Where is the United Nations in the first war of the 21st century? The UN came into life on October 24, 1945, at a conference in San Francisco. World War II had just ended and memories of World War I were still alive. People were shocked by the atrocity of a war in the new technological era. Hitler’s success at the beginning of the war was seen to be the result of a failure on the part of the European community in stopping him before he was capable of starting a war.
Just a few years into its existence the UN could not prevent the Korean War, failing the first test. In the recent years, the UN could not safeguard peace in the former Yugoslavia, was powerless in Somalia, and could not stop the killing in Rwanda. On the other hand, one may point out that the World was spared from wars of the apocalyptic dimensions of World War II. Can we credit the United Nations for the shaky peace in the Middle East, for the peaceful transformation of South Africa, or for the tranquil dissolution of the Soviet Block? I do not think so. However, the UN was always around. The spirit of peace which brought the United Nations into existence more than half a century ago has been cultivated through these years. More and more people really believe that in the long run peace, even achieved with many sacrifices, is more beneficial than the most prosperous war.
In this sense the benefit of the UN is less in its institutional actions but more in serving as a moral authority forming what we can call a community standard for the worldwide community of nations.
Many past wars were caused by one nation interfering with the affairs of another. The UN contributed greatly to creating a consensus among peoples that every nation has a right to exist. In this sense, the first war with Iraq was a clear shot. Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in a way that was common before World War II. By the end of the 20th century, he was ostracized even by his ideological friends.
The success of the Gulf War confirms the UN’s ability to handle the kind of world peace problems that were visible when the Charter was signed. What is going on with Iraq since the Gulf War exemplifies the UN’s lassitude in solving world problems as they are half a century later. Finishing the job in Iraq would require an intervention into the internal matters of this country, namely Saddam Hussein’s removal from power. Arising from the premise that peace will be preserved when one nation will not mingle into the affairs of another, the UN imposed on itself a limitation of not interfering into the internal matters of a state. This needs to be changed.
Examples like Yugoslavia, Somalia or Afghanistan prove to us that in some circumstances a country may lose its ability to function. In Iraq, a crazy dictator destroys his own nation. Under Mobutu, overwhelming corruption paralyzed the development of Zaire, potentially one of the richest African nations. Behind every extreme case of poverty of a nation, there is always some political or economical nonsense protected by the sovereignty of the state. While those states lag behind, the leading industrialized nations are moving forward. The gap between extremes of poverty and wealth widens; the tension rises and – following the basic rules of physics – rapturous discharges should be expected. Haiti is not on another planet, the rich cannot separate themselves from the misery on this World. The haves will have to foot the bill anyway.
Statehood does not guarantee the prosperity of the country. In the more barbarous past, weak countries were simply taken over by their stronger neighbors. By today’s standards this would be not acceptable. It will be hard to reach a consensus among nations as to what level of economical disarray or political dysfunction will constitute the right of the international community to walk in and forcefully remove the government that formally may have the legal mandate to rule. More important will be the fact of putting such an issue on the agenda. Rulers will realize that, if their nations fail in social and economical progress, the world has a moral right to seek a legal way to remove them from power forcefully. Just by bringing this idea into the community standards for the worldwide community of nations, the UN can make our World much better place to live.
It is noticeable that the United Nations and Kofi Annan received the Nobel Peace Prize for efforts to achieve peace and security in the world. Not for the outcomes of these efforts. The word “results” was visibly missing in the brief statement of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. They praised Kofi Annan in that “he has made clear that sovereignty can not be a shield behind which member states conceal their violations.” They refrained form dotting the “i” and did not say bluntly that it is time for UN to take this shield away if necessary.