The Crisis of Relevance at the UN
The UN represent the member nations. If the UN fails, that means the UN
member nations have failed, and that includes the US. To paraphrase
Kennedy: The Bush administration should not ask what the UN can do for the
US, instead, it should ask what the US can do for the UN. We would live in
a better world, if the US would help the UN to enforce all the broken UN and
Security council resolutions, including those ignored by the US, the 16 by
Iraq, and the 64 by Israel.
Adjunct Professor of Physics
Toronto ON Canada M5B 2K3
The Crisis of Relevance at the UN
By Dr. W. Andy Knight
March 3, 2003 - The United Nations is caught in a crisis of relevance and
legitimacy the likes of which we haven't seen since the beginning of the
demise of the League of Nations. The UN has found itself in a catch-22
position--damned if you do and damned if you don't.
On one side of the gridlock stands U.S. President Bush, who has warned that
unless the United Nations assists the U.S. in forcibly confronting Iraq to
destroy Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the UN runs the risk of fading
into history "as an ineffective, irrelevant, debating society."
From the other side comes a growing number of voices, particular those of
France and Germany, who suggest that if the UN caves into US pressure by
providing a cloak of legitimacy for what will certainly be considered
America's naked aggression against Iraq, the international body stands to
lose whatever shred of legitimacy it has left, and will be in danger of
being viewed as irrelevant by the majority of the world's nations and
What should the UN do to ease out of this dilemma?
Bush, cleary, has a point. How can the UN Security Council keep passing
resolution after resolution calling on Iraqi compliance and then do nothing
to back up its demands?
Surely such inaction calls into question the credibility of this
organization. Yet a not-so-veiled threat underlies Bush's warning: if the UN
does not sanction military force as "the" means of getting Saddam Hussein's
Iraq to disarm, then the U.S. will simply do so unilaterally, or with
whatever "coalition of the willing" it can muster--thus bypassing the
You can bet that if this happens, neo-conservatives within the Bush
administration will smugly say: "We told you so. The UN has always been
nothing more than a talking shop, a paper tiger, incapable of acting when it
really counts." In other words, the UN will have been deemed irrelevant.
The growing din of opposition to this war, however, cannot be ignored. Not
that there is anything wrong with the UN's approval of military action
against a rogue state.
Clearly, the UN Charter allows for coercive measures against any state that
poses a clear and present threat to international security.
Article 51 of the UN Charter states that "Nothing in the present Charter
shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if
an armed attack occurs against a UN member..."
The UN approved the 1991 Gulf War because Iraq not only posed a grave threat
to Kuwait, but Iraq actually forcefully invaded its neighbour.
The UN was considered highly relevant then, and also legitimate, because it
took action within the framework of international law.
Can we honestly say that Iraq poses such an imminent threat to the U.S.?
Yes, Hussein is a tyrant. His regime has carried out gross violations of
human rights against its own people. He potentially poses a threat to some
of the states in the region. But there is no imminent threat to the U.S.
from Iraq. North Korea poses more of a clear and present danger to the U.S.
than Iraq. North Korea has declared "nuclear weapons state" status. There is
no evidence that Iraq has nuclear weapons. So far, UN weapons inspectors are
yet to find the large cache of chemical and biological weapons that the U.S.
claims are in Iraq's possession. Iraq has not declared war on the U.S. Nor
is the U.S.'s claim of a direct link between al-Qaeda and Saddam credible.
The bottom line is that Iraq poses no clear and present danger to the U.S.
In fact, as France's President Chirac recently put it: "Iraq--controlled and
inspected as it is--does not pose a threat to the region." The UN Charter
requires that the exercise of military force for collective or self-defence
must be done within the confines of specific legal norms. The UN can
exercise the right of collective self-defence only after a threat to
international peace is determined. The U.S. can exercise its right to
self-defence, legitimately, if it is faced with a clear and present danger
of an act of aggression by another state.
It may be that Iraq does have, hidden somewhere, the type of weapons of mass
destruction that the U.S. says it has. If so, Iraq can potentially threaten
states in the region and, eventually, endanger international peace. If
Hussein fails to get rid of them, then the UN should approve coercive
measures to disarm Iraq. If the Bush administration can demonstrate credibly
that Iraq poses a clear and present threat to the U.S., it has the right to
take measures to defend itself. However, the UN Charter is unequivocal about
the fact that any action of self-defence ought to be undertaken only after
the Security Council is given the opportunity to address the matter
The measures opted for by the Council in resolution 1441 are "coercive
inspections"--i.e. inspection backed by the threat of military force.
It seems to me that this option still stands the best chance of preserving
UN relevance and legitimacy. At the same time it constrains the baser
instincts of the global hegemon--the U.S.
As Ramesh Thakur (Vice-Rector of United Nations University in Tokyo) aptly
put it in a recent editorial in The Japan Times: There will indeed be
occasions when "UN diplomacy must be backed by US force. But a 'wrong war'
will damage the instrument (the UN) and delegitimize the institution."
Legitimacy should trump expediency as a means of preserving the longer-term
relevance of the United Nations.
Dr. W. Andy Knight is Professor of International Relations at the University
of Alberta. He is also author of the book A Changing United Nations. This
article originally appeared in The Edmonton Journal, March 3, 2003.
Other Guest Columns by Dr. W. Andy Knight
After war with Iraq, then what? (ExpressNews, February 7, 2003):
Coercive inspections on Iraq: this time things will be different
(ExpressNews, November 22, 2003):
Iraq's clandestine nuclear program (ExpressNews, November 1, 2002):
Attacking Iraq: the cost of courting Russia (ExpressNews, October 4, 2002):
Afghan interim government needs deft politicians (ExpressNews, January 25,
Related links - internal
Dr. W. Andy Knight's U of A Web page:
The U of A Global Governance Web site:
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