Inaugurating the 2003 session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 23, Secretary-General Kofi Annan sounded the alarm about the UN’s future in the face of US unilateralism. The world has “come to a fork in the road…a moment no less decisive than 1945 itself, when the United Nations was founded,” Annan declared. If the Bush Doctrine of preemptive strikes “were to be adopted, it could set precedents that resulted in a proliferation of unilateral and lawless use of force, with or without credible justification.” Annan called for reform of the organization, especially of the Security Council, to set the global order back on the right track.

As if to vindicate the secretary-general’s words, on October 5 Israel bombed Syria in a unilateral operation of highly dubious justification, and the specter of a US veto blocked a Security Council resolution condemning the raid. Within two weeks, the US had backed another unilateral action, vetoing a resolution condemning Israel’s building of a “separation wall” in the West Bank. Yet if the US veto exercised on Israel’s behalf symbolizes for many what is wrong with the UN structure, the fall of 2003 has also provided proof that Washington does not always get its way on the East River. A year after the Bush administration began trying, it still has not won meaningful UN support for its de facto unilateral invasion of Iraq. Although the US has secured call after call upon other states to help with post-war Iraqi reconstruction, most recently UN Security Council Resolution 1511 passed on October 16, these seeming victories remain as useful as a pair of shoes to a double amputee. As long as the US effectively occupies Iraq, and declines to hand over authority to the UN or the Iraqis, no formula of words will induce most of the world to send money or soldiers.

How would organizational reform—enlarging the Security Council or empowering the General Assembly—actually reduce Washington’s ability to subvert or circumvent the will of the “international community”? With or without a veto, the US is the “hyperpower,” in the words of former French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine. The unspoken consensus, cognizant of this reality, is that it is better to have the US inside the organization, paying lip service to its rules, even if it flouted them with the war in Iraq. In support of that view, one can find in the omnipresent issue of Israel-Palestine paradoxical illustration of the limitations imposed by the UN upon the US and its favored allies.

Reaffirming Rights

When President Bill Clinton refused to take the issue of intervention in Kosovo to the UN in 1999, he did so in part because the Palestinian question had intruded in multiple ways. Clinton feared a veto in the Security Council. But in the post-Soviet days, the rare Russian veto was to a considerable extent a “me too” response to the veto’s overuse by the US on behalf of Israel. American vetoes have been cast against resolutions which did not propose concrete measures, but simply censured Israel, often for actions the US government itself had opposed, most recently the meandering route of the wall in the West Bank. But because the pro-Israel lobby in the US is deeply sensitive about UN declarations, US vetoes often seem to contradict US policy statements. The Palestinians are aware of both the significance and the sensitivity of highlighting the contradiction, which is why they push for resolutions on every occasion to reaffirm their legal rights.

In recent years, the Palestinian delegation to the UN began a long and creative campaign to restate and, wherever possible, to extend legal positions which both Israel and the US had been trying to undermine. UN resolutions on Israel-Palestine are still surprisingly effective. After all the years since the partition resolution in 1947, only a few heavily bribed Central American states maintain their embassies to Israel in Jerusalem, because even though the resolution never took practical effect, the UN marked out the city and its environs as a UN enclave, a “corpus separatum” from the other two states. If Israel, or indeed the Palestinian Authority, wants a capital in Jerusalem, then the UN must amend its own resolution. Because of Resolutions 242 and 338, the Security Council should approve any mutual adjustments to the Green Line, while any restriction on the exercise of Palestinian refugees’ right of return would similarly need the UN to revise its existing decisions.

In the latter half of the 1990s, the Palestinian delegation to the UN laboriously excavated and restated the relevant UN resolutions and other principles from the corpus of international law. For example, they contrived the recalling of the states party to the Fourth Geneva Convention to restate unambiguously that the Occupied Territories, despite Israeli denial and increasing US ambivalence, were in fact “occupied” under the terms of the Convention. The Convention therefore applied to Israeli behavior in the Occupied Territories, and Israeli behavior was also in violation of it.

Israel and the US regularly object to such “one-sided” attacks on Israel and suggest that these condemnatory resolutions impede the smooth flow of negotiation. The US maintains that all such issues should be left for negotiations between the parties. In reality, their objection is to the effectiveness of the Palestinian tactics. This is why the US vetoes even simple declarations such as the one proposed in the Security Council on October 14, which merely stated what every other legal authority already knew: the Israeli barrier in the West Bank is in total violation of international law.

“Uniting for Peace”

In 1999, Clinton could have bypassed a Russian veto of intervention in Kosovo with the same method pioneered by Washington in 1950 to continue directing the war in Korea despite a Soviet veto—a “Uniting for Peace” resolution in the General Assembly. But to do so would have validated the results the Palestinians had achieved with this method since they had resurrected it in 1997, in the initial stages of their diplo-guerrilla struggle in the global institution.

