Iraq's decision to allow U.N. weapons inspectors back into the
country proves one thing: Saddam Hussein understands how the United Nations
really operates better than we do. The United Nations is all about promises.
Most member countries sign declarations, covenants, protocols and treaties
after endless debates filled with high-flown rhetoric and lavish
commitments, then go about their business as usual, ignoring the very
documents they've agreed to. That's why President Bush's careful enumeration
of Iraq's failure to abide by previous U.N. Security Council resolutions
fell on so many deaf ears at the United Nations. Only a handful of nations
really mean what they say when they commit themselves to U.N. obligations.
From 1992-1996, I was a member of the United Nation's
sub-commission on Human Rights, attending meetings each August in Geneva. I
went into the position skeptical of the United Nations and came out a
confirmed cynic. For weeks on end, I watched my fellow members condemn the
United States and Israel for alleged human rights violations, while ignoring
blatant human rights abuses in countries like China, Cuba, North Korea,
Saudi Arabia, Syria and elsewhere.
Indeed the very document that governs U.N. jurisdiction in the
human rights area, the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights, is a monument to the hypocrisy of member nations. The document
commits signatories to allow for freedom of religious belief and practice,
freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom from discrimination
on the basis of "race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other
opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status." Both
Iran and Iraq have signed the covenant, as have Egypt, North Korea, Sudan,
Syria, and other paragons of political, religious and ethnic tolerance. With
a wink and a nod, none of the rest of us is supposed to notice that these
signatures mean absolutely nothing with respect to the intentions or
practices of these nations.
But, of course, U.N. Security Council resolutions are supposed
to be taken more seriously, carrying the ultimate weight and sanction of the
body. The Security Council includes five permanent members, each of which
may exercise veto power -- the United States, China, France, Russia and the
United Kingdom -- plus 10 rotating members, which at the moment includes
Syria, an Iraqi ally.
As President Bush reminded the United Nations last week, Iraq
has flouted every pertinent Security Council resolution since 1991,
including the commitments it made to secure a cease-fire in the Gulf War. If
the United Nations expects to be taken seriously, it must enforce those
resolutions by whatever means necessary, including military action.
Otherwise, as the president noted ruefully, the United Nations will become
Hussein is betting that many, if not most, U.N. members don't
care, even if they've formally agreed to the resolutions. In large part, the
problem here is cultural. Western culture has at its core respect for the
rule of law. Laws, contracts, treaties and formal agreements mean something
in the West. The rule of law is the most fundamental principle on which
democracy rests. When the United States votes for a formal U.N. resolution
or signs a declaration, we expect to abide by every jot and tittle -- which
is why we haven't signed or ratified a number of U.N. documents that
conflict or might interfere with U.S. law.
But that is hardly the case with many U.N. member nations, some
of them despotic regimes for whom brute force is the only law they respect.
So when Saddam Hussein promises to allow in inspectors, many U.N. members
breathe a collective sigh of relief. Hussein's decision delays the
inevitable. The United Nations can pretend it has real moral authority. Its
members can pretend they hold one another accountable for obeying U.N.
resolutions. And if and when the United States tries to enforce previous
U.N. Security Council resolutions, we will be made to look like the bad