Dismal end to a year of promise

The world's peacekeepers achieved a rare degree of unity in recent months. Now everything has changed; WHAT NEXT FOR THE UNITED NATIONS?
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The Independent Online
It was just after dusk in New York last Wednesday when proceedings in the Security Council were suddenly interrupted by a strange chorus - dozens of mobile telephones all ringing at once. It was as if some stray electronic signal had seeped into the chamber and set them off by accident. These were all genuine calls, however, all placed for the same purpose: the raid on Iraq has just started - please inform the ambassador!

The council had been pondering the report it had received the night before from Richard Butler, the chief of Unscom, the special commission in charge of disarming Iraq. Some members were not pleased, especially the Russians and Chinese, who contested his finding that Saddam Hussein had failed to honour his promise of mid-November to resume full co-operation with the UN weapons inspectors.

Now, the news that an aerial bombardment of Iraq had got under way sent everyone scurrying. Most of the ambassadors wanted to call home to their governments for urgent instructions. Everyone else ran to the nearest television screen to watch Christiane Amanpour on a rooftop in Baghdad. It was agreed that the council would reconvene later. There would have to be another meeting. Absolutely. Of course.

But a meeting to do what exactly? Even before the bombs began dropping, everyone in the whole UN building had assumed the attack was coming. But in the council they had been talking about everything but strikes. Ambassadors spent part of the afternoon listening to fulminations - once more from the Russians - about how Mr Butler's report had leaked to the press before it reached the delegations.

There was no talk about the bombardment, because there was nothing the Council could do to stop it. Washington and London had made plain their intention to short-circuit any attempts of UN mediation.

Once the attack was under way, the first to speak publicly at the UN was Kofi Annan, the Secretary General. It was, he said, a "sad day" for him personally and for the United Nations as a whole. At 10 pm, the council did finally reconvene. For two hours, the ambassadors delivered speeches and listened to one from the Iraqi ambassador, Nizar Hamdoon. Mr Butler sat in too, at the side of the chamber, looking battered and succumbing to sleep roughly about the time the representative of Ghana took the microphone.The council has been meeting on and off ever since Wednesday night. It is, however, doing little more than biding time. This, in part, is because it simply does not know what to do next. But it was also because of the extreme delicacy of its own situation.

For a week before Wednesday, it had achieved a rare degree of unity on Iraq. Even those members who were always most friendly to Baghdad - Russia, China and France - were agreed that Saddam's behaviour since early August had been unacceptable. But with the launch of Operation Desert Fox, that unity was shattered.

Papering over the cracks, if not actually healing them, will now be the council's first priority. That may seem a near impossible task. The angry rhetoric from China and from Russia continues to flow. On Friday, Sergey Lavrov flatly asked that Mr Butler be forced to resign from Unscom, prompting the US ambassador, Peter Burleigh, to rush to his defence. In Moscow, the Duma on Friday passed a resolution demanding that Moscow withdraw from the sanctions regime on Iraq. Meanwhile, Russia's ambassadors in London and Washington have been recalled for consultations.

It sounds pretty disastrous. Most diplomats in New York are more or less are sanguine, however. They expect, for example, a number of things to remain unchanged once the bombing has ended. Above all, everybody in New York, Ambassador Lavrov included, believes that Iraq will still be expected to abide by all the UN resolutions that were passed on Iraq in the wake of the 1990-91 Gulf War. This means - the vote of the Duma notwithstanding - that the sanctions on Iraq, which have cost the country $120bn (pounds 75bn) over the past seven years - will also remain in place. The greatest disaster for the Security Council, at least from the perspectives of London and Washington, would be for the sanctions regime now to fall apart.

The most intriguing riddles relate to Unscom. Mr Butler withdrew his 100-odd inspectors from Iraq during the night on Tuesday, sending them to Bahrain and out of harm's way. Will he ever be able to send them back? Already, the Iraqi's have vowed never again to allow him back into their country.

Will the punishment that Iraq is suffering now be such that it will be persuaded to be nice to the inspectors again, or will the opposite be achieved? Some western observers believe that Unscom has been killed by Operation Desert Fox and that the Americans understood as much but decided it was a price worth paying. Unscom, after all, had become a broken instrument anyway.

Some western diplomats dispute this, however, arguing that the final goals for both sides of this seven-year game of cat-and-mouse with Saddam are the same this weekend as they were last. Saddam wants an end to sanctions; the US wants the end of his weapons capabilities. Under the law set down by the UN resolutions, however, the sanctions can only go when the council is convinced that the weapons have gone. And who is going to be able to certify that they have gone if it is not Unscom? "Unless Iraq sends all they have out in trucks across the desert, then Unscom will have to go back," one senior diplomat offered.

For now though, the dust of Operation Desert Storm has the UN blinded. There are myriad possible scenarios for what happens next. None of them, however, seem especially convincing. Even the fate of Mr Butler is muddled. Russia wants him out of Unscom, but America wants him in.

For the UN family, it is a desultory end to a year, which at times seemed to offer so much promise, not least last February when Mr Annan went to Baghdad and pulled off the unlikely pact with Saddam that, for eight months at least, forestalled fresh violence in the Gulf.

For him and his staff, that mission represented the triumph of multilateralism and resolution of conflict by peaceful means over unilateralism and the unleashing of bombs. Now, in the season of peace and goodwill, that dream is vanished.