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Live Online Transcripts

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War in Iraq:
The Role of the UN

With William Luers
United Nations Association of the USA

Thursday, April 10, 2003; 3 p.m. ET

What role should the United Nations play in Iraqi reconstruction? What is the best way to bring elected government to Baghdad? Should the United States and coalition partners take the lead in rebuilding the country or allow the international community the authority over Iraq's future?

Ambassador William Luers, president of the United Nations Association of the USA, was online to discuss the role of the UN in rebuilding Iraq.

Luers served as Ambassador to both Czechoslovakia and Venezuela before he became President of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

The transcript follows.

Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: So how come the UN isn't rolling into Iraq distributing food, water, comfort, tents, blankets and continuing weapons inspections? The Pentagon can't keep them out and U.S. soldiers aren't going to shoot at them. If the UN wants a role in post war Iraq, it ought to seize one instead of waiting to be asked to the dance like it was some homely older sister. The UN needs to get off its High Commission Horse, go to work, and get dirty -- just like everyone else. Thanks much.

William Luers: I am delighted to be involved in this with the Washington Post. This is my first effort at an online chat. Here goes.

The situation in Iraq is threatening to anyone entering the country and in most of the country the coalition forces have not approved the entry of civilians to carry out humanitarian work. The UN staffs of many organizations- the World Food Program (which has been feedings 60% of the Iraqi population for 7 years. In fact over $44 billion in food and services have been provided or on order to the Iraqi people through the UN under the Oil for Food Program over the past 8 years). UNICEF which has been actively providing medicines, water and plain help to Iraqi families and children for nearly a decade and many other UN workers are ready to return to Iraq as soon as possible and at risk to their own lives. Many more UN workers have died in unsecure areas around the world than soldiers of any one country and you will find that the UN staffs are working in difficult conditions in virtually every poor country in the world. When the coalition forces make it possible, the UN will be there with 2 billion dollars in food and medicines which they have ready to move. The entry of UN workers is probably already underway since the UN Security Council renewed their program last week for the next 45 days. The Coalition forces will come to realize that the UN workers and their tens of thousands of Iraqi colleagues who have been distributing food and medicine over the past eight years will become invaluable partners as the world community tries to respond to the suffering of the Iraqi people.

Cumberland, Md.: There is a lot of talk about the meaning of "vital" -- do you think that the UN will have a large say in determining the future interim government in Iraq, or will it be kept to humanitarian and aid type activities?

William Luers: The words vital and central probably mean very little until it becomes clear how quickly Iraq can reach a level of stability and security that will allow for the establishment of the first post-conflict government in which Iraqis play a role. It seems clear that the UN will begin its role with humanitarian work and that at some point the US and UK will see the high value in having a UN role that helps establish the legitimacy of a new Iraq government, that helps build the justice and police institutions, and that assists in training and building a civil government. It will take diplomatic effort on all sides to get there.

Long Beach, Calif.: Having served as Ambassador to Czechoslovakia, do you see any similarities with Iraq? Both are contrived countries, with one already divided, and the other facing some sort of division in authority in the three sections. Should the UN consider the borders created in 1920 as sacred?

William Luers: Little similarity. Czechoslovakia was a nation under the control of another power (the USSR) and an alien ideology. When the Soviet empire began to crumble it too CZ with it. There was no occupying force from outside which entered the country, there was a larger homogenous nation with two languages only slightly different and even though the Czechs and Slovaks divided they have remained close friends. The trauma of the Iraqis after the rule of the Stalin-like Hussein will be far more difficult to overcome. It would be difficult for the UN or any nation to suggest any border changes to Iraq, since such a decision or even hint of such a decision would bring in to play the ambitions of virtually every one of Iraq's neighbors, most particularly Turkey and Iran. The stability of Iraq will be difficult enough but border changes would make it even more complicated.

Washington, D.C.: Do you believe that in the "new Iraq" women will be allowed to vote? If so, how will this be seen around the Middle East?

William Luers: Just as in Afghanistan where the first new government undertook immediately to make it possible for women and girls to go back to school, I suspect that a new government in Iraq will look to women to play a major role in the reconstruction and certainly a combination of UN and US administrators will place a high priority on that. It is probably soon to think about elections in this traumatized nation, but given all we know about the role of women in reconstruction in other parts of the world, I would be persuaded that they will play an important role in Iraq.

Glenmont, Md.: Why should the UN have a roll in rebuilding Iraq? Can you reference one time when the UN actually solved a major world conflict?

William Luers: Without an important UN role in rebuilding, the nations of the region, the Islamic world, and indeed a majority of the 191 members states of the UN will not likely see a new Iraqi government as legitimate. This could be difficult for many Americans to believe, but millions of people around the world have disapproved of the US military action. These people will be greatly reassured when an Iraqi-led government is established based on a process that has been set up by the United Nations.
The UN has played this role of establishing a process that led to the return of new legitimate governments in several nations. Most recently it has done so in Kosovo, East Timor and Afghanistan. In the latter country, the UN was a key player in bringing together the traditional assembly in that country which elected the current leader. The US played an important role as did other countries, but the UN umbrella gave legitimacy to the process. It is not easy for "outsiders" to set up new governments that work well in any nation, yet the job must be done with goodwill and knowledge that comes from experience.
The UN alone cannot and has not solved major conflicts. It is an organization made up of many nations. The UN provides the forum and the means by which those nations, particularly the major powers, can work together to resolve conflicts. This is an important and probing question since it is not really understood that the UN has no military force of its own, must depend on the contributions of member states for troops and logistical support and must have the approval and goodwill of member states. The UN must base its actions on the agreement of the 15 members of the UN Security Council, mainly the five permanent members. When those members can work together, as in Afghanistan and East Timor, and in a number of nations in Africa, great things can be accomplished. As you recall the Gulf War of 1991 was approved by the UN and joined in by many UN member states, and many others helped pay for the cost of the war.

Arlington, Va.: In a lot of posts, and in a lot of columns, one senses resentment, disillusionment, and usually barely concealed hostility toward the U.N. (And, often, as the first post from Mount Lebanon displayed, an appalling ignorance of what the U.N. does.). My question: What do those opposed to the U.N. propose as an alternative to international stability?

William Luers: Good question. Today it would be impossible to create another organization that has the reach and universality of the UN. Virtually every nation in the world belongs to the UN and has a voice however small. This is a vital factor in efforts to build a world community that must try to live in peace. Without this forum --and there can be no other -- we would have no place or environment to solve problems peacefully. The UN is inefficient and it has problems in "keeping the peace" if the major powers do not agree on how to do it. The UN is a mirror of the world of nations -- it reflects what the world is made up of. We see ourselves when we look at the UN. The only real alternative for those who truly seek a better world and a more peaceful community of nations is to MAKE THE UN MORE EFFECTIVE AND BETTER. The US Government, the most powerful in the world, can play a major role in improving the work of the UN. It should try.

Thank you all for participating in this chat. It has been a real pleasure for me. If you would like to know more about the UN and the work of the United Nations Association of the USA, please log on to www.unausa.org. Thanks also to The Washington Post for inviting me. Bill Luers

© 2003 The Washington Post Company