LONDON — Can the United Nations continue to be a credible force for world peace?

Political leaders of states represented on the U.N. Security Council, whether they are for a war on Iraq or against, have been arguing that unless their views prevail the U.N. will lose credibility. This is not necessarily the case.

The U.N., formed after the end of World War II, was initially composed of the countries that had cooperated to defeat the Axis powers. They called themselves “united” but in fact they were deeply divided. All were, however, conscious that an effective international organization was needed to help to keep the peace.

The League of Nations, formed after World War I, had failed. It had been little more than a talking shop to which, despite the idealism of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, the United States did not belong because of the isolationist and obscurantist attitudes of the Senate and public opinion. The league was unable to agree on sanctions against Italy despite its blatant aggression against Abyssinia (Ethiopia). Japan, which did not like being criticized over its policies in Manchuria, withdrew from the body.

In order that more effective measures could be taken to keep the peace in the postwar world, a U.N. Security Council was set up with five permanent members, each with a veto, and 10 elected members to deal with any threats to the peace. Of the five permanent members with a veto, the U.S. and the Soviet Union could claim superpower status. This was not true of the other three. China and Britain had been greatly weakened by the war, and France, had been defeated and occupied by Germany. But all three, especially Britain, had in various ways played their parts in the war and still aspired to be great powers.

During the Cold War, the Security Council faced Soviet vetoes. Attempts were made to bypass the council by using the General Assembly not only as a forum for debate but also to pass important resolutions. It was soon apparent that General Assembly resolutions were little more than expressions of frustration.

After the Cold War ended the Security Council’s importance was again recognized, but it was apparent that the five original permanent members could no longer claim to be uniquely important. The claims of other states to permanent membership of the Security Council, in particular Japan, Germany, India and Brazil, demanded recognition. Sadly, no agreement on reform of the composition of the council has been possible. Too many jealousies and vested interests have been involved.

It is sometimes suggested that the General Assembly is the parliament of the U.N., and the Security Council its senate with some executive powers. But the General Assembly is not a democratically elected body. Nor does it represent world opinion. The tiniest states have equal status with the major states. Many of the member states are not democracies and those that can claim to be democracies have little or no chance of influencing the way the U.N. works.

The current composition of the Security Council is hardly representative of world opinion, even if its membership is selected on a regional basis. The three African states, which are currently members of the council, do not represent more than a small proportion of Africa’s population and are not directly involved in the issues before the council.

The way in which the leading powers in the Security Council have attempted to “persuade” the elected 10 to support their line has been at best unedifying. Some might even regard the efforts as bullying and/or bribery. Nevertheless the Security Council is the best organization — i.e., the only — organization we currently have that can attempt to work for the peaceful settlement of international disputes.

The U.S., Britain, Spain and Bulgaria argue that the credibility of the U.N. is at stake if Resolution 1441 is not enforced, and that Iraq is in breach of this resolution and the numerous previous resolutions passed by the council calling for the full disarmament of Iraq. France, backed by Germany, Russia and apparently China, argue that a peaceful solution is still possible.

Pressure on Iraq to comply with U.N. resolutions should be maintained and more time given to the inspectors. In the meantime, the inspectors, who also have called for more time, are not prepared to authorize hostilities.

U.S. President George W. Bush is impatient and considers Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s regime a threat to the U.S. In his view, an American attack on Iraq is justified on the principle of self-defense and to enforce compliance with Resolution 1441. While he would welcome a further Security Council resolution, he does not think it necessary and he will act against Iraq even if a new resolution is vetoed.

The opponents of war argue that such warlike action by the U.S. and its allies would amount to defiance of the U.N. and would undermine the credibility of the organization. It is also argued that Israeli’s refusal, with U.S. backing, to comply with U.N. resolutions has already undermined the ability of the U.N. to curb the actions of major powers.

The Security Council has never in fact been in a position to curb the world’s only superpower and any attempt to do so now would underline its impotence. This does not mean that the U.S. should be able with total impunity to ignore the U.N., but it does mean that vetoes in the Security Council in present circumstances are little more than empty gestures that make the council’s impotence explicit.

In the present crisis, members of the Security Council, deeply divided though they are, should avoid posturing and fits of arrogance or bad temper. For its part, the U.S. would make a major error if in a fit of pique it wrote off the U.N. or treated with contempt other members of the Security Council who do not support the U.S. position.

The U.N. remains a valuable forum not least for the expressions of the concerns of the rest of the world to the U.S. It will have a major task in picking up the pieces after any conflict. Humanitarian aid will be needed on a massive scale and conciliation between states, races and religions will require the utmost good will and effort on the part of all concerned.

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