Pushed through by the US in 1950, the original “Uniting for Peace” resolution decided “that if the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in any case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression, the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately with a view to making appropriate recommendations to members for collective measures, including, in the case of a breach of the peace or act of aggression, the use of armed force when necessary, to maintain or restore international peace and security.”

In their research, the Palestinians had rediscovered the Uniting for Peace procedure, which since 1997 they have used to get the General Assembly to pass resolutions blocked in the Security Council by the American veto. On March 21, 1997, for instance, the US nixed an Egyptian-Qatari draft resolution demanding that Israel cease construction of the Har Homa settlement atop Jabal Abu Ghneim in the West Bank. The Palestinians took the measure to the General Assembly, where it passed overwhelmingly. Of course, construction did not cease, but the isolation of the US in de facto support of the illegal settlement was underlined. In response to this maneuver, the US in effect disowned its own child. Clinton could probably have used the Uniting for Peace procedure to obtain explicit General Assembly support for intervention in Kosovo against a Russian veto. However, to use it was to empower it, and potentially empower the Palestinians, so Clinton balked. In doing so, he blunted a weapon that could have helped Annan and indeed other Council members in the quest for multilaterally approved interventions, bypassing, for example, Chinese vetoes on operations in any country recognizing Taiwan.

In September 2003, the Palestinians asked the General Assembly to “unite for peace” against Washington’s veto of another Security Council resolution deploring the Israeli cabinet’s decision to “remove” Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The vetoed Security Council resolution was passed with only four votes against—the US, Israel and, in a backhanded tribute to the persuasive power of American diplomacy, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, two tiny states whose entire budget comes from Congress. Taking their cue, as so often, from the State Department, almost all American wire service reports claimed that the procedure is “not legally binding” which, if true, would retrospectively criminalize much of the Korean War.

The Real Veto

Prior to the vote on Arafat, the Uniting for Peace procedure had last reared its head when sections of the global anti-war movement called upon the General Assembly to resist the Bush administration’s drive to war in Iraq. However, even the UN’s best friends, indeed especially they, tend to overlook a major point: in practice, the organization reflects geopolitical reality. Washington possesses a real veto based on very real power; it is not just a procedural device.

The US could not force the rest of the world to vote to legalize war against Iraq, but it was totally effective in preventing anyone from actually declaring the invasion illegal. In the Arab and Muslim world, there was much bluster calling on Kofi Annan to resign for failing to stop the US-British invasion. On the eve of the war in March, some 70 speakers stood up at a Security Council debate on the war resolution that never passed. It was the worst kind of posturing. Not one single state set down a resolution then or later against the invasion, let alone proposed collective action against it. Even if a Uniting for Peace measure had passed, it was hardly likely to impel any country to initiate military resistance to the invasion.

For its part, Washington told governments across the world that it would regard any support for a resolution against the Iraq war, or for calling a special Uniting for Peace General Assembly to discuss one, as a hostile act. These governments listened attentively despite their bluster, and stayed silent, leaving the strongest and most coherent critique of the war to Annan’s speech on September 23. The claim of a “right to act unilaterally, or in ad hoc coalitions…,” the secretary-general averred, “represents a fundamental challenge to the principles on which, however imperfectly, world peace and stability have rested for the last 58 years.”

Gulliver and the Lilliputians

The failure of anti-war forces in the long struggle over Iraq, and the failure to enforce resolutions demanding an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands, has led many to dismiss the UN. But the UN’s normative role has been more than strong enough to merit the sensitivity of the Israelis and their allies in Washington. The neo-conservatives are actually quite right that the UN gives the Lilliputians strings with which to restrain the global Gulliver. Even the Bush administration certainly wants external validation for its unilateral adventures, as proven by its extraordinary efforts to assemble a “coalition” for the Iraq war to counter the lack of a UN mandate.

In the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, even as Pentagon pundits announced the irrelevance of the organization, the administration soon discovered that only the UN can make a conquest legitimate. In the end, the White House had to come back to the Security Council to render a verdict on the occupation of Iraq. George W. Bush simply had no option, since no one would buy Iraqi oil until the UN had authorized its sale and thus given clear title. The resulting Resolution 1483 was a classic case of diplomatic doublespeak. Without quite legitimizing the invasion, it regularized the result and opened up the possibility of deeper UN involvement. Then, as the occupation became more costly in blood and money, Washington had to come back to the UN again and again.

The Pentagon discovered that other governments are not prepared to send troops to stand guard over a hornet’s nest while the US pokes sticks in it. Foreign troop contributors and cash donors wanted the legitimacy of a UN resolution, and more importantly, as the series of ineffectual drafts proposed by the US showed, they wanted a direct political role for the UN, supplanting or at least supervising the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad.

