Is the United Nations at “a new threshold” in its history as a result of the Security Council actions in the Gulf crisis? This needs careful assessment. There has long been a tendency to veer from indifference to short-term exploitation of the UN and then, if this does not turn out well for the United States, to fall back to UN bashing.

There is one basic fact. The government of Iraq committed an act of aggression under international law and the UN Charter’s Article 2.4: It used force against the territorial integrity and the political independence of a state recognized in the community of nations.

The Security Council moved with apparently unprecedented harmony through some of the responses to such acts provided for in the UN Charter. This was only possible because the East-West conflict has more or less ended. The two largest military powers and veto-wielding members of the Council — the United States and the Soviet Union — could agree on the basic response to Iraq’s actions. (President Gorbachev has long been urging a strengthening of the UN, probably hoping to commit the US hereafter to consistent resort to the world body, to enable greater reductions in Soviet global defense costs.) The three other permanent members — China, Britain and France — also agreed, as did, on the original issue, the other non-permanent members.

After this, however, the “harmony” can be exaggerated. Iraq’s actions caught a large number of member states in a very difficult position. The UN Charter’s provisions on threats or use of force against territorial integrity and political independence are absolutes — the wording was not supposed to allow any government to pick and choose, to say there are special overriding circumstances surrounding the action of a particular state against its neighbor. The principle involved is that of even-handedness: If we want all members of the community of nations to abide by certain rules of behavior, those rules must be enforced without manipulation of the UN for special interests.

This is, after all, merely an extension of the fundamental proposition governing local law and order: The entire system works, and is respected, only if all citizens, no matter what their economic circumstance or ethnic origin, can perceive that justice is being fairly administered in every case.

A second universal proposition about local law and order is that more distant authority (in the US, the state and then the federal government) should not intervene unless and until the local process has failed to work. Communities are the best policemen and dispensers of justice for themselves, and the distant higher authorities best serve as second-resort guardians of even-handedness and ultimate protection.

Here we confront some of the underlying problems that put many member states in difficulty over the Gulf crisis and use of the UN. First, there is a very widespread view that the Western response to Iraq’s actions has little to do with international law and UN principles, and everything to do with control of oil resources, the price of oil and the enormous investments of Kuwait in Western economies. This alone should make us very cautious in assuming that this crisis will convince nations that “the UN” invariably dispenses order and justice on the basis of principle.

The second proposition, about local law and order, provides additional grounds for caution about the meaning of the Gulf crisis for the UN. It is clear from the known record that the local community — the Arab community — was not given enough opportunity to resolve this crisis, to police itself, before the United States moved and got others (with massive economic inducements) to move in the region. Americans were ill-informed of the efforts of King Hussein of Jordan, which might have succeeded if Washington had not pressed states in the region into immediate vociferous condemnation as well as military moves. Yet Chapter VIII of the UN Charter explicitly provides for using “regional arrangements or agencies” in disputes and violations of peace and security; indeed Article 52.3 urges that the Security Council “shall encourage” such processes. [1]

Chapter VII seeks to ensure that “action with respect to threats to the peace, breaches of the peace and acts of aggression” will move through careful steps to exhaust all possible methods short of military force. Specifically, after sanctions under Article 41, Article 42 states, “Should the Security Council consider that [such sanctions] would be inadequate or have proved to be inadequate, it may take” such military action as may be necessary. In other words, the Council should carefully determine that sanctions would not work before resorting to force. There was no such careful determination before the early November escalation of US forces, openly announced as “offensive,” or the November 29 resolution setting the January 15 “deadline.” Nor has the fundamental intent of Chapter VII been followed — that the Council shall organize an application of armed force under UN command. [2]

Yet again, overthrowing governments is not in the UN Charter or the UN ethos — only “the suppression of aggression.” The ever-larger (and fluctuating) stated US goals in the Gulf crisis, the selective use of “the UN,” the constant US threat of early force before the impact of sanctions could possibly be judged — all have greatly increased suspicions elsewhere in the world. And they have intensified another question in the process of community order and justice — the question of confidence among people who feel that they have not enjoyed fair and even-handed treatment. Ordinary Arabs, tens of millions of poor people from Morocco to Iraq, with little or no sympathy for oil-rich aristocracies, are acutely aware that the United States has never allowed decisive UN action on behalf of the Palestinian Arabs, despite over 60 Security Council resolutions.

