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Baltimore Sun, 01/10/1999

U.S. Missiles Target the UN too

by Phyllis Bennis

Iraq was not the only target of last month's missile attacks. They represented a lethal U.S. assault on international law and the legitimacy of the United Nations.

Despite Clinton administration claims to the contrary, the air strikes were in complete violation of UN decisions. There is NO UN resolution that calls for, allows, or accepts unilateral military acts to punish Iraq for real or alleged violations.

U.S. officials usually refer to two possible Security Council resolutions to justify military strikes. But both claims are false. Resolution 678, passed November 29, 1990, authorized the use of force to make Iraq "withdraw immediately and unconditionally all its forces" from Kuwait. That authorization expired when the last Iraqi soldier crossed out of Kuwait. That happened in March 1991. International law does not allow any country, not even the U.S., to use an old resolution, designed to accomplish one goal, to justify bombing Iraq for a completely different reason eight years later.

Resolution 1154 passed March 2, 1998. After heated debate, U.S. Ambassador Bill Richardson convinced the Council to include the threat of "severest consequences" for Iraq if Baghdad again violated its commitment to provide access to UN inspectors. However, the Council decided explicitly that "severest consequences" did not mean automatic authorization for any government to use military force on its own. The resolution's final paragraph states that only the Council itself - not any individual country - had the authority to "ensure implementation of this resolution and peace and security in the area."

No wonder UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was so angry. Annan told reporters that the bombing marked "a sad day" for the UN, and for him personally. In a remark extraordinary for its bitter, yet necessarily diplomatic, criticism of Washington, Annan said that his thoughts that day were "with the people of Iraq, and the UN's humanitarian workers" then facing the relentless barrage of cruise missiles.

Annan was not the only one. Throughout UN headquarters, from secretariat officials to diplomats from across the globe, resentment was palpable at Washington's arrogant, unilateral appropriation of United Nations decision-making.

The Clinton administration claimed the air strikes were the only possible response to the report by Richard Butler, chief of the inspection agency UNSCOM, on Iraq's latest non-compliance. But the report's objectivity was compromised by official U.S. involvement with it even before the report was officially presented to the Security Council. President Clinton and his top aides were reading a draft of the report as they flew back from the Middle East a day and half before the report was released. Senator Joseph Biden, top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs committee and a key Clinton ally, announced he had met with Butler at length, in the U.S. Mission to the UN, two days before the report was issued. Butler and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Peter Burleigh both acknowledged that Butler withdrew his inspectors from Iraq at the suggestion of the U.S. before the Council had even discussed the report. Butler said his only concern was for the safety of the UNSCOM and allied International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors. He did not notify or arrange for evacuation of the UN's humanitarian workers, of whom about 300 international and 850 Iraqi staff remained in Iraq when the bombing began.

The report itself is ultimately ambiguous. It describes several instances of Iraqi non-compliance with UNSCOM. And, since Iraq's February 1998 agreement with Kofi Annan promised "unconditional and unrestricted" access, those instances do represent a violation. However, Butler's own language indicates that the instances of defiance took place in a broader context of overall cooperation. According to the report, "the majority of the inspections of facilities and sites under the ongoing monitoring system were carried out with Iraq's cooperation." The accompanying IAEA report goes further, stating unequivocally that Iraq "has provided the necessary level of cooperation to enable the above-enumerated activities to be completed efficiently and effectively."

But somehow Butler still concludes that "the Commission is not able to conduct the substantive disarmament work mandated to it." There is no balancing the inconvenient fact that his same report states UNSCOM had been able to conduct "the majority" of inspections. Only Washington could benefit from such a skewed judgment. And so, based on that conclusion, the U.S. sent over 400 cruise missiles (at a cost of about $1 million apiece) against Iraq. Whatever military sites were also targetted, U.S. missiles hit at least two hospitals and several elementary schools in Baghdad alone, according to the UN's humanitarian coordinator, and at least one oil refinery, according to the Pentagon's own list of official targets. (Even assuming the schools and hospitals were accidents - "collateral damage" in Pentagon jargon - the deliberate decision to destroy the refinery, a civilian target, is a specific violation of international law: it is a war crime. And the Pentagon's target-selection officials, as well as their superiors up the chain of command, are guilty.)

Butler's report has been discredited even more sharply with the shocking --though hardly surprising-- new allegations of direct UNSCOM involvement in providing Washington with intelligence material aimed at helping U.S. efforts to overthrow the Iraqi regime. Annan is reportedly convinced that eavesdropping, or wiretap, information UNSCOM gave the U.S. was used to penetrate Saddam Hussein's protection apparatus. Butler's response was that "I have never approved of any assistance to any member state which would serve their unilateral purposes." But that sounds pretty disingenuous -- if Richard Butler believes (contrary to the view of every Security Council member except the U.S.) that overthrowing Saddam Hussein would be in the multilateral interest outside Washington's "unilateral purposes," he is leaving himself an awful lot of wiggle room. The equivalent would be if international teams inspecting U.S. nuclear sites, as allowed under non-proliferation treaties, were to wiretap classified communications among Secret Service and White House Marine Guard contingents responsible for President Clinton's safety, and provided that information to a country publicly attempting to overthrow the U.S. government.

What does all this mean for Washington's future relations with the United Nations? It doesn't bode well. Not that that's anything new. The U.S. is still the main deadbeat member of the UN, it still owes over $1.5 billion in unpaid dues and peacekeeping assessments. Washington still treats the UN as an extension of its own policymaking apparatus when it needs international credibility, and dismisses it as a meddling non-player in international diplomacy when real multilateralism might prove inconvenient.

Efforts towards disarmament in Iraq must be returned to the United Nations. And the UN must be allowed to do its work without hindrance from the U.S. First, the Security Council's absolute control over Iraq policy, currently limited to crippling economic sanctions and a defeated team of inspectors, must be broadened. The Disarmament Committee of the General Assembly, the Conference of States Parties to the Conventions on Chemical and Biological Weapons, other UN agencies, as well as regional groups like the Arab League, must all be brought into a more democratic UN process no longer hostage to a U.S. veto.

Second, if we are serious about disarmament, UNSCOM inspectors (currently unemployed) must be allowed to go public with records they found in Iraq documenting the sources of Iraq's weapons programs. Currently UNSCOM is prohibited from such disclosures. This means going after the supplier companies and countries, including the U.S. and its allies, responsible for over-arming Iraq and other countries of the arms-bloated Middle East.

And third, the UN must be allowed to begin the long-ignored process called for in 1991's resolution 687 (the Iraqi ceasefire resolution), to carry out Iraq's disarmament in the context of regional disarmament. Work must be allowed to begin on efforts to convene high-level international conferences to discuss how to implement 687's calls for a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone and a Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone to be established throughout the Middle East.

Kofi Annan isn't the only one who's angry. The fight in this country -- and unfortunately it will have to BE a fight -- must be to reclaim the primacy of international law, and the vital centrality of the United Nations, in issues of peace, and war, and weapons of mass destruction, and Iraq and the Middle East.

This article first appeared in the Baltimore Sun (10 January 1999)

Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and author of Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today's UN. She will participate in a nationwide speaking tour on Iraqi sanctions and U.S. policy with former UN Assistant Secretary and Coordinator of the UN Humanitarian Program in Iraq Denis Halliday.

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