Successive resolutions have failed to achieve the results the Bush administration wanted, because they were not prepared to compromise on this point. The rounds of UN wrangling have been an intensely frustrating exercise for the US, particularly for those in the Pentagon who are so disdainful of the organization in any case. Resolution 1511, like its predecessors, was designed to unlock foreign troops and cash and get Annan to return the UN civilian staff who left Iraq after the August bombing of their Baghdad headquarters. Thanks to dogged resistance on the Council, the US won the resolution but lost the point. For the foreseeable future, the large majority of the troops in Iraq and the money for the country’s reconstruction will continue to be American.

Expediently Deaf

Looking at the logjam on the Security Council, some countries, particularly in the global South, act as if the world situation would change if only the Council were made more representative. Kofi Annan earned laurels from them with his rebuttal of the Bush Doctrine on September 23. His comments were referred to approvingly by many subsequent speakers, even if they were ignored by Bush, who spoke immediately after him. Most of the world leaders who met privately with Annan afterward expressed their appreciation.

However, it is not only the Americans who can be expediently deaf. In their eagerness to let Annan speak their mind on the Iraq war, many others overlooked his attempt to revive his challenge to the Millennium Summit in 1999. Then, the secretary-general said, “If humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica—to gross and systematic violations of human rights that affect every precept of our common humanity?” Concerned that humanitarian intervention was being brought into disrepute by expedient Anglo-American invocations vis-a-vis Iraq, Annan repeated on September 23 that member states “still need to engage in serious discussions of the best way to respond to threats of genocide or other comparable massive violations of human rights.” Annan stressed that humanitarian intervention should be multilateral, using the “unique legitimacy” of the UN. That caveat was a relief for Arab regimes with poor human rights records, but they are likely to be opposed to any breach, no matter how conditional, in the doctrine of unalloyed national sovereignty.

Annan went on to lend some credence to Bush administration arguments that the provisions of the UN Charter are inadequate to ensure international peace and security in the post-September 11 world. He proposed a “discussion on the criteria for an early authorization of coercive measures to address certain types of threats—for instance, terrorist groups armed with weapons of mass destruction,” and called for a willingness to break deadlocks in the Security Council that could otherwise give states an excuse to take unilateral actions. Indeed, Annan asked what the Council would do if others followed in the US path. Within slightly more than a week, Israel bombed Syria and the question was answered: nothing, if there is a veto behind the offender. The veto is easily blamed for Security Council ineffectiveness in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—but for many states the solution, enlargement of the Council, would add five more potential vetoes.

Devil in the Details

Annan has been listening to the states demanding reform, and he pointed out that the Security Council’s composition has been on the UN agenda for over a decade. “Virtually all member states agree that the Council should be enlarged, but there is no agreement on the details,” he lamented. The devil, however, is precisely in the details. The broad outlines of reform are clear. All of the existing permanent members can and will veto any Charter change that deprives them of their seat and veto, meaning that quests to scrap the veto are quixotic. Japan and Germany deserve permanent seats because of their importance, and indeed their financial contributions. Adding these two countries, however, would accentuate the North/South imbalance, so consensus holds that there should be three new permanent and some additional elected seats from Asia, Africa and Latin America.

But which nations? When the British agreed to this agenda item ten years ago (significantly, as the “enlargement,” not the “reform,” of the Council), they were confident that the South would not agree. Their confidence was justified: India or Pakistan? Egypt, Nigeria or South Africa? Brazil or Argentina? All the contenders for new permanent seats have indicated that they will not accept lesser status: they want a veto, too.

How would the suggested reforms affect the Palestinian question, or the relative power of the Arab states, which for domestic political reasons, would be the most anxious to pursue resolution of the Palestinian question at a reformed UN? It seems unlikely that Egypt would get a permanent seat on the Council (if only because of inter-Arab rivalry). More importantly, if the reforms were ever to happen, there may be more consistent Arab representation in the elected member category, where the Arab nations are presently split between the Asian and African regional groups. A complicated cycle, worked out by former Arab League Ambassador Clovis Maksoud, rotates the Arab states so that at least one always sits on the Council. But the rotation can produce, for example, the current Arab representative, Syria—hardly the most eloquent or effective delegate for the region. Enlarging the Council will not necessarily enhance its efficiency, even if it makes it more representative.

Procedure can help, but in the end, if the official voice for Palestinian rights is weak in the UN, it is because it is weak in the world. The solution for that lies outside the East River headquarters of the UN. A better solution, perhaps, is a reformed and empowered General Assembly, which using the Uniting for Peace procedure could override many vetoes, though even such a General Assembly might lack the tools to enforce its will. Throwing slogans at the UN about what it should or should not do has no effect without changes in the real world. In the meantime, the Lilliputians of the world can unite in the international body’s chambers to hamper, through the embarrassment of isolation, the belligerence of Gulliver.

How to cite this article:

Ian Williams "Strings and the Global Gulliver," Middle East Report Online, October 20, 2003.

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