Kofi Annan's Call to Arms: Kennedy Graham Discusses the Problem of UN Reform and Long-Term Legitimacy in Light of the Recent War in Iraq

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In issues of this journal earlier this year (vol 28, nos 2 and 3) I addressed two questions of legitimacy (one involving regime change, the other weapons of mass destruction proliferation) that confronted the United Nations over the short- and medium-term as a result of the Iraq crisis. This final article draws out the implications of the crisis over the longer-term.

The gravity of the current situation should not be under-estimated. As the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, told the General Assembly in September, we have come to 'a fork in the road': 'This may be a moment no less decisive than 1945 itself when the UN was founded.' (1)

Short-term legitimacy requires that actions conform to the constitution of the day (remaining 'within the law'). Medium-term legitimacy requires that they meet minimum standards of consistency and objectivity--at least within politically judged limits of constitutional interpretation. Long-term legitimacy attends to the constitution itself--that it be inherently adaptable in a dynamic world or contain provision for formal alteration. (2) If these conditions are not met, the legitimacy of a government or international organisation may erode over time to a point where revolutions, intellectual or political, are spawned. No entity, including the United Nations, is exempt. This, it seems, is the portent of Annan's call to arms.

The conclusions of my earlier analyses were clear. The coalition's decision of March 2003 to proceed around the Council for the purpose of regime change in Iraq was ultra vires the Charter and undermined the short-term legitimacy of the United Nations. Similarly, over the past decade, an increasingly assertive policy of the Security Council on weapons of mass destruction proliferation has strained the Organisation's medium-term legitimacy through introducing policy subjectivity and inconsistencies.

Inevitable questions

Such far-reaching policy strains on any institution raise questions pertaining to its long-term legitimacy. The developments of late 2003 have illustrated this in a vivid and dangerous way. The Coalition Provisional Authority's failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has undermined the coalition's stated rationale for invasion and regime change. Its strangely inefficacious efforts at nation-building have made Iraq a potentially explosive place, ripe for revolution in defiance of the liberal 'democratic model', increasing the risk of global terrorism against Western targets everywhere. Its reluctance to forfeit administrative responsibility to the United Nations with a timetable for the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty has further divided the American-European alliance and pitched the coalition against a majority of the international community.

When an institution is being torn by strongly competing ideas and policies, its stakeholders look to a single voice that speaks for all, in the event that one exists. In the case of the United Nations, the world has always looked to the Secretary-General as the only such voice that, by the nature of the office, transcends the clash of national interests. While the Charter designates the Secretary-General as simply the United Nations' 'chief administrative officer', the incumbent is accorded some judgmental and executive discretion under Article 99. And that person is constitutionally responsible 'only to the Organization' and shall not receive governmental instruction. Much depends upon the political temper of the day and the personal skill and judgment of the individual. Dag Hammarskjold died a political saint during the days of organisational paralysis; Boutros Boutros-Ghali was terminated, in a time of organisational overload, because of a clash of intellectual visions and his personal tenacity in pursuing his own vision.

Narrow course

The present helmsman has always sailed a narrow course between a United Nations suborned by hegemonic power for the sake of a fragile multilateralism and one marginalised by a rough-shod unilateralism. …