Ripping up the Charter

How did the United Nations that protects people from the 'scourge of war' become a United Nations that legitimises military intervention and the creation of neo-colonial orders?

David Chandler

Topics Politics

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On 12 October the United Nations and its secretary-general Kofi Annan were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the first time. But the UN that is being celebrated today should not be confused with the international body set up in 1945 to promote peace and international law.

On the same day that Annan was praised for ‘being pre-eminent in bringing new life to the UN’, US president George W Bush gave the UN a big vote of confidence by proposing it should ‘take over the so-called nation-building or stabilisation of a future government’ following the military mission in Afghanistan. But when Mary Robinson, the UN’s commissioner for human rights, called for a halt to the US air strikes on Afghanistan so that aid could be delivered to two million ‘desperate’ trapped civilians, her words fell on deaf ears.

The praise and awards heaped on the UN for promoting world peace sat uneasily with its incapacity to influence America’s war against one of the most wretched nations on Earth.

Annan’s reward for bringing ‘new life’ to the UN reflects the fact that the UN has a new set of priorities today. The institution that was founded on the pledge to ‘save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’ is no more. This was clear when the USA and the UK bypassed the international legal framework of the UN Charter and the UN security council’s role in providing legal sanction for military action against Afghanistan, and just went ahead with their war (following on from the precedent set in 1999, when the USA and NATO refused to accept any UN limitations on unilateral military action against Kosovo).

This humbling of the UN was followed by further humiliation, when it was powerless to protest about a US cruise missile that killed four UN civilians in Afghanistan on the night of 8 October. The UN workers had been guarding the offices of the main Afghan mine clearance agency two miles outside Kabul and were not near any obvious Taliban military target – and the UN had passed the coordinates of the offices to the US military a fortnight earlier. After the bomb hit, the head of the UN office in Pakistan could only plea with the Pentagon ‘to distinguish between combatants and those innocent civilians who do not bear arms’.

The international community established the UN Charter as the world’s international constitution, in an attempt to find a process for the peaceful settlement of international disputes, outlawing the unilateral use of force. But the old UN, with its formal role of overseeing the Charter, no longer exists – and it seems unlikely that the status of the UN Charter, based on respect for equal rights of sovereignty, can be revived.

Sovereign equality, the Charter’s central principal, reflects the fact that the UN was set up at a time (1945) shaped by struggle against colonial rule and the discrediting of the ideas of imperial mission and Western superiority. But such a framework does not fit with the political reality of today’s unipolar world under US dominance, where states are no longer considered to have equal political legitimacy if their political, economic or military policies don’t fit in with the West’s agenda.

Just as the end of the old UN reflects the end of an international order based on the formal respect of self-government and sovereign equality, so the new UN reflects a very different ordering of international affairs today. The UN international administrations experimented with in Kosovo and East Timor – along with the less formalised international protectorate in Bosnia-Herzegovina – have laid the basis for a new epoch of unequal sovereignty and ‘neo-colonial’ administrations.

As UK foreign secretary Jack Straw revealed at a press conference on 11 October, the USA and Britain have been using UN auspices to sponsor discussions on replacing the Taliban government since November 2000. These ‘track two’ discussions with representatives from the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, Pakistan, Russia and Iran considered the make-up of a possible alternative government, more accountable to the Western powers than the uncooperative Taliban.

That the UN can now be used as a forum to discuss Western pressure on the governments of other states and possible intervention in other states’ domestic affairs indicates how far it has moved from its formal commitments to the Charter.

The appointment of Lakhdar Brahimi, the former foreign minister of Algeria, as the UN’s chief envoy to Afghanistan symbolises the UN’s new interventionist role. Brahimi headed the UN panel that produced a major policy report in summer 2000 on the new role of the UN in peace operations – which argued that, rather than acting as a neutral force that monitors ceasefires and lets the different parties to a conflict negotiate their own way forward, the UN should do much more.

Brahimi argued that the UN should see peace as ‘more than just the absence of war’, and that peace operations should take on the more political task of governance, or ‘nation-building’ (1). The proposed role of UN-run ‘transitional administrations’ should include, ‘but not be limited to’, legal and penal reform, police restructuring, improving respect for human rights, democratic development, fighting corruption, awareness-raising about HIV/AIDS, and teaching conflict resolution.

The UN is being encouraged to play this nation-building role in what remains of Afghanistan when the bombing ends. The US and UK governments have made it clear that their war aims include the neo-colonial right to have a say in the constitution and policies of the post-Taliban regime. But while London and Washington are happy to make sweeping commitments to a future ‘broad-based government’ and a new problem-solving, human rights-promoting post-war order in Afghanistan, it is apparent that they will distance themselves from the social, humanitarian and political mess brought about by their war.

The UN has exchanged its role of preventing ‘the scourge of war’ for one of overseeing post-war nation-building. Far from upholding the principles of sovereignty and non-intervention enshrined in the UN Charter, the UN has been revived with a mandate that legitimises the exact opposite – military intervention by major powers and the creation of neo-colonial orders.

David Chandler is senior lecturer in international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. He is the author of:

  • Constructing Global Civil Society: Morality and Power in International Relations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • From Kosovo to Kabul: Human Rights and International Intervention (Pluto Press, 2002)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • Bosnia: Faking Democracy After Dayton (Pluto Press, 2000)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)
  • And he is the editor of:

    • Protecting the Bosnian Peace: Lessons from a Decade of Nation Building (Routledge, 2004)
      Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

    • Rethinking Human Rights: Critical Approaches to International Politics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002)
      Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

    Read on:

    spiked-issues: After 11 September

    Third time wrong, by David Chandler

    Kosovo elections: who’s failing the test of democracy?, by David Chandler

    David Chandler works at the Policy Research Institute, Leeds Metropolitan University, and is author of Bosnia: Faking Democracy After Dayton (Pluto Press, 1999) and From Kosovo to Kabul: Human Rights and International Intervention (Pluto Press, forthcoming March 2002).

    (1) General Assembly Security Council, Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations, 21 August 2000. Available from the UN website

    To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

    Topics Politics


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