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"UN Role in Afghanistan:" A Commentary

By Chip Pitts

Dallas, TX – Before September 11, the U.S. wasn't too enthusiastic about the United Nations. It rightly advocated reform of the sometimes, bureaucratic body, but more dubiously withheld dues in that effort. I witnessed the U.S. walking out last month on 166 other nations attending the U.N. World Conference Against Racism, which was perhaps the low point.

After September 11, however, the U.S. discovered that it might need other countries and the U.N. after all. So we've quickly confirmed our U.N. Ambassador, paid most back dues, and obtained resolutions calling on countries to act against terrorism.

What the U.S. hasn't done is ask the U.N. Security Council to use collective force in this war. We've understandably preferred to control the forces used in this first phase.

Technically, we've relied on Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, which allows individual or collective action in self-defense. This is instead of invoking Chapter 7 of the Charter, which gives the Security Council the main role in identifying and responding to international breaches of the peace.

The 'self defense' argument will be harder to sustain under international law as time passes and the scope of military action grows. This is especially true as more civilians are killed, or as more U.N. or Red Cross buildings or hospitals are hit. Sooner rather than later, we should invoke Chapter 7 and involve the U.N. Security Council. Otherwise, we seriously risk alienating world opinion (especially in the Muslim and Arab world), and threatening the effectiveness of what must be a truly global action.

The military action addressed our nation's critical need to respond, but even U.S. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has acknowledged that military action won't win the war against terrorism. The best tools in this 'war' will instead be routine, but more globally-coordinated, law enforcement and intelligence efforts. In other words, a criminal justice model rather than a military model.

In this effort, the U.N., the Security Council, and the International Criminal Court - all previously resisted by the U.S. - can play important roles. International criminal tribunals in Yugoslavia and Rwanda and force and sanctions under Security Council auspices have been effectively used in recent years, including against terrorism. The terrorist convicted in the Pan Am 103 mid-air bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland was turned over by Libya after Security Council sanctions.

True, military force under the U.N. usually takes more time and effort, and with less certain results than unilateral military action. In the Lockerbie example, the legal case was not made against the other accused agent or Libya itself.

But only the U.N. can confer the global legitimacy needed to sustain a long war against terrorism, and avoid the clash of civilizations that bin Laden wants. The U.N. can also help address the root causes of terrorism on the front end - such things as repressive governments, human rights abuses, poverty, unemployment, weapons proliferation, environmental degradation, disease, and regional conflicts. And it can help on the back end, with refugees and nation building. The award of the centenary Nobel Peace Prize to the U.N. recognized this. The U.S. should now take the unique opportunity to implement that recognition in practice.


International lawyer and businessman Chip Pitts has been a frequent delegate of the U.S. and N.G.O.'s to U.N. and N.A.T.O. conferences.