Legality and legitimacy are not the same thing. A U.N. Security Council resolution, such as the one passed March 17 that authorized the international community to protect civilians and establish a no-fly zone in Libya, makes a war legal — but it does not necessarily make it legitimate.
Many observers believe that the Security Council, with its antiquated, World War II-era membership, great-power veto rights and backroom negotiations, is itself illegitimate. Russia, China, India, Brazil and Germany — which represent more than 40 percent of the world’s population — abstained on the Libya resolution, raising further doubts about the depth of international support for the mission.
Moreover, the Security Council has authorized plenty of missions that quickly lost whatever luster they had when first conceived. In the 1990s, for example, U.N.-backed interventions in Bosnia and Somalia — both designed to address grave humanitarian crises — failed spectacularly. When the American and international public considers the validity of a new U.N.-sponsored initiative, the council’s spotty record does it no favors.
Not exactly. Yes, the Bush administration’s decision to wage war in Iraq without a thumbs-up from the Security Council won it an enduring reputation for antipathy to the organization, and yes, John Bolton, who served as President George W. Bush’s U.N. ambassador from 2005 to 2006, once declared: “There’s no such thing as the United Nations.”
But Bolton’s vitriol hardly captures the entire Bush record. U.N. peacekeeping expanded dramatically during the president’s second term. With full U.S. support, the United Nations authorized two major peacekeeping missions in Sudan between 2005 and 2008. By contrast, the first two years of the Obama administration were one of the council’s slowest periods in recent history. And on key issues, including Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea and Iran, Bush’s and President Obama’s relationships with the United Nations have not differed significantly.
Actually, Moscow and Beijing have acquiesced to all sorts of U.N.-sanctioned interventions over the past 20 years, including in northern Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Sudan and now Libya. They also agreed to refer alleged crimes by Sudanese and Libyan authorities to the International Criminal Court, a body to which they don’t belong and that they haven’t actively supported.
Russia and China tend to be skeptical of intervention in other countries’ internal affairs because they worry that the precedent might someday be turned against them. China frowns on any resolution that touches even indirectly on Taiwan, while Russia fiercely protects its leadership among the former Soviet republics.
But outside of those areas, they have often approved or refrained from blocking intervention when the United States and other Western powers pushed hard. Russia and China do use the implicit threat of a veto to shape Security Council deliberations and options, but the notion that they are inveterately obstructionist is simply false.
On Capitol Hill, the United Nations is routinely pilloried for graft and inefficiency. The new chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), recently described the United Nations as “broken” and advocated withholding U.S. funds unless the organization tackles “waste, fraud and abuse.”
When critics of the United Nations discuss scandals at the organization, they often begin (and sometimes end) with the infamous U.N. oil-for-food program for Iraq, which ran from 1995 to 2003. They allege that pervasive U.N. corruption allowed Saddam Hussein to siphon off billions of dollars in oil revenue intended for humanitarian aid.
The facts are more complicated. Exhaustive investigations into the scandal found instances of midlevel corruption, but it was mainly inattention and discord among the Security Council countries monitoring sanctions that allowed the money to be diverted, rather than corruption by U.N. staff.
There are many reasons the United Nations is not as effective as it could be, but corruption is not the principal one.
As the situation in Libya evolves, the need for an international stabilization force to guide the country through a political transition will probably become pressing, and the establishment of a U.N. peacekeeping force will be tempting.
But peacekeepers may not be the answer. The iconic “blue helmets” are most effective when they can serve as a buffer between organized and disciplined military forces. Neutral U.N. forces have in some cases helped prevent conflicts from reigniting once a cease-fire is in place.
In more fluid environments, however, peacekeepers tend to lose their way. Most come from militaries in developing countries and typically lack the heavy equipment, training and coordination to carry out complex combat or stabilization operations. For its part, the Security Council has often provided confusing authority to peacekeeping commanders in the field. Remember, U.N. peacekeepers were in Rwanda and Bosnia while massacres took place — but lacked the wherewithal and mandate to stop them.
David Bosco is an assistant professor at American University’s School of International Service and the author of “Five to Rule Them All: The U.N. Security Council and the Making of the Modern World.”