A history of skirting the UN

Britain offers to extend March 17 deadline to win support for a UN vote Thursday on disarming Iraq.

As US and French officials trade accusations of dooming the UN Security Council to "irrelevance," long-time observers say the schism over Iraq, while unique in minor aspects, is reminiscent of past Council showdowns.

Indeed, if Paris vetoes the new Iraq disarmament resolution expected to be voted on Thursday - and if Washington then ignores the Council - these would be far from precedent-setting moves.

In the UN's 58-year history, each of the five permanent Council members has gone to war or invaded another country without Council blessing, in order to avoid a veto. They either claimed the right to self-defense, or formed alternative coalitions.

The most recent case was in 1999, when the United States sought UN approval to drive Serbian forces from Kosovo; Russia threatened to veto on behalf of its Slavic brethren, so the US turned to NATO. The alliance then unleashed an air assault.

Rather than adhere to the idealistic underpinnings of the Council - it is the only world body entrusted to maintain international peace and security - the UN "is simply an institution that reflects the policies of the governments who belong to it," says UN historian Brian Urquhart, who was also a top UN official from 1972-86.

Conflicts and self-interest appeared on the Council almost as soon as the United Nations was formed in 1945.

Nowhere in the UN Charter is "veto" mentioned; instead, for a resolution to pass, it must garner at least nine votes from the Council, which also contains 10 non-permanent, rotating members, and "include the concurring votes of the permanent members." That handed the permanent five members a de facto veto; they can also abstain.

An historical accounting of the UN veto scorecard, by Global Policy Forum, shows that France has used its veto 18 times, a distant fourth behind the Soviet Union and its succesor state, Russia, with 121 vetoes; the United States, 76 vetoes (often in support of Israel); and Great Britain, 32 vetoes. China has used it just five times.

This would be France's first veto since 1976, which concerned the newly independent African state of Comoros. France has never vetoed in tandem with Russia, though the French joined the Soviets in vetoing a 1946 resolution on the Spanish Civil War.

Early on, with the onset of the Cold War, the Soviet Union in particular wielded its veto so frequently that longtime Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko became known as "Mr. Nyet," or Mr. No.

The first time the Council responded with creative diplomacy was in 1950, when the Communist north of Korea invaded the south. The Soviets represented a roadblock on the Council. So, Washington keyed the "uniting for peace" resolution, which called for the resolution to be taken before the much larger UN General Assembly (GA). The GA voted in favor of repelling the Korean invasion, though its resolutions carry only symbolic weight.

A particularly fractious year was 1956. Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, prompting Britain, France, and Israel to attack and occupy parts of the Canal. London and Paris vetoed UN cease-fire resolutions, with the French warning of the dangers of dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser and his aggression. The US then took the "uniting for peace" resolution to the GA, which demanded a cease-fire. The British and French withdrew within days.

"The best parallel to today is 1956," says William vanden Heuvel, the deputy US ambassador to the UN in 1979-81 and a critic of the current US stance on Iraq. "The French must have sense of déjà vu. Just as they had no right to commit that aggression then, the US has no right to do so in 2003."

Soon after the Suez, the Soviets invaded Hungary to quash an anti-Soviet uprising. Moscow vetoed a Council antiintervention resolution. Again, a "uniting for peace" resolution passed the GA, though the Soviets also ignored that one.

The Council stalemate continued through the Cold War. Despite the dramatic Council debate over the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, America knew a Soviet veto loomed. The US also resisted Council action on Vietnam in the 1960s and '70s; the US and Britain blocked Council sanctions against South Africa in the '80s; the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and vetoed a resolution.

The collapse of Communism saw a surge in Council consensus: Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was viewed as the first clear-cut case of aggression since Korea. The Council authorized force, paving the way for a US-led coalition to drive out Iraq in 1991.

But stumbles in Somalia led to dithering over Bosnia and inaction over the antiTutsi genocide in Rwanda. While the current Council debate over Iraq has chewed up seven months, Bosnia dominated the Council agenda for three years before the US spearheaded intervention.

The veto has acted as a deterrent over the decades. In the back rooms of the world body, the major powers "make clear in private conversation what they can live with, what they can't," says Ruth Wedgwood, a professor of international law at Johns Hopkins University. As a result, some festering conflicts don't go before the Council: Russia won't tolerate resolutions on Chechnya, China of Tibet, or India - also a major UN player - of Kashmir.

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