A History of Skirting the UN ; Britain Offers to Extend March 17 Deadline to Win Support for a UN Vote Thursday on Disarming Iraq

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As US and French officials trade accusations of dooming the UN Security Council to "irrelevance," long-time observers say the schism over Iraq, while unique in minor aspects, is reminiscent of past Council showdowns.

Indeed, if Paris vetoes the new Iraq disarmament resolution expected to be voted on Thursday - and if Washington then ignores the Council - these would be far from precedent-setting moves.

In the UN's 58-year history, each of the five permanent Council members has gone to war or invaded another country without Council blessing, in order to avoid a veto. They either claimed the right to self-defense, or formed alternative coalitions.

The most recent case was in 1999, when the United States sought UN approval to drive Serbian forces from Kosovo; Russia threatened to veto on behalf of its Slavic brethren, so the US turned to NATO. The alliance then unleashed an air assault.

Rather than adhere to the idealistic underpinnings of the Council - it is the only world body entrusted to maintain international peace and security - the UN "is simply an institution that reflects the policies of the governments who belong to it," says UN historian Brian Urquhart, who was also a top UN official from 1972-86.

Conflicts and self-interest appeared on the Council almost as soon as the United Nations was formed in 1945.

Nowhere in the UN Charter is "veto" mentioned; instead, for a resolution to pass, it must garner at least nine votes from the Council, which also contains 10 non-permanent, rotating members, and "include the concurring votes of the permanent members." That handed the permanent five members a de facto veto; they can also abstain.

An historical accounting of the UN veto scorecard, by Global Policy Forum, shows that France has used its veto 18 times, a distant fourth behind the Soviet Union and its succesor state, Russia, with 121 vetoes; the United States, 76 vetoes (often in support of Israel); and Great Britain, 32 vetoes. China has used it just five times.

This would be France's first veto since 1976, which concerned the newly independent African state of Comoros. France has never vetoed in tandem with Russia, though the French joined the Soviets in vetoing a 1946 resolution on the Spanish Civil War.

Early on, with the onset of the Cold War, the Soviet Union in particular wielded its veto so frequently that longtime Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko became known as "Mr. Nyet," or Mr. No.

The first time the Council responded with creative diplomacy was in 1950, when the Communist north of Korea invaded the south. The Soviets represented a roadblock on the Council. …