Global Policy Forum

A Fork in the Road


The United Nations and the United States

By Katie Burman

Global Policy Forum
*Opinion Forum
September 25, 2003

Speaking at the General Assembly on Tuesday 23 September 2003, Kofi Annan gave his most important speech as Secretary General. He spoke of the clear choice between unilateral, pre-emptive use of military force and the system of collective security set out in the United Nations Charter.

The opening of the UN General Assembly offers the most important public event in the international political calendar and delegates from the 191 member states packed the Assembly chamber. Annan used his considerable moral authority to good advantage. He began by setting out the commonly-agreed threats that face the global community – terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, but also small arms used in civil conflict, extreme poverty, inequalities of income, infectious diseases and environmental degradation.

He quickly moved on to the core area of disagreement -- how must the community of nations respond to these threats. "Until now it has been understood that when States go beyond [self-defense], and decide to use force to deal with broader threats to international peace and security, they need the unique legitimacy provided by the United Nations."

In a clear criticism of the United States, Annan rejected the doctrine that States have the right to use force pre-emptively, without the agreement of the Security Council, saying that this "represents a fundamental challenge to the principles on which, however imperfectly, world peace and stability have rested for the last fifty-eight years." This doctrine sets a precedent for unilateral and lawless use of force. The international community must choose whether to accept this deviation or to continue on the formerly "agreed basis."

Annan acknowledged that "the United Nations is by no means a perfect instrument, but it is a precious one" and he challenged delegates to agree on reforms to make the system more effective, saying that: "the difficulty in reaching agreement does not excuse your failure to do so." To promote his reform agenda, he announced a high-level panel to study reforms and to report back with recommendations within a year. As the Secretary General concluded his speech, the chamber filled with prolonged and warm applause.

Not long after, US president George W. Bush rose to speak. In sharp contrast to the dignity and humanity of the UN leader, Bush strode smirking onto the podium and offered his listeners empty rhetoric and prevarication in a halting, lacklustre style. He justified the Iraq war as defending "the peace and the credibility of the United Nations," when his administration had in fact done its best to undermine that credibility in the rush to battle.

Bush's proclaimed his commitment to human rights, though he is well-known to be damaging them with the Patriot Act, the scandal of uncharged and untried prisoners at Guantanamo and the worldwide war on terror. And he offered a nonsensical description of the President of Afghanistan as representing "a free people who are building a decent and just society."

The litany of distortions went on. He spoke of the Iraq Governing Council, appointed by the occupying powers, as "the first truly representative institution in that country." And his expectation of future "equality" for the people of Iraq lacked all credibility, given the crony-driven, fully-privatized system the American occupation officials are setting up. His claim that "The advance of democratic institutions in Iraq is setting an example … [to] the Palestinian people" conjured a lunatic reality, since a council appointed by occupiers cannot possibly show democracy to an elected legislature and president.

Bush's criticism of "outlaw regimes" that develop weapons of mass destruction may well be justified but it did make listeners wonder about US plans for research on battlefield nuclear weapons. As for his proposed "new anti-proliferation resolution," delegates would want it tot include a guarantee of "no first use" of nuclear weapons by the United States, but no one thought that was likely.

Repetition of the "pledge" of $15 billion over five years to fight AIDS lacked credibility, when Congress is not supporting it, the President is an inactive advocate and there is no promise to fulfil the pledge. One would love to believe that "the United States of America is committed to the United Nations," but without action to prove it, the words are hollow.

The gathered delegates greeted the President's speech with scepticism and a minimum of polite applause. Many in the room were wondering when Bush and his administration will eventually make compromises with a reality they scorn. In just over a year's time, presidential elections will offer the US public and opportunity to weigh in on the matter.



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