US attacks push the UN to rethink its role

Security Council debates new diplomatic effort on Iraq. Russian envoy to US recalled.

As bombs have rained down on Iraq, Russia and China have repeated their calls for an end to the military strike. But during a United Nations Security Council meetings, most diplomats here appeared to have resigned themselves to this idea: The United States and Britain are in the driver's seat - and will continue to act without their fellow council members' blessings.

That leaves some diplomats and others questioning whether the UN can play an effective role in security affairs in a world where the US remains the sole superpower and competing national interests contradict the idea of an "international will."

"The entire system of international security with the UN and the Security Council as its centerpiece has been undermined," Russian President Boris Yeltsin said yesterday before Russia recalled its ambassador to the US.

Other Security Council members including Sweden, Brazil, and Costa Rica also voiced dismay over the fact that the US and Britain had not first sought the council's approval.

Of course, such a nod of approval from the divisive 15-member body would almost certainly have been impossible to obtain.

France and Russia, partly motivated by financial interests, have been sympathetic toward Iraq, as has China.

But as Washington and London see it, they are simply enforcing resolutions issued by the Security Council when no other country is willing and able to do so. "Coalition forces are acting under the authority provided by resolutions of the Security Council," US Ambassador A. Peter Burleigh stated Wednesday.

The US took the lead in brokering a peace accord for Bosnia in 1995 when the UN proved to be ineffective there. This year, the Security Council issued statements condemning a Serb crackdown in Kosovo, but offered no concrete plan of action. Again Washington spearheaded efforts to resolve the conflict, brandishing NATO action against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Now, the Clinton administration sees itself taking the initiative in Iraq after Baghdad flouted an accord brokered by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in February. Mr. Annan had also helped avert airstrikes last November. So Baghdad's failure to comply fully with UN weapons inspectors' demands in the past two weeks further damaged the secretary-general's reputation.

"This is a sad day for the United Nations and for the world [and also] for me personally," Annan said Wednesday.

Does this mean that the UN has become a factory of resolutions that Washington can use for its own foreign policy objectives?

No, says French Ambassador Alain Dejammet. "The Security Council maintains its authority," he says.

And chief UN arms inspector Richard Butler reacted this week to charges he'd been unduly swayed by US pressure by saying that his report detailing Iraqi noncompliance "danced to no one's tune."

Ambassador Dejammet concedes, however, that the task before the council in the coming days is to restore its role.

Last night, member nations began this effort. While Russian Ambassador Sergey Lavrov suggested that the Council issue a statement calling for the "immediate cessation of hostilities," most participants at the gathering recognized that the air raid was out of their hands.

They focused on what should be done only after the military campaign ends.

"No one can stop it [the bombings]. So the question is: What's next?" says one official who asked not to be named, adding that the talks were rather congenial in contrast to the vitriolic words exchanged Wednesday.

There will be a need for "relief and healing diplomacy," Annan said. "In both these tasks, the United Nations will be ready, as ever, to play its part."

Just what that role will be is also open for discussion as the the council meets again today. The council last night adjourned without a consensus.

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