The results of a review of the functioning of the U.N., conducted by a panel appointed by the Secretary-General Kofi Annan, will soon be on the table. That there is a need to discuss an array of questions is not in doubt — but the fact that the most powerful member of the organization shows disdain for it is not exactly conducive to a positive intergovernmental debate.
We learned before the invasion of Iraq that in the view of the U.S. administration, the security council had the choice of voting with the U.S. for armed action — or being irrelevant. A majority on the council did not allow itself to be pushed into supporting the action, and the invasion took place. Many saw this as a loss of prestige for the council and as a crisis for the U.N.. In one way it was, and is. Institutions such as the security council are like instruments to be played.
If members choose not to play or are completely out of tune, no marching music results. It is only when the construction of the instruments is found deficient or outmoded that repair is meaningful.
The refusal last year of a majority of the security council to follow the tune that the U.S. wished the council to play can also be seen as the saving of the council's authority and respectability. How would the world look at the council today if it had endorsed an armed action to eradicate weapons of mass destruction — that did not exist and whose evidence was often concocted, even forged?
Today most countries and most people consider the action launched in Iraq a grave error or worse, and much of American public opinion — perhaps even a majority — shares this view. Yet the new U.S. administration seems to take victory in the presidential election not only as support for strong positions and actions against terrorist threats (probably a justified interpretation), but also as support for its decision to launch the war on Iraq and for its disdainful attitude to the U.N..
It is as if the U.N. had insulted the U.S. The Republican convention that renominated George Bush erupted in applause when the vice-president said that Mr. Bush would "never seek a permission slip to defend the American people". Fine, except that Iraq was not a threat, not a growing threat, and probably not even a distant threat.
We also see an intense and large-scale campaign of vilification, depicting the U.N. as "corrupt" because the oil-for-food programme — instituted and supervised by the security council and its most powerful members, including the U.S. — enabled Iraq, the buyers of Iraqi oil and the sellers of products to Iraq, to siphon off money and pass it on illegally to Saddam Hussein's regime.
The fraud, although widely suspected and estimated at about a billion dollars a year in the media, was not easy for the program administration to track down and prove. The council and its members saw it with open eyes just as they saw the billions that flowed to Saddam from oil exports to neighbouring states. The program functioned as a reasonably effective break against the import of weapons and dual-use items, which was its major objective. Today it serves as a campaign platform against the U.N.. So long as the current climate remains, it is doubtful if any meaningful discussion about U.N. reform can be pursued.
It has been suggested that in the review of the functioning of the U.N., an effort should be made to examine the circumstances in which the use of force can and should be authorized. Some would wish to see a greater use of the council's power to hold members to their duties to protect their own citizens: to intervene by force, if necessary, in situations of genocide, as in Rwanda or Darfur. Others want to search for a reformulation of article 51 of the charter, in order to give some room for pre-emptive action. I am not optimistic about charter amendments in either case, nor am I sure that they really are needed.
I also think it unlikely that any agreed language could be found that explicitly allows members to use force pre-emptively or preventively without authoriZation of the security council. It is more likely that an answer to the problem will slowly emerge through precedents. It is also important, as Kofi Annan has noted, that the security council actively considers and monitors threats posed by possible weapons of mass destruction, giving all members the feeling that the issue is taken seriously and that there is a readiness to take joint action, where there is convincing evidence of a threat that is significant and near in time.
The security council remains potentially a vital institution. The Iraq war has demonstrated the handicap that followed from not acting with its authorization.
For greater legitimacy, the security council needs to represent a large part of the world's population, hence a need for the presence in the council of the most populous countries in all continents. One argument, not infrequently advanced, I find totally objectionable: that those states that pay the greatest contributions to the U.N. budget should merit a seat. The seats should not be for sale.
Hans Blix is the former U.N. chief weapons inspector. This is an edited excerpt from a speech given last week at the University of Cambridge.
© 2004 The Toronto Star