by free elections monitored by the UN.

The UN, which has not withdrawn its commitment to Iraq independence but which will now have a much reduced role in Iraq, has one important duty which should be implemented at once. That is the appointment of a UN nominated agency, with the same status as the weapons inspectors had under Hans Blix, to monitor human rights under the US occupation.

The Red Cross, which has this duty under the Geneva Conventions, has been investigating accusations of abuse of prisoners by the US occupying force. There is plenty of evidence of such abuse which also shows the lack of a proper system of justice under the occupation. Yet the Red Cross, in its laid down terms of reference, is unable to publicise its advice and findings, which are given only to the occupiers.

During the interim, while a representative government for Iraq is being created, a UN-led agency for human rights should be given the power to investigate alleged abuses by the occupying forces. Such action would surely reduce such abuse, and would be a test of the American commitment to a peaceful solution in Iraq.

The author, Jim Addington, is Chair of Action for UN Renewal, a UK group which was formed by the merger of Renew UN and the Forum for UN Renewal. Among its aims is the conversion of the British government and parliamentarians to a proper respect and support for the United Nations.