Stretching the UN'S Envelope of Credibility: Kennedy Graham Assesses the Legitimacy of the United Nations' Approach to the Question of Regime Change in Light of Its Dealings on Iraq

By Graham, Kennedy | New Zealand International Review, March-April 2003 | Go to article overview

Stretching the UN'S Envelope of Credibility: Kennedy Graham Assesses the Legitimacy of the United Nations' Approach to the Question of Regime Change in Light of Its Dealings on Iraq


Graham, Kennedy, New Zealand International Review


The decision of the Security Council in resolution 1441 to hold Iraq to exacting standards of disarmament is a milestone in the annals of UN politics. Its unanimity, said the Secretary-General, afforded it the `unique legitimacy' that comes only from the United Nations.

However the Iraq crisis unfolds through 2003, it will be salutary to reflect on its underlying significance for the legitimacy of contemporary UN action. For the Security Council remains the principal vehicle of global governance, and while unanimity of its resolutions are preferred to their vetoed predecessors, other considerations remain relevant as well. If the United Nations proved `ineffectual' in maintaining the peace for its first four decades and `overloaded' throughout the 1990s, it needs to be considered how `compliant' it is becoming at the onset of the new century.

In the 1990s the United States pursued a policy of `assertive multilateralism' but was inconsistent in its dealings with the United Nations. After months of portending `adventurist unilateralism', its decision of September 2002 to remain committed to multilateralism, at least in a declaratory sense, was an important reaffirmation. In his address to the General Assembly the President challenged the United Nations to choose between `effectiveness' and `irrelevancy'. The ensuing mutual embrace between the United States and United Nations is proving fateful.

The US-proclaimed `War on Terror' is changing traditional standards of international behaviour. The world is responding to the landmark UN resolutions on terrorism as governments cooperate in intelligence sharing, naval interdictions, international indictments, detentions without trial, `shared' interrogations and targeted assassinations. The traditional interstate structure is giving way to a global society in which a Manichean view of `good versus evil' is being played out, to some extent despite denials to the contrary, along civilisational lines. Suggestions that in such a world the UN Charter is outdated are probably wrong; indeed it is important that state behaviour in the `new era' remains compatible with the provisions of the Charter. If not, the legitimacy of any action towards Iraq and, separately, terrorism will be in question. The application of force at the global level, driven by national self-interest and modified only partially by recognition of the common interest, requires legitimisation through the political power relationships, legal principles and diplomatic sword-play that become Security Council resolutions.

Legitimacy in political action is two-dimensional. `Short-term' legitimacy requires two things: that such action conforms to the constitution of the day (remaining `within the law') and that it meets minimum standards of consistency and objectivity. `Longterm' legitimacy attends to the constitution itself--that it be flexible in a dynamic world or contain provision for alteration. If these conditions are not met the legitimacy of a government or international organisation may erode to a point where revolutions, intellectual or political, are spawned. No entity, including the United Nations, is exempt.

The question of Iraq--to intervene or not, whether through UN mandated action, an unauthorised `coalition of the willing' or the United States on its own--has raised a fundamental issue that will remain on the global agenda long after today's dust settles. Does the international community have the `authority' to intervene in another state's affairs, and even undertake `regime change'? This article explores the `short-term' legitimacy of contemporary UN policy towards Iraq--considering the legal and policy dimensions thereof.

Authority issue

Two responses are provided in the Charter for gross infringement of its provisions. The General Assembly may, on Security Council recommendation, suspend member states from exercising their `rights of membership'. …

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