UN's 'two standards' under fire

Critics ask why some nations are held to UN resolutions and others are not.

As the Bush administration drums up support to arm-twist Iraq into complying with UN Security Council resolutions, some critics are turning the tables on Washington, accusing it of "double standards" for not being as tough on its ally, Israel.

Israel has flouted 29 Council resolutions, say critics. Iraq has ignored 16. Israel's supporters call this an apples-and-oranges comparison. But even UN advocates say the two cases put the flaws of the international system into sharp relief.

"In the case of both Iraq and Israel, the Security Council has passed resolutions that are generally in line with the aspirations of the international community," says James Paul, executive director of the Global Policy Forum, a UN watchdog. "But how do you get them into compliance? That's the conundrum of the international system: You don't have a very good enforcement process. If a great power wants to do something in its national interest, it will. In a world of strong and weak nation-states, the weaker nations have this 'weak sovereignty' – they're not able to defend their sovereignty from the powerful actors in the system."

The actions of the 15-member Security Council this week have reignited the double-standard debate.

One week after Washington riveted UN attention onto Iraq, Israel was hauled into the spotlight early Tuesday morning: prodded by Syria, the Security Council overwhelmingly passed a resolution that demanded Israel end its siege of Yasser Arafat's headquarters and withdraw from Ramallah. The US abstained, and Israel soon after indicated it would spurn the resolution. Arab diplomats are venting their frustration.

"Why do we target one country, and at the same time, why is there no outcry about Israel not implementing its resolutions. Why?" asks Yahya Mahmassani, the permanent UN observer for the League of Arab States. "Why should Israel be above the law? Because some members of the Security Council – or one member, maybe – is all the time protecting Israel. If the UN is to be fair, there should not be double standards."

The UN and its Security Council are sensitive to the charge of hypocrisy. Israel historically has been far and way the most popular target of UN resolutions. Iraq, since the Gulf War, runs a close second. And since the Gulf War, Arab officials have routinely complained that more heat is applied to Iraq than Israel, mostly because of the US role. Israel's supporters counter that the UN has painted the Jewish state as the world's great pariah.

But Iraq vs. Israel is not the only example of an apparent disparity in who is pressured, and by whom. Take Russia and China, both permanent, veto-bearing members of the Council. Had they been smaller, weaker countries, their actions in Chechnya and Tibet, respectively, would likely have faced harsh Council rebuke, say UN observers. Meanwhile, still on the books are Security Council resolutions – which are carry the weight of international law – that demand Turkey's withdrawal from Cyprus, which it invaded in 1974, and for Morocco to withdraw troops from Western Sahara, occupied in 1975.

The bottom line: Size and connections matter. In these cases, Turkey is a NATO member with powerful friends; US and French oil interests keep an eye on the oil-rich coast off Western Sahara.

Yet, in terms of their ability to stir the passions of the UN's large, influential bloc of Arab and Muslim member-states – nothing tops Iraq and Israel. So, borrowing from President Bush's Sept. 12 speech at the UN in which he exhorted the world body to "enforce its own resolutions," pro-Palestinian advocates insisted Monday that the same be done vis-à-vis Israel.

But Israeli and American officials say the two can't be equated.

"There is no comparison," says a State Department official, who requested anonymity. "Israel is a functioning democracy, committed to land-for-peace negotiations – although it's not going very well at the moment – and wants to live in peace with its neighbors. Iraq, on the other hand, is a brutal dictatorship, has attacked its neighbors, used weapons of mass destruction against its own people, and threatens to use them against its neighbors. I could go on and on."

Some observers also point to technical differences.

Iraq, which invaded Kuwait in 1990, surrendered to terms of Chapter VII of the UN Charter: "Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression." That chapter justified Iraq as the aggressor and legitimized the sanctions that continue today. The accompanying Security Council Resolution 687 – the cornerstone of all subsequent Iraq-related resolutions – mandated, among other things, that UN weapons inspectors fully disarm Iraq.

AS for Israel, the 1967 Six Day War, in which it captured the West Bank and Gaza, was largely seen as a "defensive war" – its neighbors, Egypt, Jordan and Syria, had massed troops on the border and were prepared to attack. Security Council Resolution 242 – from which all resolutions since are derived – was passed under Chapter VI of the UN Charter: "Pacific Settlement of Disputes." It called for an Israeli withdrawal, but also acknowledged the right of all parties "to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force." That has meant a negotiated settlement, say Western diplomats.

The count of resolutions ignored by Israel and Iraq are based on resolutions 242 and 687, respectively. Dozens and dozens more anti-Israel resolutions have emanated from the 190-member UN General Assembly, whose declarations do not carry the weight of international law and thus are merely symbolic.

Israel's advocates, though, suggest it is the victim of UN bias because it's an easy target: the Arab-Muslim bloc boasts 50-plus members, with many more allies drawn by their energy and trade interests, and third-world solidarity. Only Washington consistently stands by Israel.

To critics of Israel, the distinction between Chapter VI and Chapter VII sounds like hair-splitting. But to the Jewish state, this distinguishes the "urgency" of different situations, says Dore Gold, Israel's ambassador to the UN from 1997-99 and now a top adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

"Comparing the illegal production of biological and chemical weapons with Israeli bulldozers in Ramallah? There's just no comparison in terms of magnitude," Gold says of Security Council discussions over the past week. Also, Gold says, most anti-Israel resolutions contain obligations for the Palestinians as well. The original draft of Tuesday's resolution, submitted by the Syrians, made no mention of the Sept. 19 suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that killed five Israelis, and reportedly prompted Israel to lash out at Arafat and his compound.

Striving for evenhandedness in a resolution, Gold says, "creates a line of argument that if one side is not implementing its side of the bargain, the other side should not be expected to unilaterally implement the resolution."

Mr. Mahmassani, the Arab League representative, brushes aside Gold's points.

"You mean the Security Council has categories of resolutions: a, b, c and d? That's really absurd," Mahmassani says.

"Council resolutions must be implemented without question," Mahmassani says, "otherwise, what good is the Council and its resolutions? Israel is not abiding by its resolutions, and nobody forces them to. Period."

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in a press conference Monday, conceded that the question of double standards has "dogged" the world body. A UN official elaborates: "There's always the issue of perception. We don't want to create the idea that resolutions are not all inherently of equal importance, or that they don't have to be complied with in the same way. Ultimately, enforcement is in the hands of the Security Council."

All of which points to some of the inherent weakness of the international system – and the need for dramatic reform within the UN, says Mr. Paul of the Global Policy Forum in New York City.

"The UN is the best thing that's happened at the international level, in the area of international law. But it's a very weak and imperfect system, and we need it stronger. We need to have restrictions on the superpower, and erosion of sovereign power, whereby a sovereign nation-state can do whatever it wants internally."

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