Don't trust the United Nations to stop a war on Iraq
September 20, 2002 | Page 8
WHEN GEORGE W. Bush addressed the United Nations (UN) on September 12, he challenged the international body to "serve the purpose of its founding" in a "difficult and defining moment."
What he meant is that the UN should approve the U.S.'s drive for a savage new war on Iraq--giving international legitimacy to Washington's aggressive new use of military power. And as BRIDGET BRODERICK explains, that would in fact "serve the purpose of its founding"--since the UN has long served as a fig leaf for U.S. military power.
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ONE BUSH administration official made it crystal clear last week what role the White House envisions for the UN. "It's an open-and-shut case," the official told a reporter. "By going to the United Nations, we're trying to make people more comfortable with what we are trying to do, and that is to move forward toward a military engagement. We're doing things just to make people in the international community feel better."
In fact, the UN has made the "international community" feel better since 1945 by providing a fig leaf for world's most powerful countries to take military action against smaller, less powerful nations. From the beginning, the UN had little to do with international peace--and everything to do with the main victors of the Second World War carving up the world to suit their economic and military benefit.
Since the U.S. came out of the war as the main economic power, it shaped UN policy to its advantage. Washington insisted that this "international body for world cooperation" respect the Monroe Doctrine--the U.S. government's unilateral claim to intervene at will in Latin American affairs--acknowledge U.S. control over bases in the Pacific and promote "equal access" to international markets. In return, the U.S. would respect France's right to retain its colonies, Russia's takeover of Eastern European satellites and Britain's power over the Commonwealth.
These nations, along with China, are the heart of the UN Security Council. As the five permanent members with a right to veto any resolution, they wield the power to enforce measures by imposing economic sanctions and ordering collective military action.
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CONTRARY TO the popular belief that the UN represents the democratic will of nations, it in fact serves the interests of the world's most powerful and well-armed states--in particular, the U.S. As historian Gabriel Kolko put it, the UN in practice assumed "a role of an American moral bludgeon against others, but in the name of the world community that the U.S. dominated at the level of UN representation No possibility of global unity and common action for peace via the UN mechanism ever existed, since the controlling power (the U.S.) never intended it. The UN gave the partial division of the world into spheres of influence and competing blocs a formal legal structure, and thus the Great Powers both created and acknowledged reality."
The other main UN body is the General Assembly, which has representatives from all member nations. It has the power to discuss any topic of importance and pass a resolution. But it has no power to compel action by any government. Its recommendations carry the "weight of world opinion" and little else.
From the start, this setup meant that the countries represented on the Security Council--and the countries backed by those powers--were never held responsible for breaking UN resolutions. The U.S. follows UN resolutions when they are to its advantage--as in the case of resolutions supporting the Korean War of the early 1950s or the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq. In other cases, the U.S. ignores them.
In fact, the UN has mostly said nothing about even the most oppressive U.S. interventions of the past 50 years--in Vietnam, Panama, Chile and Haiti, to name a few. Likewise, UN resolutions about world peace meant nothing at all when the ex-USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1979 or China's regime slaughtered student protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government's main ally in the Middle East, Israel, has consistently defied UN Security Council resolutions calling for it to withdraw from Arab lands occupied since the 1967 war. In fact, the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians to found the state of Israel in 1948 took place while the UN was engaged in its first mandated "peacekeeping" mission in Palestine.
This history shows what the UN really represents--a tool for the most powerful nations, when they are united, to ensure that weaker countries don't step out of line.
Today, as the world's main superpower, the U.S. has decisive influence in the UN. Along with Britain, Washington insured that Iraq remains crippled during the 1990s under brutal UN-sponsored sanctions. Sanctions have killed well over 1 million Iraqis--because the UN committee can decide to bar imports of crucial supplies for hospitals, water-treatment facilities and power plants.
Under the UN resolution, sanctions can't be lifted until weapons inspectors report that Iraq has dismantled all of its weapons programs. But the inspectors left Iraq under U.S. orders--they weren't evicted by Iraq--in December 1998, just before a new campaign of U.S. bombing. In other words, when the U.S. wants to call the shots at the UN, it does.
Thus, when UN officials step out of line and try to promote policies contrary to Washington's interests, the U.S. short-circuits their "misguided" actions. Such was the case this summer when the U.S. threatened to withdraw support for peacekeeping troops in Bosnia--in order to undermine the establishment of an International Criminal Court. The U.S. refused to ratify the UN's call for a permanent, independent world court--unless U.S. military and political personnel were guaranteed immunity from prosecution.
Understanding the true purpose and history of the UN is crucial for building an effective antiwar movement. Heads of state aren't the only ones who have looked to the UN. Many opponents of U.S. wars have called for the UN to take action as an alternative to the U.S. military.
During the lead-up to the 1991 Gulf War, for example, many peace activists supported the slogan of "Let UN sanctions work" against Iraq. In fact, U.S.-led coalition forces--with the approval of the UN--did both, bombing Iraq for a month and a half and then implementing deadly sanctions.
Slogans about letting sanctions work created illusions in the international body being neutral and committed to resolving world conflict peacefully--when the history of the UN shows that it's quite the opposite.
Already some peace activists argue that the U.S. shouldn't act unilaterally in a war on Iraq, but should go through UN channels. They support the return of UN weapons inspectors to Iraq to eliminate "weapons of mass destruction" and call for the UN to monitor human rights violations.
But this focuses the antiwar movement in the wrong direction. First, it ignores the hypocrisy of the U.S. government--which has by far the largest arsenal of weapons of mass destruction--determining what should happen in Iraq.
But also, as many opponents of the 1991 Gulf War learned, the U.S. can tolerate UN participation in its war plans without missing a beat--because Washington has the power to use the UN as a cover for its wars. Bush could very well decide to accept the return of weapons inspectors--as long as their role is to pave the way for a new attack.
Opponents of the war can't afford to be disarmed when their calls for UN monitoring are met and Washington's war on Iraq takes place anyway.
Of course, many people who oppose a war on Iraq won't know the long history of how the UN has been exploited by Washington to lend legitimacy to its wars. Socialists and other anti-imperialists need to educate the growing antiwar opposition. As we organize against Bush's war drive together, we have to be clear: The UN won't promote peace, nor prevent a slaughter.