The UN – just there to help?

The Baghdad terrorist attack led to a remarkable rewriting of the history of the UN's role in Iraq.

David Chandler

Topics Politics

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The terrorist attack on the United Nations’ Canal hotel headquarters in Baghdad was certainly horrific – yet it has also led to a rewriting of the history of the UN’s involvement in Iraq.

The UK Guardian editorialised the following day: ‘If there is any organisation in Iraq about which it can be said unequivocally that it is there to help, it is the United Nations.’ (1) Many within the UN saw the bombing as an act of ingratitude. Spokesman Salim Leone said: ‘Every one of us came to help the Iraqi people who have suffered so long, and what a way to pay us back.’ (2)

According to secretary-general Kofi Annan, the bomb was directed ‘against men and women who went to Iraq with one purpose only – to help the Iraqi people recover their independence and sovereignty’ (3).

This view of the UN as helping Iraq move towards independence and sovereignty jars with the experience of UN interference in Iraqi people’s lives over the past 10 years.

It was the UN that first politicised the question of the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, through the coordination of weapons inspections regimes since the 1991 Gulf War under the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) and since December 1999 the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC).

From August 1990 to March 2003 the UN supervised a comprehensive economic sanctions regime against Iraq, which restricted Iraq’s ability to export oil or to import vital commodities. There are no reliable estimates of the total number of deaths caused by the sanctions’ impact on food, medical care, water, and other health-related factors. But according to some aid organisations, the number of ‘excess’ deaths is thought to be over 400,000 (4).

The UN did much to destabilise and disrupt Iraqi society, even without sending in B52s or stealth bombers. The lack of sympathy for the suffering caused to Iraqis during the 10-year UN-orchestrated campaign of sanctions and inspections makes it hard to take seriously the claims of concern in Western capitals over the impact of acts of terror on Iraqis today.

Perhaps the most misleading claim is that, in alleged independence from the US/UK administration, the UN is in Iraq to help the Iraqi people recover their independence and sovereignty. In reality, rather than being there to ‘bring about an end to the occupation’, the UN’s role has been to support and legitimise the occupation (5).

The UN first legitimised the undermining of Iraqi sovereignty with Resolution 688, following the first Gulf War of 1991. This resolution asserted that the repression of the civilian population constituted a threat to ‘international peace and security’, and provided disputed legitimacy for further coercive international intervention and the ongoing bombing campaigns by US and British forces in the ‘no-fly zones’. In May 2003, UN Resolution 1483 recognised the USA and Britain (the ‘Authority’) as occupying powers (6).

Sergio Vieira de Mello – the head of the UN mission who was tragically killed in the Baghdad blast – had spent his career undermining the sovereignty of various states. De Mello was a bureaucrat, never an elected politician, who exercised unprecedented powers around the world. He was instrumental in establishing the UN protectorate system in Kosovo, before leaving to head up the UN protectorate in East Timor. More recently, he took over from Mary Robinson as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

One reason for de Mello’s appointment as UN special representative to Iraq was his popularity in the White House, where he had impressed President Bush and Condoleezza Rice after being summoned for talks prior to his selection (7). Rather than challenge the legitimacy of the US/UK administration, de Mello assisted in giving the invading and occupying powers a cover of respectability, through helping to create an internationally-appointed ‘governing council’.

The horrific killing of UN personnel by terrorist bombers will not benefit anybody in Iraq. But whether the attack was aimed specifically at the UN itself, or as is more likely the UN was chosen as a ‘soft target’, one thing is certain: claims that the UN is only there to help Iraqis legitimise, rather than challenge, the war and the denial of Iraqi sovereignty.

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)
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  • 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)

    (1) ‘Bloodshed in Baghdad’, editorial, Guardian, 20 August 2003

    (2) ‘Baghdad: UN chief among 20 dead as bombers wreck headquarters’, Guardian, 20 August 2003

    (3) ‘UN envoy dies in suicide bomb carnage at Baghdad headquarters’, The Times (London), 20 August 2003

    (4) Iraq Sanctions: Humanitarian Implications and Options for the Future, Global Policy Forum, Save the Children et al, 6 August 2002

    (5) ‘Baghdad: UN chief among 20 dead as bombers wreck headquarters’, Guardian, 20 August 2003

    (6) UN Security Council Resolution 1483, 22 May 2003

    (7) ‘Sergio Vieira de Mello’, obituary, The Times, 20 August 2003; and ‘Dashing diplomat favoured by Bush’, The Times, 20 August 2003

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    Topics Politics


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