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Marjorie Cohn: Guarding the Guardians of Peace

Guarding The Guardians Of Peace

By Marjorie Cohn
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Friday 17 December 2004

In 1945, the United Nations Conference in San Francisco gave birth to the United Nations Organization. In the wake of two world wars that claimed 55 million lives, the U.N. Charter pledged to ''save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.''

The Charter allows a member state to use armed force in only two instances: 1) in self-defense, or 2) when the Security Council determines force is necessary to meet "any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression."

President Harry Truman said, "No one nation, no regional group, can, or should expect, any special privilege which harms any other nation." Referring to World War II, Truman observed, "Out of this conflict have come powerful military nations, now fully trained and equipped for war. But," he proclaimed, "they have no right to dominate the world."

Although heralded as a product of consensus of the nations of the world, the Charter was conceived and drafted by the United States, and ultimately, reflected the agenda of the victorious military powers after World War II.

Most significantly, they insisted on the veto power for themselves, the five permanent members of the Security Council - Great Britain, the Soviet Union, China, France and the United States, notwithstanding opposition from the smaller nations. Without that veto power, they would not likely have signed on to the U.N. Charter.

The veto power reserved for Security Council members has hobbled the U.N. for decades. At the behest of the veto-bearing United States, the U.N. sat on the sidelines during the genocide in Rwanda, when 800,000 people were slaughtered.

Also at the urging of the U.S., the Security Council put its imprimatur on the imposition of economic sanctions on Iraq, which were responsible for the deaths of one million Iraqis, mostly children, during the 1990s. The Council didn't condemn the "no-fly-zones" over Iraq, which it never sanctioned, and which were used by the U.S. and U.K. to bombard Iraq on nearly a daily basis in the years leading up to "Operation Iraqi Freedom."

The Security Council never condoned the recent U.S.-U.K. wars on Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq. But, because of pressure and the threatened veto by the United States, the Council never condemned them either. The attack on Yugoslavia was justified as "humanitarian intervention," in spite of "ethnic cleansing" by both sides in that conflict. And, the Bush administration rationalized the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as self-defense, even though neither country ever posed an imminent threat to the United States.

In 1995, in a moment of candor, then Ambassador to the U.N. Madeleine Albright declared, "the U.N. is a tool of American foreign policy." Indeed, before its invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Bush administration frequently threatened the United Nations with becoming "irrelevant" if it did not give its blessing to the war.

But even in the face of threats, the Security Council refused to approve Bush's war on Iraq. Bush then cobbled together prior Council resolutions, none of which, individually or collectively, authorized the use of force in Iraq. Although he claimed to be enforcing Security Council resolutions, the Charter empowers only the Council to enforce its resolutions.

After the invasion, however, the Security Council capitulated to pressure from the United States, and authorized the U.S.-U.K. as the occupying authority in Iraq, giving the occupiers an international mandate to maintain troops in Iraq while a new government is established.

Recently, the United Nations has found its backbone and challenged U.S. policy. In September, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, somewhat belatedly, called the war on Iraq "illegal." And he sent Bush a letter counseling against the recent attack on Fallujah.

This prompted some Republican members of the House of Representatives to call for Annan's resignation. The ostensible reason: corruption in the administration of Iraq's Oil for Food Programme from 1996 to 2003. "It's payback time for the U.N.," a Bush administration official told the Los Angeles Times, on condition of anonymity. "The bills are coming due for the U.N.'s noncooperation on Iraq, and the oil-for-food scandal is red meat for the U.N.'s critics."

But the oil-for-food excuse was a red herring. The Oil for Food Programme was created by a vote of the Security Council. Through it, Iraq sold about $65 billion worth of oil to buy food and medicine for the Iraqi people, to soften the harsh impact of the sanctions imposed to keep Saddam Hussein from rearming after the 1991 Gulf War.

The programme was micromanaged by the Council, particularly the United States. The U.S. scrutinized every purchase, holding up contracts for months, or even years. However, when overland oil was illegally smuggled to Jordan and Turkey, two favored U.S. allies, the United States quietly closed its eyes, according to the report of Charles Duelfer, the top U.S. investigator in Iraq.

ChevronTexaco and ExxonMobil have been subpoenaed by the Securities and Exchange Commission to determine whether they paid kickbacks or bribes to unlawfully profit from Iraq's oil under the programme.

Morever, earlier this week, an audit board set up by the Security Council to monitor oil sales in Iraq during the 15 months the U.S.-led occupation authority recently ran Iraq found widespread mismanagement, faulty metering to keep track of how much oil was pumped from Iraq's oil fields, and noncompetitive bidding procedures that awarded more than $10 billion in contracts to Halliburton's subsidiary, Kellogg Brown & Root.

When Republicans began gunning for Annan's neck, former South African president Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu called the campaign against Annan "reprehensible and unjust," saying it reflected American arrogance. They wrote, in an open letter: "Those who call for his resignation betray the objectivity his position as secretary general demands and regard the United Nations as a mouthpiece to extol and exonerate the policies of the United States of America, right or wrong."

The same day, the Bush administration, mindful that it needs Kofi Annan's cooperation to pull off the Iraqi elections slated for the end of January, called off its dogs. "We are expressing confidence in the secretary general and in his continuing in office," said U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Danforth.

One week earlier, a blue ribbon panel of international experts Annan appointed a year ago to study the structure of the U.N. in the wake of the war on Iraq, issued a 99-page report. The panel determined there is no reason to amend the U.N. Charter's self-defense provision. Any arguments for the use of force must be addressed to the Security Council, as required by the Charter, the report says. In a rebuff to Bush's doctrine of preemptive war, the panel wrote: "For those impatient with such a response, the answer must be that, in a world full of perceived potential threats, the risk to the global order and the norm of nonintervention on which it continues to be based is simply too great for the legality of unilateral preventive action, as distinct from collectively endorsed action, to be accepted. Allowing one to so act is to allow all."

The report also notably identified poverty, despair, humiliation, political oppression, foreign occupation, extremism, and human rights abuse as the breeding ground for terrorism. It advocated nuclear disarmament by all countries, not simply the developing nations. And the report argued that all U.N. member states should ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Nevertheless, last week, Bush signed into law the Nethercutt Amendment, which mandates withholding aid from countries that refuse to grant immunity for U.S. citizens before the International Criminal Court. "As revelations of abuses continue," said Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice program of Human Rights Watch, "U.S. insistence on immunity strikes a particularly raw nerve." Dicker maintained, "The United States is bullying smaller, weaker countries because of an ideological obsession with an illusory threat. It's putting its ill-conceived campaign ahead of other interests the U.S. government claims are its highest priorities."

George W. Bush has consistently challenged the legitimacy of the United Nations, manipulating the Security Council when it suits his purpose, attacking it when it doesn't. It remains to be seen how well the only organization charged with the maintenance of international peace and security, and the protection of human rights, will fare during Bush's second term.


Marjorie Cohn, is a contributing editor to t r u t h o u t, a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, executive vice president of the National Lawyers Guild, and the U.S. representative to the executive committee of the American Association of Jurists.

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