The United Nations: Our Hope for the Future: Phil Goff Reflects on the Role of the United Nations in Light of the Opening of Hostilities in Iraq

By Goff, Phil | New Zealand International Review, May-June 2003 | Go to article overview

The United Nations: Our Hope for the Future: Phil Goff Reflects on the Role of the United Nations in Light of the Opening of Hostilities in Iraq


Goff, Phil, New Zealand International Review


Hopes for the future, for peace, prosperity and a fairer and more just world led to the establishment of the United Nations following the second war to devastate the world in the first half of the twentieth century. Today, we discuss the topic of hope amidst the despair of the death and destruction of a war in Iraq, and the questioning of the relevance of the United Nations.

The Iraq War represents the failure of international consensus and efforts to achieve the agreed goal of Iraqi disarmament by peaceful means. It represents a failure to resolve an international problem through multilateral channels. For the critics of the United Nations, it represents a failure of that organisation. They have accused the United Nations of lacking credibility and relevance.

As views over how to deal with Iraq polarised within the international community, the United Nations was increasingly thrust into a no-win situation. The Security Council, in passing Resolution 1441, had agreed unanimously on the goal of the disarmament of Iraq. Deep divisions subsequently emerged over the timing and methods to achieve that goal. The United States and other members of the 'Coalition of the Willing' were determined that Iraq should be disarmed by force if after a short period of time it failed to comply with the resolution.

It was a no-win situation because if the Security Council had passed the second resolution proposed by the Britain, the United States and Spain, many around the world would have dismissed that outcome as representing the enormous influence and pressure that the United States, as the world's sole super-power, is able to exert on other countries. It would not, therefore, have been regarded by some within the international community as properly legitimising the use of force or of being a genuine exercise in multilateral decision-making.

Unilateral action

On the other hand, the failure to pass a second resolution--in the end not put because it appeared unlikely to be able to muster majority support--simply led to coalition countries bypassing the UN process and unilaterally taking military action. President Bush criticised the United Nations as not being a responsible body. With the United States opting out of the multilateral process, the United Nations was seen as failing to constrain its most powerful member within its decision-making processes.

Parallels have inevitably been drawn with the League of Nations in the 1930s when that body proved unable to prevent the rise of fascism, to curb the aggression of major powers and to prevent the Second World War. While the war in Iraq does graphically represent the constraints on the power of the United Nations to control its members' actions or failure thereof, the analogy with League of Nations has limited value. The League was regarded as having such irrelevancy that two of the three most powerful countries in the world at that time did not bother to join it.

The United Nations today represents nearly every country in the world, some 191 nations. The decision by President Bush last October to take the Iraq issue to the United Nations indicated that his administration recognised the value and desirability of having a UN mandate. The difference in the readiness of the public in countries such as Britain and Australia to support military action against Iraq depending on whether or not it was UN-mandated also reflects a popular view of the importance of having that mandate.

Many failures

The United Nations has, of course, failed on many occasions to resolve issues and to avoid conflict over the 57 years of its existence. It has been written off many times for not being able to achieve what was beyond its power. As Shashi Tharoor, UN Under-Secretary for Communications and Public Information, has aptly put it, 'the United Nations at its best is a mirror of the world. It reflects our divisions and disagreements as well as our hopes and convictions. …

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