"What UN Can — and Can't — Do in Iraq"
Op-Ed, Boston Globe, page A19
April 23, 2003
Author: John Ruggie, Berthold Beitz Professor of Human Rights and International Affairs
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
THE RAGING DEBATE over what role the United Nations should play in postwar Iraq has been pitched at the level of high principle, where differing views often end up being irreconcilable. This helps neither Iraq nor the United Nations. 'Our blood and treasure, our decisions,' was the mantra emanating from Pentagon and White House hardliners. At the other end of the spectrum, French President Jacques Chirac divined that 'It is up to the United Nations -- and it alone -- to take on the political, economic, humanitarian, and administrative reconstruction of Iraq.
Prime Minister Tony Blair persuaded President George W. Bush at their recent Belfast Summit to accept a 'vital' UN role. Kofi Annan appears to have had a similar calming effect on French, German and Russian leaders when they met in Athens last week and pledged to focus on the well-being of the Iraqi people.
How can both sides now demonstrate their new commitment to pragmatism? For starters, the UN's oil-for-food program needs attention. Before being shelved by the war, it fed nearly two-thirds of Iraq's population, and no immediate substitute for it is available. It hardly seems practical for the occupation authorities to reconstruct the scheme unilaterally. The obvious solution is to extend the current arrangement for as long as it is needed.
For Iraq to buy food and other badly needed imports, however, it needs to sell oil. But because Iraq remains under economic sanctions imposed after the first Gulf War, it can do so only under the supervision of the UN, which screens contracts, monitors imports, and uses some of the proceeds to settle war claims against Iraq. The United States now wants the Security Council to lift those sanctions.
But who would control the oil revenues? Iraq cannot yet do so because it lacks a government, and neither the Iraqi people nor the international community want to see the United States in charge.
As an interim step, why not have the Security Council designate the secretary general to act as an agent for Iraq, under close supervision and in a highly transparent manner?
The issue of when to lift sanctions, in turn, is linked to the UN's disarmament mandate in Iraq. Security Council resolutions going back to 1991 require UN inspectors to certify that Iraq is free of weapons of mass destruction. From the looks of it, coalition forces could use help in finding prohibited weapons and materials. And if they do find any on their own, they are likely to be accused by some of having planted them. So there is every reason to get UN inspectors back into Iraq as soon as possible.
The embarrassing failure of coalition forces to come equipped with adequate law enforcement capacity has already proved costly for the Iraqi people and their national treasures. The coalition will now find that many of the Iraqi police they are seeking to reemploy need to be reeducated and some replaced. Where will the police trainers, monitors, and actual cops come from in the short run? Not from the United States, where they're needed to deter domestic terrorist attacks.
In contrast, the UN has a system in place that has worked well in dozens of places.
Down the road the United States will want the new Iraqi government to obtain diplomatic recognition, claim Iraq's seat in the UN and attract World Bank loans and private investment. Diplomatic recognition, by its very nature, requires acceptance by other countries.
It is axiomatic that the greater the international confidence in the political process that determines the future government, the easier it will be for the new Iraq to gain universal recognition. UN involvement would provide that confidence. Finally, one could imagine these various fragments of UN roles being linked on the ground in the person of a special representative of the secretary general: a Lakhdar Brahimi, who has done such a brilliant job in Afghanistan and enjoys universal respect in the Muslim world and the United States alike.
No one can doubt that only the United States and the United Kingdom can provide a secure environment in Iraq for the foreseeable future. That is not a job for the UN. But within a secure environment, decisions about who does what in meeting the other challenges of Iraqi nation-building are best served by focusing on the practical needs at hand, not on first principles of what the United Nations must -- or must not -- be involved in.
John G. Ruggie, former assistant secretary general of the UN, is the Kirkpatrick professor of international affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
This story ran on page A19 of the Boston Globe on 4/23/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.
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