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Making the U.N. relevant (Scripps Howard News Service) April 22, 2003

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.

In the buildup toward war with Iraq, President Bush posed a question that should now be answered: Is the United Nations relevant? Describing the Security Council decision about military action against Iraq as a “moment of truth” to see whether the U.N. is “going to be relevant….in keeping the peace,” Bush framed an important question.

At one level, the president’s question was rhetorical, designed to drum up Security Council votes for military action. But the question deserves to be answered at another level, one suggested by an embattled Bill Clinton when he felt obligated to assert “the president is relevant.” Following the Iraq crisis, is the United Nations a major player in deciding matters of war and peace and, if not, what would give it that kind of relevance?

The short answer is that the U.N. proved relevant as an international debating society but not as an action body or governing authority. As was the case in Kosovo in the 1990s, the U.N. Security Council was not able to muster the votes to take action against an international wrongdoer, nor did it fashion any sort of compromise or prevent war. Judged by its own charter — to prevent states using force against other states — the U.N. was not relevant in Iraq.

But the U.N.’s failure to act was not, as many Americans believe, because of the perversity of the French. Not, the truth is that the U.N. and its Security Council, formed in the aftermath of World War II, have not kept up with the times, and are burdened by anachronistic practices that will render them irrelevant unless changes are made.

Consider, then, reforms the U.N. must undertake if it is to be relevant on contemporary questions of war and peace:

– Expanded definitions of military force. When the charter forbids states using force against other states, it does not speak about international terrorist groups or the use of force by non-states. These may not have been important in 1945, but they are crucial today.

– Broader understandings of self-defense. The U.N. charter allows aggression for self-defense, but Article 51 defines that narrowly, requiring “an armed attack.” Scholars have broadened that to include “imminent” attacks, but in an era of weapons of mass destruction, President Bush correctly argues that some preemptive or preventive force is warranted. The U.N. cannot ignore these realities.

– Membership reform. Isn’t it time to put some U.N. members on probation? Or at least prevent the bad actors from playing key leadership roles? The charter says the U.N. members on probation? Or at least prevent the bad actors from playing key leadership roles? The charter says the U.N. is open to “peace-loving states” that accept the obligations of the charter and “in the judgment of the organization are able and willing to carry out these obligations.” How about telling Saddam’s Iraq it was on probation from the U.N.? Or advising Libya that, with all its human rights abuses, it cannot chair the Commission on Human Rights, or ruling that North Korea, Iran and Nigeria are not eligible for election to the commission, which is anticipated shortly? Unless it wants to be only a debating society, the U.N. should not have an open membership policy.

– Security Council expansion and limitation on vetoes. How can a 15-member Security Council represent the nearly 200-member body that now constitutes the U.N.? And why should five great powers from the World War II era get to veto whatever they do not like? The Security Council should be expanded to include more current world powers, such as Japan or India, as permanent members, and the veto power must be limited, perhaps requiring at least two nations to exercise it to be effective.

Former General Assembly President Razali Ismail was right when he said, “In many ways the U.N. is broken. We have to fix it.” If structural reforms are not undertaken to make the U.N., and especially the Security Council, an effective decision-making body, its only relevance will be as a debating society.

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