There is a clear consensus across the world that neither logic nor legality permit the “Coalition” invading Iraq to enforce alleged UN Security Council decisions against the will of the majority of its members. However, in a backhanded compliment to the legitimating power of the organization—and as the U.S. and UK shred the UN Charter’s keystone provisions on the illegality of war—they both, to varying degrees, feel the need to invoke it.

Those variations in degree are important. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, with his head on the line in the House of Commons, invoked his Attorney General’s opinion legalizing war on the basis of past Security Council resolutions. But neither in his address to the nation as the first shots were fired, nor in his letter to Congress did President George W. Bush mention, let alone invoke, the United Nations or its decisions. He relied instead upon the tendentious accusation that Iraq was involved in the September 11th attacks.

Nonetheless, at the recent Azores summit, Tony Blair did wrest some serious concessions from Bush, for which the world may feel gratitude, somewhat qualified though it will be, when the war is over. The joint statement explicitly gave a post-war mandate for the United Nations in legitimating the post war regime and reconstruction of Iraq:

We will seek a swift end to international sanctions, and support an international reconstruction program to help Iraq achieve real prosperity and reintegrate into the global community… In achieving this vision, we plan to work in close partnership with international institutions, including the United Nations; our Allies and partners; and bilateral donors.

After the war, the summit concluded,

We plan to seek the adoption, on an urgent basis, of new United Nations Security Council resolutions that would affirm Iraq’s territorial integrity, ensure rapid delivery of humanitarian relief, and endorse an appropriate post-conflict administration for Iraq. We will also propose that the Secretary General be given authority, on an interim basis, to ensure that the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people continue to be met through the [UN] Oil for Food program.

Blair drew immediate political benefits: it provided cover for unhappy Labor MP’s to support him in the vote on Tuesday and allowed Development Minister Claire Short to climb down from her threat to resign. By Wednesday, she was meeting Kofi Annan in New York to discuss reconstruction.

Blair and the Bush administration

As so frequently in the plast few months, Blair had became part of the internal debate within the Bush administration, where the spectrum of opinion ranges from outright hatred of the UN, through expedient agnosticism, to the beleaguered beachhead for multilateralism in the State Department. Significantly, none of the public discussion from Washington about the appointment of American Satraps in Iraq, or the plans for contracting Iraq’s reconstruction to American companies had mentioned a United Nations role at all prior to the summit in the Azores.

This may reflect the origins of most such planning in the hawkish and military wing of the administration, a wing that has been very jealous of its authority in post-war Iraq. Blair’s model was, of course, the post-war regime in Kosovo, where in the absence of explicit Security Council approval for the actual war, it was retrospectively legitimated by setting up a UN civil administration, with a military presence that combined NATO forces with a token Russian presence. In that case, the Russians had been involved in brokering the final deal and were eager to climb back on board, so the Americans reluctantly let them.

This time, there will be no Russian armored columns racing to Baghdad as they did to Pristina, and even more unlikely that Washington or the Defense Department will allow more than the most token UN or international power in Iraq. They will see the Security Council’s role as rubber stamping American plans. However, on the reconstruction side, the multilateralists in the administration have Mammon on their side and that emerged in public the day the attack started. In addition to reconstruction, the UN could raise its profile even before the war ends through a renewed role for inspectors and humanitarian relief efforts.

Future of Inspections

With the tanks revving up on the border, the UN Security Council met on Wednesday March 19 to discuss the program of work for the inspectors from the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Meanwhile, the inspectors had already been recalled from Iraq to Larnaca in Cyprus and Hans Blix, the head of UNMOVIC, was already speaking of their work in the past tense. The only alternative to this slightly surreal disconnect with events on the ground would have been for the majority of the Council to recognize and therefore condone an impending war that was a clear slap in the face to Council members, both individually and collectively.

Reality did intrude in the form of Kofi Annan, who pointed out that “Under international law, the responsibility for protecting civilians in conflict falls on the belligerents; in any area under military occupation, responsibility for the welfare of the population falls on the occupying power. Without in any way assuming or diminishing that ultimate responsibility, we in the United Nations will do whatever we can to help.”

