The Hollow Charter of the UN

The Charter of the United Nations is considered an old-fashioned and inconvenient document by the Bush people in Washington. Nevertheless it is the nearest thing to an owners’ manual the world possesses because it is We the Peoples of the World, and not the imperial ‘We’ of the dominant political party in one particular country, who have inherited the planet. All of us have part-ownership of this earth in which we have our being. And we don’t want personal or national freedoms to be taken from us by a bunch of zealots who insist they know what is best for all of us.

The major declaration in the UN Charter is that “We the Peoples of the United Nations [are] determined to ensure by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest.” That is, the commercial, moral, religious, territorial or generally bloody-minded ambitions of any one state are not valid reasons for war on another. They never were, of course, but it is made clear in Chapter VII of the Charter that if efforts to encourage “pacific settlement of disputes” (under Chapter VI) have failed, then “the Security Council . . . may take such action by air, sea or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security.” There is no reference in the Charter to military action against a country because it might possibly at some future time perhaps pose a threat to another country. The doctrine of the pre-emptive strike is not only bizarre but has no legality. “Maintain or restore” are the watchwords as regards international peace and stability. There is no mention of ‘impose’ for the good reason that powerful states could use such a provision at their whim or fancy. And of some importance in terms of internationalism is Article 46 of Chapter VII which lays down that “Plans for the application of armed force shall be made by the Security Council with the assistance of the Military Staff Committee.”

Bush claims his invasion of Iraq had a legal basis in UN Security Council Resolution 1441. This is absurd, because that resolution did not make provision for military action against Iraq. But even if it had, just where would the US stand in regard to “plans for the application of armed force”? If the Bush war had been legal in international terms, as he claims, then the Security Council and the Military Staff Committee should have been involved in planning it. In fact there is an entire Article (47) devoted to procedures, including precise instructions about responsibilities.

The UN Charter, our Owners’ Manual, goes further in its attempts to protect the interests of We the Peoples of the United Nations against assaults by imperialist powers with massive military forces. (Alas largely unsuccessful, when one remembers the former USSR’s forays into Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan and the democratic military operations of the US against Panama, Sudan, Cuba, Grenada, Haiti and Nicaragua.)

Nevertheless it is agreed by the Charter’s signatories that “All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state . . .” What they were trying to ensure was that that powerful states could never again threaten, bully, invade and crush weak ones with impunity, as Hitler’s Germany did. They might try it on, but, by golly, they would quickly pay for their military arrogance because the UN would combine to thump them, as happened in terms of legal application of international military force when North Korea invaded the South and Iraq invaded Kuwait.

In 1945 the Charter’s originators had in mind Germany’s pre-war ambitions concerning Europe as well as Japan’s invasion of China and many Asia-Pacific countries, and obviously there were memories of Turkish dominance in the Middle East. Certainly President Roosevelt was also thinking of British and French colonialism and how to persuade Paris and London to give freedom to their subjects. He believed that never again should there be imperial conquest, and that all peoples should be free, and thus their nations should be free, too, to decide their destiny. But of course we are not perfect. Far from it. Our elected governments make mistakes, horrendous ones at times, in conducting our affairs; but that is their prerogative, and if we have domestic problems we would rather sort them out ourselves than have foreigners order us about.

For a powerful country’s ruler to lecture us, hector us, impose unilateral tariffs on us, bribe us, sanction us, bomb us, invade us, suborn or bully our governments or otherwise interfere grossly with our lives is the acme of arrogant militaristic colonialism. We are, the whole lot of us, from inhabitants of the most highly developed nations to the poorest citizens of the most squalid and chaotic failing states, entitled to conduct our affairs as national entities. We might not do it well, and of course victims of violence would welcome intervention by UN forces to help them (the Tutsi-Hutu massacres are a case in point), but outside influence should be in accordance with the Owners’ Manual. We welcome civilised diplomacy and well-intended advice but are in imminent danger of having our sovereignty ignored or even removed at the whim of a regime intent on imposing its will on the entire world. Arrogance has replaced negotiation, and the Bush administration does not recognise the courtesy or importance of compromise.

Afghanistan was host to an evil man who directed atrocities against the United States. When the Kabul government failed to take action to bring him to trial the country was invaded in a military campaign agreed by the UN. This was perfectly proper, because Osama bin Laden and his followers should have been detained by the national government and handed over to international jurisdiction. There is a well-established international system for administration of justice in such cases. The fact that Afghanistan is still a barbaric medieval shambles (and the person responsible for the atrocities appears to be still functioning) is evidence only that the affair was incompetently handled. But at least it was legal.

On the other hand, Iraq presented not the slightest threat to the United States. Not one American citizen had been killed or even menaced by an Iraqi, other than pilots of US aircraft that cavorted illegally throughout Iraq’s sovereign airspace for ten years on coat-trailing missions. (And not one was shot down, which is an interesting aspect of the invasion. If the Iraqis could not shoot down intruders, how could they shoot down invaders? All the aircraft lost were downed by US planes or US missiles.) But the Charter of the UN was flagrantly violated by the attack on Iraq, and this precedent gravely threatens internationalism, as it was intended to do.

The UN passes resolutions but these are ignored by the Bush administration when they are deemed inconvenient. When the whim or fancy pleases, international treaties can be ‘unsigned’, as, for example, in the case of the Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court.

Article VI of the US Constitution specifies that “all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land . . .” but naturally did not cater for instances in which a president might direct abrogation of a treaty. It was considered by the Founding Fathers that treaties were treaties, and that if they were entered into by the President and Congress their decision would have been made for good reasons in domestic and international terms.

The world has seen dictators reject treaties entered into by elected representatives whom they have overthrown, but it is important for us all that treaties signed and ratified by democratic governments should continue to bind their successors until such time as they might be modified or ended through civilised negotiation. There is no point in any country or group of countries concluding an accord of any sort with the United States if it is to be unilaterally cancelled (for whatever reason) by the next administration. But this is what is happening, and many of us unfortunate foreigners consider treaties with the US to be entirely one-sided. This point is not made lightly. All we have is the Owners’ Manual, and that Charter is being destroyed by an imperial president. The world has become a more dangerous place because of his antics, and We The Peoples of the United Nations have no alternative but to accept the reality of brute force, be that military or economic, in his increasingly bizarre machinations.

BRIAN CLOUGHLEY writes about defense issues for CounterPunch, the Nation (Pakistan), the Daily Times of Pakistan and other international publications. His writings are collected on his website:

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Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.