Why the UN still matters

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 March, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 March, 2003, 12:00am

It is not every day the rulers of countries like Angola, Cameroon or Guinea are sought out by the world's mightiest. That is the strength of the United Nations; it could also be its weakness. The consensus principle gives the security council's 10 rotating members a voice in global statecraft. But the Azores summit on Iraq confirmed again that it also provokes the ire of leaders who, believing that might is right, will brook no interference from the powerless.

The contradiction in their stand is that the United States, Britain and Spain would not have submitted a draft second resolution if they had been convinced Resolution 1441 sanctioned war, or had been convinced of the legality of invading Iraq without explicit security council approval. Some comfort must surely be drawn from the realisation that the UN would not have generated such frantic activity if it had been an entirely negligible entity.

Far from illuminating any dramatic 'moment of truth', the stalemate reminds us that conflict between national self-interest and the concept of collective security is inherent in the UN. The Soviet Union used the security council veto the most during the Cold War because of its rivalry with the West. Similarly, the US has cast the veto more often than any other country since 1990 because it is isolated on many issues, especially Israel.

Battles at the UN are never only about the UN. They reflect the pulls of power politics. When those unlikely partners, the US and the Soviet Union, turned to the security council in 1956 to halt the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt, the two aggressors vetoed its resolutions. Security council members who object to President George W. Bush's war-mongering might take a fresh look at how another Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, coped with that last gasp of 19th century European imperialism.

This time, as Sir Brian Urquhart, a retired UN undersecretary-general, points out, while half the debate is about Iraq, 'the other half is about how a world with a single superpower will work'. Barring the Eisenhower interlude, America's Republicans have resented the UN for vesting power in what the late senator Barry Goldwater dismissed as theoretical states. Former president Gerald Ford called it the 'tyranny of the majority'. Mr Bush goes one step further to argue that the UN will bestow legitimacy on itself by legitimising his actions.

Although Madeleine Albright, the Clinton administration's secretary of state, spoke scathingly of Republican dislike of the foreigners out there, her Democratic Party's less-abrasive style did not make it more amenable to consensual politics. Bill Clinton presented the security council with a fait accompli in 1999 by sending Nato planes to bomb Serb troops.

For all his bombast, Mr Bush still seeks the fig-leaf of legality. And that is immensely reassuring for vulnerable nations that look to the UN for security. They would suffer most if the UN goes the way of the League of Nations.

The Eisenhower administration rescued the UN from a similar danger in 1956 by using a little-known loophole that allows the general assembly to respond to threats to peace if the security council is deadlocked. The general assembly voted for French and British withdrawal and sent monitors to supervise the pullout.

That precedent demands examination. US Secretary of State Colin Powell is wrong in saying there is no point to another UN meeting 'when differences are so fundamental'. It is precisely when the world teeters on the brink that it must collect its thoughts for discussion. Only totalitarians would interpret discussion to mean unanimous support. The technicality of a French or Russian veto aside, even a majority vote would clarify matters.

Meanwhile, the impasse again highlights the need to reform a system that reflected the balance of power at the end of World War II. It bears little relation to today's global realities.

Sunanda Kisor Datta-Ray is a senior fellow at the School of Communication and Information of Nanyang Technological University, Singapore