He pledged he would be bringing in proposals for a conversion of the Oil for Food program, which already feeds half the Iraqi population. In post-war Iraq the program may have to feed the other half as well, so the UN could undertake the present role of the Iraqi authorities in contracting for supplies. Internationally, this will reduce the strong suspicions that American or British control of Iraqi oil revenues would inevitably entail—and for Washington, it would relieve the deficit-laden United States Treasury of the burden of supporting the civilian population, which is what the Geneva Conventions enjoin.

In fact, the U.S. State Department and Jay Garner, the point person for the operation, had been in quiet discussions with the UN Secretariat and Kofi Annan for weeks about just such an eventuality. Of course, the UN had to be careful: it could not be seen condoning in advance an invasion that Annan himself only the week before had said would be outside the UN Charter. And conversely, when humanitarian contingency plans were leaked, the Americans were unhappy at the suggestion that military action could have unpleasant consequences.

The British and Americans are well aware that the French, Russians, and Chinese are far more likely to resist proposals from them than from Kofi Annan and the UN Secretariat. On the other hand, the pragmatic need for UN involvement in reconstruction provides a wedge in which the British and the U.S. State Department will probably try to get a “Kosovo”-style resolution legitimating the post-war regime, which of course concerns the hawks in the Bush administration much less.

There will be some resistance from those who objected to the war, but they have all signed on enthusiastically for reconstruction. If Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the other hawks can be muzzled, then even the French will be eager to paste over the hole in the UN Charter left by the unilateral action.

Most UN members will be desperate to get the U.S. back on board with even a token commitment to resumed international legitimacy. There will certainly be some wrestling about the actual degree of UN involvement in the postwar governance of Iraq despite Bush’s commitment in the Azores. But the Americans will win most on substance, because everyone else cares about multilateralism, and most of the Bush administration doesn’t, although Blair will be able to appeal to Bush directly to reinforce the State Department’s points.

It will be interesting to see what role the inspectors will play. Although Hans Blix seems to be resigned to winding up their work, they have amassed considerable expertise and a significant data bank on Iraqi weapons systems. In the current atmosphere, U.S. revelations of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and their delivery systems that are not observed and substantiated by independent reports will have a significant credibility gap. This gap is already present since the U.S. has been recruiting former personnel from UNSCOM to check out WMD reports, even though UNSCOM’s credibility was challenged because of its perceived pliability in the face of American demands.

It would make practical and political sense for the American investigators currently poised on the Kuwait border to call upon UNMOVIC as soon as possible, both for its expertise and for the propaganda value of independent confirmation. That may prove an inspection too far for Washington, however. Almost certainly, UNMOVIC and the IAEA will have a role in the post-war monitoring of Iraqi weapons programs under some amendment of existing Security Council mandates.

The UN and Justice

There are other roles for the UN and its agencies that may emerge after the dust of the invasion has settled. As of yet undiscussed is any judicial role. Although Washington recently announced a list of most-wanted Iraqis, it somewhat discounted that by offering Saddam Hussein the choice of exile and implied amnesty. Blair told the British Parliament this week that Saddam and others in his ruling elite could face the International Criminal Court for their actions against the people of Iraq. However, with the theological hatred of much of the U.S. administration toward the International Criminal Court, it would be surprising if his suggestion were adopted. On the other hand there would be an international outcry if the accused were whizzed off to Guantanamo Bay and Attorney General John Ashcroft’s military tribunals.

In the absence of a functioning Iraqi government or judiciary, the sensible solution would be yet another UN-sponsored International Tribunal, or an amalgam along the lines of the Sierra Leonean and Cambodian courts, combining regional and international judges. But sensible is not an adjective often used in conjunction with either Attorney General John Ashcroft or Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, so the Ba’athists may end up in Guantanamo anyway—where they can have their first real contacts with al Qaeda apart from the inspired fictions of the President.

In short, the United Nations will emerge battered but patched up and still floating from the events. But the scars will show.

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