Finally, there is a deeper problem, in the UN Charter itself, which the Iraq-Kuwait crisis highlights. The Charter’s provisions against aggression were drafted against a totally different forecast of the world in which the UN would operate. For the framers of the Charter meeting in San Francisco in 1945, there was no thought of decolonization, not even by the end of this century: The vast majority of humankind in what we now call the Third World would long remain as subjects (or under the “spheres of influence”) of the several colonial empires.

As a result, the concept of what is a legitimate frontier not to be crossed, the concept of what constitutes a valid political independence, was based on European experience. There, over centuries, principalities and then states had fought each other and negotiated with each other until the frontiers did for the most part correspond to the histories, cultures, languages and wishes of the peoples inside them. The frontiers were more or less endogenous. The new UN Charter reflected a determination to use multilateral cooperation and international law to protect those kinds of frontiers and historically rooted political independencies. Even when many of them then disappeared within the Soviet bloc, the premise was that the cultures, peoples and frontiers were valid from their local histories and would one day reemerge, as indeed they have.

This is not the case in the Arab world, or in sub-Saharan Africa. The apparent “national” frontiers of over 60 of the member states of the United Nations are simply those lines on maps which colonial powers had drawn, without consulting the people inside them at all. Liberation movements had to accept these when the empires in fact dissolved so rapidly. In most cases, the decolonization was staggered, so that a liberation movement found itself about to achieve independence with a colonial power still around it. There could not be discussion about its borders.

In the Middle East, after defeating the Ottoman Empire in World War I, Britain and France simply created entities like Kuwait, Jordan and Lebanon for their own purposes. Ordinary Iraqis feel strongly that Kuwait is historically part of their land; we might well have faced this present crisis even if Iraq were under an entirely democratic government. Beyond the Gulf crisis, therefore, the United Nations faces enormous challenges to gain real acceptance, by its communities everywhere, of the rule of international law and order. The UN had to admit over one third of its members with boundaries not locally evolved, dividing ancient kinships and splitting up some cultures that were already old when Europe was in its “dark” ages. With only one or two exceptions, these artificial boundaries are in the Third World. There they coincide with extreme poverty among hundreds of millions of human beings who now know through modern communications how the wealthy minority in the West live, and how their own elites, imitating and supported by the West, also live. These post-colonial boundaries generate tensions which in turn attract exorbitant military expenditure, with excellent profits for northern military factories.

Many non-endogenous boundaries also bestride internationally needed natural resources, but the West has always opposed Third World proposals for an international system to manage and price those resources. Depressed oil prices were one cause of the Gulf crisis; high prices were then invoked as an argument for “war.” The Third World, ironically, has been paying part of the cost of “Operation Desert Shield” in its higher payments to Gulf countries that are contributing to the force costs from their increased oil profits. In these various factors, we can see the roots of an endless series of Kuwait crises. The United Nations must be equipped with a far greater capacity to anticipate them, and it must not be compromised in its ability to tackle them without force. It must be enabled to mediate non-endogenous boundaries (and re-emerging ethnic disputes in Eastern Europe); to help the peoples on all sides of such boundaries to find the prescription of community that is comfortable and culturally acceptable to them, and economies that are viable for them; to foster democracy and respect for human rights among them; and to promote equitable reduction in arms expenditures.

This is the real meaning of the Gulf crisis, and these will be the predominant challenges to the UN in this decade. But like justice and police order in the community, to meet these challenges the UN must be seen and be accepted at all times to be even-handed. We must take very great care to nurture among all of “We, the peoples of the United Nations” the confidence that it is a consistently fair source of help, used on the basis of universally applied principles.

This is not what has happened in the Gulf crisis; and it will not be “the UN” that “fails” if the outcome is either disastrous or not to America’s liking.


[1] “Arrangements” were precisely to cover situations where a regional “agency,” like the Arab League, might not be immediately usable.
[2] The fact that the Military Staff Committee envisaged in the Charter has not been operative is no excuse: It is not some sort of constitutional requirement.

How to cite this article:

Erskine Childers "The Use and Abuse of the UN in the Gulf Crisis," Middle East Report 169 (March/April 1991).

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