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On the Eternal Relevance of the UN

Can the United States reckon on full EU support to rebuild Iraq in the aftermath of war in that country?

March 14, 2003

Can the United States reckon on full EU support to rebuild Iraq in the aftermath of war in that country?

The first shots have not been fired, but people are worried about the aftermath of war with Iraq. In this Globalist Document, based on his March 2003 speech to the European Parliament, Chris Patten — the EU's Commissioner for External Affairs — explores a key question: If the United States fights Iraq without UN backing, will it have to pay for rebuilding costs alone?

One lesson we can already draw from the unfolding events is the importance of developing the role and authority of the United Nations. It is in the interests of the whole world that power should be constrained by global rules — and used only with international agreement.

What other source of international legitimacy but the UN exists for military intervention? On what other basis is it possible, indeed, to address the problem of weapons of mass destruction?

I am here thinking not just of the particular case of Iraq, but of the wider issue.

America’s refusal to press forward with ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty hardly strengthens the hand of the IAEA and others seeking to prevent the proliferation of nuclear technology in Iran, North Korea and beyond.

I regretted, too, America’s decision to withdraw so lightly from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. For such decisions and there have been many send a dangerous signal about the value that the United States places on international commitments. And that, surely, is a critical battle lost in what some call the ‘war against terrorism’.

For I find it hard to conceive how the terrorist threat can be confronted effectively except through international co-operation and disciplines.

And we should continue to work for a less unequal world for example in the WTO Doha Development Agenda. We also need to carry forward the Monterrey decisions on development financing — and implement the Johannesburg decisions on sustainable development.

As a general rule, are wars not more likely to recruit terrorists than to deter them? It is hard to build democracy at the barrel of a gun, when history suggests that it more usually the product of long internal development within a society.

Because of the UN’s unique role as a source of legitimacy, it is of the greatest importance that if a war is waged in Iraq, the UN should authorize the decision to attack.

Tragically, the position of the UN may remain ambiguous. That would be the case if authority for an attack rested on Resolution 1441 — but without explicit Security Council confirmation that Iraq’s failure fully to comply constituted a casus belli.

Even under those circumstances, it is still likely to be desirable that the UN should provide the framework as soon as possible for humanitarian assistance that may be necessary thereafter.

In addition, it should oversee the emergence of the new Iraqi polity, driven by the people of Iraq themselves. And it should help to co-ordinate the international reconstruction effort that will certainly be required.

But it would be better — who can seriously dispute this — if, a huge “if” we were able to disarm Saddam Hussein preferably by inspections.

The EU is a massive donor in the Balkans and in Afghanistan — and we are already the largest humanitarian donor in Iraq. If it comes to war, we shall certainly have to step up that help, not just to the victims of the conflict — but to those who may seek refuge from it.

It will be very difficult in any circumstances to launch massive new programs in Iraq and in the neighborhood of Iraq. But it will be that much more difficult for the EU to cooperate fully and on a large scale also in the longer-term reconstruction process if events unfold without proper UN cover and if the member states remain divided.

When I have made this point in the past I have sometimes been accused of issuing a threat of EU non-cooperation if the United States chooses to proceed without UN backing, on the principle suggested by Tom Friedman from the sign in a china shop: “If you broke it, you own it.”

But that is not my point. I am making, rather, a simple observation of fact: that if it comes to war, it will be very much easier to persuade you the EU budgetary authority to be generous if there is no dispute about the legitimacy of the military action that has taken place.

Neither should there be any dispute about the new political order that emerges thereafter — or about who is in charge of the reconstruction process. I am not making a quasi-legal point.

I am simply offering a political judgment of no great novelty or sagacity. It seems pretty obvious.

Adapted from Commissioner Patten’s March 12, 2003, speech to the European Parliament. For the full text of his remarks, please click here.