One feature of the recent Iraq crisis was the role played by Kofi Annan, secretary general of the United Nations. A couple of weeks after returning in triumph from Baghdad, Annan was honoured with a meeting with Bill Clinton at the White House and presidential praise for his efforts, which he reciprocated by appreciating Washington’s role. This is in sharp contrast to some of the UN’s press in recent years, when it has been criticised for being ineffectual and inefficient, particularly by America. However, Kofi Annan is the US’s man in more ways than one. Back in 1995, he was appointed to the UN’s top job at the US’s insistence, in place of Boutros Boutros Ghali who crucially had misunderstood his role following the Israeli bombing of Qana, Lebanon in April 1996. Annan has been working hard ever since to restore the UN to its proper role and position in world affairs: as handmaiden of the west, and of the US in particular. The fact that the strained relations between the US and the UN are now improving, to the extent that Clinton has even promised to lobby Congress to approve payment of some of the US’s $1.3 billion debt to the UN, indicates that Annan is succeeding.
A general survey of current UN developments indicates this reality very clearly. Annan’s role as nice guy to Clinton’s tough guy in dealing with Saddam Husain is clear enough. Elsewhere too the UN was dancing to Washington’s tune. On March 7, for example, the Security Council voted to maintain sanctions against Libya for another 120 days over its alleged involvement in the 1988 bombing of a Pan American jet over Scotland. These sanctions were first imposed in 1992, and have been renewed every 120 days ever since despite numerous Libyan efforts to satisfy the US’s demands on the affair. Most recently, Libya has offered to send the two Libyans suspected of the bombing for trial in a neutral country, an offer considered fair by most countries as well as the International Court of Justice at the Hague. However, Washington finds Libya too convenient as a general scapegoat to want to see the issue resolved.
In other areas of its work too the UN is consistently following the US line. Annan’s plans for reform of the UN’s structures, first debated in the 185-member General Assembly in September, have largely been written to US specifications. These include reducing the US’s contribution to UN funding by over 20 percent, even though it is both the richest country in the world and the greatest beneficiary of UN operations, and reducing the total expenditure of the organization so the west can get the same services for less money.
In order to make these changes palatable to other countries which will have to bear an increased share of the burden, the US is willing to consider - and therefore Annan proposed - changes which would not affect the west’s dominance. These include increasing the number of permanent members of the Security Council from five to 10, without the new members (which would include Germany, Japan and rotating representatives of Africa, Asia and Latin America) having the right of veto enjoyed by the existing members, the US, Great Britain, France, Russia and China.
In project terms also the US’s word is law. As this issue goes to press, the United Nations Human Rights Commission is holding a special meeting to mark the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights. A review of the commission’s work, however, reveals a rather selective interpretation of the Declaration’s proclamation of ‘a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want.’ The list of countries the Commission monitors closely for human rights violations include numerous US enemies, such as Afghanistan, Cuba, Iran, Iraq and Sudan, while ignoring US allies such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Kuwait, Bahrain, India, Egypt and Turkey, despite their appalling human rights records. Any suggestion that the Commission might address the ‘fear and want’ of the millions of Iraqis affected by the US’s indiscriminate bombing in 1991, and the UN-imposed sanctions ever since, would be laughed out of court.
Speaking of courts, the long-debated question of a permanent international tribunal to try individuals accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity is also back on the agenda. A UN conference to consider new plans will take place in June. The issue has drawn attention after the US Senate’s recent 93-0 vote calling for the UN to try Saddam Husain, and the disappointing performances of the temporary UN tribunals established to try war crimes cases in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. The proposed standing tribunal would differ from the existing International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague in that this only decides disputes between states, rather than trying individuals. However, the US, which has never accepted any ICJ ruling against itself, is demanding that the Security Council (where it has a veto, of course) should decide who should be investigated by such a tribunal, even though this openly contradicts the supposed western principle of an independent, non-political judiciary. The US claims to be afraid that its troops might face frivolous prosecution for actions committed abroad, even though the draft plans for the tribunal already include its deferring to US military courts in cases concerning US troops. A more likely explanation - and one which fits perfectly with the US’s record - is that Washington wants to be able to protect friendly murderous dictators, while prosecuting its enemies.
The fact that the world body should be used is this way, as a tool for the foreign policies of the major powers of the time, should not shock anybody. Any review of the history and development of the UN and its predecessors reveal that the celebrated ideals of world government have never been more than a fig-leaf for western control. The idea of an international organization to act on behalf of the major powers, and to co-ordinate and justify their actions, can be dated back to the Concert of Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century. This was used to co-ordinate colonization activities and to agree common strategies for undermining the Uthmanniyah empire.
The first global organization of this kind was the League of Nations established after the First World War. This was also the first to justify its actions is terms of liberal ideals. The League’s spectacular failure in its stated aim of averting conflict - most notably the 1939-45 war - did not deter the west from the establishment of the United Nations after the Second World War. Why not? Because the League’s real object had been to co-ordinate and justify the west’s control of the world, and this it had actually performed well, in Palestine for example.
The first fifty years of the UN – 1945-95 – were officially celebrated as fifty years of peace, even though the UN had proved incapable of preventing over 50 conflicts which had cost over 30 million lives. Indeed, some of the bloodiest wars of this period - Korea, Vietnam, the US destruction of Iraq - have actually been western wars fought in UN colours, while in other cases - the Iraq-Iran war, the Serb war on Bosnia - aggressors have been allowed to do their work unimpeded. Why this doublespeak, therefore? Because the UN’s success in its real objective could not be celebrated in public.
When Kofi Annan visited Bill Clinton behind the closed doors of the Oval Office last month, however, its a fair bet they congratulated each other on more than just another successful con trick in the Middle East.
Muslimedia: April 1-15, 1998