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Home > News > Columnists > Ramananda Sengupta

Why we need the UN

February 19, 2003

Is the United Nations redundant?

Or is it the solitary obstacle to a world dominated by the United States? 

Both President George W Bush and his Secretary of State Colin Powell have recently and repeatedly warned the UN that it risks irrelevance unless it endorses US war plans against Iraq.

'It's a moment of truth for the United Nations. The United Nations gets to decide shortly whether or not it is going to be relevant in terms of keeping the peace, whether or not its words mean anything,' Bush told a Congressional Republican Party policy forum on February 9.

In other words, the UN is relevant only as long as it bows to Washington's wishes. 

So why does Bush want UN support anyway? Why this charade?

Quite apart from the fact that UN endorsement would give a US strike against Iraq some desperately needed legitimacy, Washington is aware that post-war Iraq will need large sums of money for reconstruction and other efforts.

Bucking conventional wisdom that a war would stimulate the US economy, Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan recently told Congress that the prospect of a war made the economic outlook more uncertain, and that President Bush's fiscal stimulus package might be premature.

Already, the US commitment to restore democracy in Afghanistan is proving a lot more expensive than originally envisaged. The organisation now in the forefront of developmental efforts in Afghanistan is the United Nations.

The need for an international organization to replace the League of Nations was first mooted officially in the Moscow Declaration issued by the United States, the Soviet Union, China and Great Britain on October 30, 1943. 

The original UN members were essentially World War II allies, who conceived it as an organization of  'peace-loving' nations which would actively work to prevent more wars and support humanitarian causes.

Interestingly, the League of Nations, formed on almost the same principles after World War I, was disbanded because it failed to stop World War II.

But hopes of peaceful cooperation between the growing number of UN members, and particularly the Security Council, were smashed by the Cold War, which pitted the erstwhile Soviet Union against the United States and other members. 

Today, the UN can hardly claim to be the world's 'moral conscience' keeper. After all, a huge chunk of its 191 members do not practice democracy in any form.

The fact remains that the UN -- by virtue of the fact that it runs the oil-for food program -- is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the status quo on Iraq.  

Under the program, Iraq can sell oil and use the proceeds to buy humanitarian supplies and the equipment needed  to keep its oil industry running.

At nearly $15 billion a year (the entire core annual UN budget is around $3 billion)  this is the largest project administered by the UN, which has already collected $1.2 billion as compensation for running the programme, and holds $12 billion of Iraqi funds in escrow. The Oil-for-Food project reportedly pays the salaries of at least 4,000 UN employees. 

A regime change in Iraq would mean that the UN would have to account for, and perhaps even give up, a very lucrative project. 

Even the Security Council members opposing a war against Iraq -- France, Russia and China -- have obvious financial and strategic interests in maintaining the status quo on Iraq.

Russia, in fact, is Iraq's largest trading partner, having sold more than $4 billion in goods to Baghdad since 1996. Besides handling a huge chunk of Iraq's oil sales, Russian companies like Gazprom have rights to develop major Iraqi oil fields.

Baghdad also owes Moscow close to $10 million, and it is unlikely a regime that succeeds Saddam will honour that debt. 

As for France, apart from oilfield development rights, it helped build Baghdad's nuclear programme until the Israelis bombed the Osirak facility in 1981.

Some say this bombing -- and the American bombing during the Gulf War -- effectively  neutralized Iraq's nuclear ambitions. Others claim the attack on Osirak only forced Baghdad to move its programme underground, and that the facilities were unaffected by the Gulf war air raids.

Both France and Russia fear a regime change might not respect the rights they now hold under Saddam.

And though it officially denies this, China is reported to have made nearly $600 million by helping upgrade Iraq's fiber-optic military communications network in clear violation of  UN sanctions. Some reports say Beijing also helped develop Saddam's chemical weapons program.  

So all these nations, and even the UN, have obvious interests against changing the status quo in Iraq. All these nations prefer to use -- and sometimes misuse -- the UN to further their own agenda. But does that mean that the UN is no longer relevant? 

Far from it.

A recent Los Angeles Times reported that as many as 65 per cent of Americans believed that UN approval is necessary before any strike on Iraq.

UN sanctions forced the removal of apartheid in South Africa. UN relief agencies and peacekeepers can be seen working in almost all the world's trouble spots, be they due to war or natural causes. Various UN programmes have brought succor and development to many developing nations.

Even if we ignore all the good work, even if we attribute the basest of motives to its objections to a strike against Iraq, the UN will still be relevant.

Because until something better comes along, it allows 191 nations of the world a common platform.

Because despite all it still has a lot of inherent goodwill -- however misplaced -- among most of those 191 nations, whether they are democratic or not. 

If anything, the UN needs to be further strengthened and revamped.  It also needs to be made more representative.

So that the collective opinion of the world can be more clearly heard and acted upon. 

So that a solitary nation, by virtue of its economic and military might, cannot hope to intimidate or dominate the rest of the world.


Ramananda Sengupta

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