Acknowledging the role of the UN


In an important and unusual day at the United Nations yesterday President George W. Bush and the United Nations Secretary General, Mr Kofi Annan, made major statements about the crisis in Iraq and identified optimal ways forward for the world organisation in handling it.

This is as it ought to be. The United Nations is the appropriate political and legal forum to discuss and decide on the grave issues of world security involved.

By making his critical speech to the annual General Assembly session Mr Bush acknowledged the UN's key role. He challenged the UN to respond to Iraq's record of flouting resolutions about arms inspections, weapons of mass destruction and aggression against its neighbours by a more resolute approach to enforcement. He spelled out five demands on the Iraqi regime, concluding that if the Iraqis fail to respond "action will be unavoidable. And a regime that has lost its legitimacy will also lose its power." Mr Bush did not present new evidence against Iraq, nor did he link its regime persuasively with those responsible for the September 11th attacks on his country last year. He said his administration believes a new Security Council resolution on Iraq is required, with a definite time frame. He kept open the option of taking military action on a unilateral basis if that is not forthcoming.

Mr Annan was most eloquent in saying he is "a multilateralist by precedent, by principle, by charter and by duty." His explanation of how Article 51 of the UN Charter defines and constrains the right of self-defence against attack was aimed directly at unilateralist currents within the Bush administration. This was a necessary and timely reminder to them that those who adhere to the rule of law in domestic affairs must do so in the international arena as well. It also contained a political warning to Iraqi leaders that full adherence to UN resolutions is the only legitimate way out of this crisis for them. Their non-compliance is at the root of the problem.

Mr Bush has signalled a major political and diplomatic effort over coming weeks and months to convince a sceptical world that the Iraqi regime poses sufficient of a threat to global and regional security to justify preventive or pre-emptive action against it. That has to be a reasoned case made with compelling evidence. Mr Bush's stated preference for "regime change" in Iraq does not come within the remit of the UN and could only be accomplished outside its mandates. That way lies a perilous and dangerous course of action, for the territorial integrity of Iraq, the Middle East region as a whole and the future of international law. It would, in addition, endanger the United States's own international legitimacy by asserting its unilaterally defined power and interests against those of the world community as expressed, however imperfectly, by the United Nations.