The U.N.'s Crucial Role:
War Against Iraq is Still Immoral and Unjust if the Security Council Caves in and Authorizes It
by Michael Mandel
March 11, 2003
"It is necessary to insist that a U.N.-backed war would be as immoral and unjust as the one being plotted in the Pentagon — because it will be the same war."
Those are the words of Tariq Ali from a recent article in the British newspaper The Guardian, in which he recounts the history of failure by the United Nations, and by the League of Nations before it, to fulfill the cardinal mission of preventing aggressive war.
Ali is right. An immoral and unjust war is no less one because the Security Council caves in to pressure from the United States and authorizes it.
But this does not mean that Security Council authorization is a matter of indifference.
An immoral and unjust war against Iraq fought with Security Council authorization would still constitute the Nuremberg Tribunal's "supreme international crime," but it would then wear a mantle of false legitimacy that it would otherwise lack.
That means, above all, that such a war would be more likely to be fought.
With Security Council authorization, people would be torn between their allegiance to the institutions set up to realize the pacifist principles of the U.N. Charter and the principles themselves. With it, there would be a false impression that the world was behind the war and even that the whole thing was legal.
That's why all the opinion polls have such radically different results depending on whether this "same war" has U.N. approval or not.
And that's why it is necessary to insist that this war does not have U.N. approval.
Resolution 1441 makes a lot of demands on Iraq, many completely unreasonable, but it doesn't say or even imply that any state or group of states can attack the country for failing to comply with them.
It says that it is the responsibility of the Security Council as a body to decide whether and to what extent there has been compliance and what to do about it — and the Security Council can only lawfully act when nine of the 15 members vote in favor and none of the five permanent members exercises its veto.
Those are the rules the Americans agreed to by signing the U.N. Charter and if they don't like them, they can withdraw from the U.N. But in fact they usually seem to like them just fine.
America exercises the veto more than all the other Security Council members put together.
Without the American veto, Israel would have been sanctioned long ago for violating dozens of Security Council resolutions over its 36 years of occupation of the Palestinian territories. Without the American veto, Boutros Boutros-Ghali would not have been replaced by the more U.S.-friendly Kofi Annan as secretary general.
If anything is and should be subject to the veto, it is the power to make war.
If you want to know what a specific authorization for war by the Security Council looks like, you need look no further than the one that launched the other Gulf War, Resolution 678 of Nov. 29, 1990, which specifically said that it "Authorizes member states ... to use all necessary means" to enforce the Council's resolutions on Kuwait.
This is the huge, missing ingredient from Resolution 1441, and it was no slip.
It is also missing from the draft resolution circulated by the U.S. last week, a highly misleading list of recitals — in which weapons inspections are not mentioned even once — followed by one melodramatic operative paragraph, which would seem more in place at the end of a soap opera episode than at the end of a legal document: "(The Security Council) Decides that Iraq has failed to take the final opportunity afforded to it in resolution 1441 (2002)."
So, we might ask, what is the Security Council proposing to do about it?
Because it's the Security Council's job, under Resolution 1441 and under the Charter, to deal with Iraq's "failure."
The idea behind this draft resolution is clearly to rack up as many votes as possible by making it easier for members to vote for it and harder for them to vote against it, but that's only because it is totally non-committal.
Here we have not euphemism but innuendo, of the sort Colin Powell used at the Security Council on Feb. 5, to a well-deserved chorus of derision.
But with tens of thousands of lives at stake, the law rightly demands that these people have the integrity to ask explicitly for what they want to claim the authority to do.
The Americans have no legal or moral right to make this war on Iraq. What they are planning is legal and moral murder.
Ali is right that it would be the same war even if they had Security Council authority, because such authority — let's be frank, such appeasement — would amount to a breach of the U.N. Charter so grave and so open as to mark the end of the Security Council as a body with any authority at all.
But the Americans do not have Security Council authority, and the peace movement should value that precious fact, which is, after all, the peace movements own achievement.
Now is not the time to hedge our bets with cynicism about the Security Council.
Now is not the time to help warmongers trash the Charter of the United Nations yet again.
Now is the time to hold the nations to their legally and morally binding pledges, found in the very first words of the Charter itself, to save the generations from the scourge of war.
Michael Mandel is Professor of Law at York University in Toronto, Canada. He is co-chair of Lawyers Against the War, a group of jurists based in Canada with members in 10 countries (http://www.lawyersagainstthewar.org/). Email: