As usual, the language is imprecise. UN Resolution 678 of 29 November 1990, for instance, which supplied the green light for Operation Desert Storm, did not mention air strikes or invasion, nor even the word "force". But it handed the coalition the right to employ "all necessary means" to evict Iraq from Kuwait, and "restore international peace and stability in the area". The point was lost on no one.
Resolution 687 of 3 April 1991 is the formal ceasefire agreement ending the Gulf War. It created Unscom, the weapons inspection body at the centre of the dispute, and demands Iraq "unconditionally accept the destruction, removal and rendering harmless, under international supervision, of all chemical and biological weapons". It makes compliance a pre-condition for lifting the sanctions which have crippled Iraq's economy.
But the crucial passage is the elliptically phrased paragraph 34, committing the UN to take "such further steps as may be required" to implement the resolution, and "to secure peace and security in the area". Those who favour military action now insist that is all the legal green light they need. The allied coalition against Saddam Hussein is of course a shadow of its former self, reduced to little more than Britain and the United States, with the tacit backing of the smaller Gulf States and the distinctly uneasy blessing of most of the traditional European allies. But most important for Washington, the formulaic authorisations of 1990 and 1991 are intact - which explains why US has been so uneasy about going back to the UN at all.
At best (as it has in fact happened), protracted deliberations in New York would merely advertise differences among the P-5 - the five permanent, veto-wielding, members of the Security Council. At worst, the US and Britain might have found themselves in the position of vetoing a majority resolution which would have diluted Resolution 687 (and, they would argue, Resolution 678 before that) - or of sponsoring a motion renewing the right to use force, only to see it rejected by other P-5 members. Not exactly a resounding international mandate for a savage aerial bombardment of Iraqi targets.
Indeed, the categoric joint rejection of the use of force yesterday by Russia and China, in favour of a political solution that would clear the way to a lifting of the oil embargo and other sanctions against Iraq, leaves scant doubt of what would have occurred. Thus, assuming he does go to Baghdad, Mr Annan will bring no more than the "common advice" of the P-5 - a mandate perhaps, but something short of a UN resolution.
But advocates of an attack claim that having flouted 687's requirements, Iraq has breached the ceasefire terms and thus returned itself to a state of war with the allies. And if the UN does not act to enforce its resolutions, argues Sir Robin Renwick, the former British Ambassador to Washington, it might as well pull out of the resolutions business altogether. To which, of course, critics would reply: if Iraq, then why not Israel? But that is another story.Reuse content