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The United Nations in Bush's firing-line

About the author

Dan Plesch is the author of America, Hitler and the UN (I.B.Tauris 2011) and The Beauty Queen's Guide to World Peace, (Politico's 2004) and Director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS, University of London.

The report published by a panel headed by Paul Volcker on the oil-for-food scandal at the United Nations is a serious indictment of the UN’s management of a complex political and commercial operation in relation to the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, during the sanctions era of the 1990s. This much is clear. However, there is a danger that the high-profile inquest on this issue will lead to other matters needing urgent attention being ignored, suppressed, or pushed off the news agenda.

The administrative failings of the UN are partly a product of the power of nations, not least the United States, to place their own nominees in the organisation regardless of talent or expertise. More significantly they arise from a low level of financial and political support from national governments.

Also by Dan Plesch in openDemocracy:

“Iran: the coming war” (March 2005)

“The hidden history of the United Nations” (April 2005)

“Britain’s intelligence secret: under the influence” (May 2005)

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A key question that is barely mentioned in the establishment media is the way that elements in the United States – and others now horrified at the behaviour revealed in the report – turned a blind eye to and probably participated in the scandal. Paul Volcker has avoided naming the companies involved in the corruption, promising a list at some future date. Will the list include US companies that were taking the lions’ share of Iraqi oil production prior to the invasion? There is also no discussion at present of why, when the Americans and British seemed able routinely to listen to conversations around the UN, they were apparently ignorant of malpractice during the years of the oil-for-food programme.

The not-so-hidden agenda is to weaken the United Nations by depriving it of political and financial investment and then deride it for the very weakness that results. The United States has pursued a cover strategy, stretching back at least to the early years of the Bill Clinton administration, of seeking to free itself from such tiresome constraints as the need for a United Nations mandate for military action.

In a 1994 study of Nato, peacekeeping and the United Nations, several colleagues and I reported that the US mission to Nato had circulated a “non-paper” (as unattributable informal documents are called) on precisely this topic. The “non-paper” – entitled “with the UN whenever possible, without the UN whenever necessary” – argued that UN authority should be replaced with Nato’s. The Bush administration and its supporters have gone further, declaring a policy of unilateral action that requires a permission slip from no one.

In undermining the UN’s authority and in failing to adhere to UN conventions on issues as wide-ranging as terrorism, bio-weapons and the rights of the child, the US often finds itself in company with those unsavoury regimes such as Sudan which it vilifies for non-compliance with human-rights standards.

An assault on international law

Alongside these serious developments are others even more fundamental and grievous. As I argue elsewhere in more detail, the objective of the ultra-conservatives now running the US government is that the US should not be subject to international law at all, and that international law simply should not exist.

The attack on international law comes from this currently dominant ultra-conservative faction. A notable success for this group was the “recess appointment“ of one its prime ideologues, John Bolton, as UN ambassador.

John Bolton argued in November 2003 that: “increasingly, (internationalists) place the authority of international law, which does not derive directly from the consent of the governed, above the authority of national law and constitutions.”

Also on the United Nations in openDemocracy, a series of articles on Kofi Annan’s high-level panel proposing reforms to lead the UN into the 21st century, and his own report:

Kofi Annan, “America, the United Nations and the world: a triple challenge” (June 2004)

Phyllis Bennis, “Reform or die: the United Nations as second superpower” (December 2004)

Pere Vilanova, “The good, the bad, and the unjust” (December 2004)

Johanna Mendelson Forman, “In Larger Freedom: Kofi Annan’s challenge” (March 2005)

This judgment reflects a consistent strand in John Bolton’s thinking. Before his appointment as under-secretary of state in 2001, he argued: “treaties are ‘law’ only for US domestic purposes. In their international operation, treaties are simply ‘political’, and not legally binding”.

The relevant article of the US constitution clearly places treaties on an equal footing with the constitution itself and laws passed by Congress:

“This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land...”.

Thus, contrary to John Bolton’s view that treaties have no force if a court or Congress argues they do not, treaties are legally binding; most US administrations and lawyers have assumed that they are supreme unless and until they are formally revoked.

Robert Kagan gives a brutally realist intellectual gloss to John Bolton’s political certainties, proposing that nations favour international law when they are weak and discard it as they become strong. He explains the threat this poses to the European Union:

“That is one reason Europeans were so adamant about preserving the universal application of the International Criminal Court. For the United States to demand immunity, a double standard for the powerful, is to undermine the very principle Europeans are trying to establish – that all nations strong and weak are equal under the law, and must abide by the law. If this principle can be flouted ... then what happens to the European Union, which depends for its existence on common obedience to the laws of Europe? If international law does not reign supreme, is Europe doomed to return to its past?”

We should be clear that the global ambition of the neo-conservatives and the Bushites – in parallel with their domestic demolition of the remnants of Roosevelt’s “new deal” – is to dismantle international law and return to a pre-1914 world where power rules. The disabling of Europe in that process would be for them a collateral benefit. For internationalists who agree with Churchill, Roosevelt and the other architects of the UN that international governance is essential to survival, the menace is acute.

European, American and other critics of the US administration’s plans might comfort ourselves with the thought that Bush will soon have to retire at the end of his term of office. Bob Woodward, however, believes that his vice-president Dick Cheney will succeed him – perhaps (if he wins two terms in office) until 2016. After the monkey, the organ-grinder? The threat to democracy, within the United States and in the international arena, is real and pressing.


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