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Could Iraq be the United Nations’ Finest Hour?

David Miller Online. Could Iraq be the United Nations’ Finest Hour?

Over the past decade there have been serious questions raised as to the effectiveness of the United Nations when it comes to dealing with conflict. Situations such as Bosnia, Angola and Somalia have all indicated that the UN was struggling not only to find a peaceful solution to these conflicts but also to maintain it. With conflict moving away from a situation where two states or blocs of states range their armed forces against each other over a clearly defined line of sovereignty, as was the case in Operation Desert Storm, the relevance of the UN was being questioned.

In the 21st Century warfare has become characterised by a state or geographical area imploding in on itself, as its national groups, split by language, religion or national identity turn on each other in a fight for what each side sees as their homeland. In such a war there is no superpower to act as a deterrent to such hostilities, there are no clear lines of demarcation between the sides, civilians are often mixed with combatants making it difficult to distinguish between them and the weapons of war are often crude but deadly, the gun, a knife, or a club. In such a war the fighting between the factions is undertaken with intense bitterness and hatred, which is why civilians are often not spared.

This type of conflict, known as intra- state, has reared itself in Bosnia, Somalia, throughout Africa, the Caucasus region and East Timor, and to which the United Nations has been forced to deal with on an increasing scale since 1989. Unfortunately the United Nations did not change to adapt to this. Despite recognition that intra- state conflict has become prevalent, there remained a lack of consensus among the permanent members of the Security Council on how to deal with it and more importantly a lack of will to commit their forces and resources. Countries suddenly became nervous at committing forces to conflicts that meant their troops could not be withdrawn in a short space of time and where the risk of casualties was heightened. The UN found itself as a dumping ground for conflicts that its member states did not want to know about and as a result, found itself having to deal with what hadbecome known as ‘orphan conflicts’.

In such conflicts methods of remote control such as economic sanctions, weapons embargoes, even air strikes proved to be of limited effect in curbing them, but unfortunately such policies were the more preferred as to limit casualties. As there is no clear dividing lines between the combatants then a large and sustained commitment on the ground is required, which must be deployed long term due to the potential for renewed violence and stability of the area of conflict. Hence the reputation of the UN suffered. NATO and other regional bodies took over many of the peacekeeping duties and many states and commentators began questioning the relevance of the world body.

In 2002, the relevance of the UN is being questioned again, this time by the Bush Administration. President Bush has challenged the UN to show some “backbone” and show that it has the resolve to confront conflict in the new millennium. However, what he really means is get behind the US and Britain when they decide to Saddam Hussein.

One of the points of view I have heard this week is that the US and the UK are simply trying to bully the UN and its members into supporting an attack on Iraq. The message is that “you are either with us or against us”, and if you do not support our war plans we will act alone and outside of your framework. This has happened before back in 1998 when the US and Britain launched Operation Desert Fox but this time the stakes are much higher. This conflict would involve a ground offensive as well as a bombing campaign and for that reason alone places the issue of Iraq into another dimension.

Such an ultimatum does not have to be a bad thing for the United Nations. In fact one way to look at this situation would be to say that the UN is the one holding the trump cards. So many countries are calling for any action to be taken inside the framework of the resolutions and will only support the US and Britain if that is the case. It is not that the world community wishes to turn a blind eye to the development of weapons of mass destruction, it is that they want to see the issue resolved within the UN and its resolutions.

Whether the US and Britain go ahead without UN approval will remain to be seen however if that UN support is not forthcoming then their mission becomes more difficult. Support will not be forthcoming and it is likely that even states that would have kept silent would voice their opposition. The UN must use this to enhance its position and reputation and not allow itself to be swayed one way or the other because of any threats. If it fails to do so then the war with Iraq will happen and the UN will be sidelined and ignored. If that happens then the reputation of the UN could be damaged beyond repair and states will always question the need to act within the UN to resolve conflict in the 21st Century.

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