The UN in 2003: a year of living dangerously

Johanna Mendelson Forman
18 December 2003

2003 has been the worst year in the history of the United Nations.

The long, bitter argument between multilateralists and unilateralists at the Security Council, which began in autumn 2002 over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq carried over into spring 2003. Then it became clear that the post-1945 consensus amongst the major democracies had broken.

Without a Security Council mandate, the United States led a “coalition of the willing” (ultimately composed of 31 other states) to confront the forces of Saddam Hussein. The three-week war in Iraq in March-April 2003 resulted in the overthrow of a heinous dictator, finally captured eight months later.

It took six weeks from the end of the first stage of the war for the occupation to receive some form of UN recognition, with the passage of Security Council resolution 1483 on 22 May. This affirmed that the UN should play a vital role in Iraq in the aftermath of Saddam’s overthrow. But the US promptly ignored it, and proceeded to attempt to rebuild the Iraqi state alone. Its lack of confidence in the capacity of the UN’s mission to help Iraqis move from authoritarianism to self-government is revealed in the fact that the UN effort has granted only a humanitarian title (United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq (UNOCHI), not a political one.

This undercut the historical legitimacy of the UN in Iraq. But the US-led coalition failed to fill the political vacuum that opened up after the fighting stopped. A UN role could have been a great help, both in terms of its world standing and the considerable experience of its staff and leading personnel. It was refused. Today the armed insurgency in Iraq in part reflects the incapacity of the coalition to turn its legal role as an occupation authority into a legitimate authority.

A return to fundamentals

The UN secretary-general’s special representative in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello did his best to try and turn the UN into an instrument of accommodation between the occupying powers and world opinion. He sought to maximise what little leverage the UN had to the advantage of those Iraqis who wanted a neutral interlocutor. Had this worked he could then have helped negotiate and protect the new political space that the downfall of Saddam had opened, to ensure it became a democratic one.

But only two months after de Mello arrived in Baghdad, a massive truck bomb destroyed UN headquarters on 19 August. Sergio Vieira de Mello, along with 22 other “internationals” and Iraqis perished. The attack brought into question the entire future of the UN as an autonomous political and humanitarian entity.

If the failure to get UN approval for an invasion of Iraq was a prelude to a major assault on the post-1945 international system, the Baghdad bombing was an even more devastating blow. The physical destruction of the UN headquarters by terrorists who viewed the international organisation as a collaborator with the occupation may lead to the destruction of the UN’s capacity to carry out any mandate based on neutrality and peace-building. It may compromise the core values that the UN represents in a hostile environment like Iraq, and further undermine its potential effectiveness.

Polls continue to show that the UN remains the international institution which Iraqis most favour and regard as legitimate.

Yet polls continue to show that the UN, despite the resisters, remains the international institution which Iraqis most favour and regard as legitimate. The blue flag, the humanitarian workers, and the brave stance of those who remain in Iraq are symbols of decency and respect – qualities that often seem absent in the occupying forces.

But how can such an institution – scarred by personal disaster, and lacking a proper mandate to perform its work (despite the granting of authority in September under Chapter 7 of the UN charter) – function effectively? Especially when the headquarters for its mission is now in anther country, Cyprus.

The question is not just about this particular crisis, grave as it is. It is about fundamentals. Iraq has brought the UN as an institution to a crossroads. It must overcome both the shock caused by a great power which views unilateralism as a right that does not require respect for traditional rules of international behavior, and the violence used against it in Iraq. It must now rethink its core security mandate in a world wracked with terrorism, transnational crime, and internal wars bred from failing states.

Wanted: a fusion of clarity and imagination

In October 2003 the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, appointed a High Level Panel to analyse how the UN can now support its mandate for collective security. Can such distinguished persons engage in the truly imaginative rethinking needed to recommend ways to repair the institution?

The UN is still able to perform its relief and development mission around the globe. But its security mission is hobbled by several factors – from inadequate resources to enforce and maintain peace, to a weakened Security Council whose cold war configuration is no longer suited to a world where the east-west rivalry of the last century has been overtaken by wider problems of governance and development.

The challenge for the special panel will be to recommend whether and how to rebuild a multilateral institution in a world dominated by a polarising “war on terrorism”.

The UN should have a vital role to play in the new international security order. But it is in urgent need of clear definition – one that can only benefit from frank discussion among all interested parties. The concise mandate and appropriate timing of the review now underway offers slender but real hope that the UN will recover its voice and its confidence in 2004.

The challenge for the special panel will be to recommend whether and how to rebuild a multilateral institution in a world dominated by a polarising “war on terrorism”.

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