Jewish World Review Sept. 20, 2002 / 14 Tishrei, 5763

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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Worthless signatures from oh-so-wonderful countries | Iraq's decision to allow U.N. weapons inspectors back into the country proves one thing: Saddam Hussein understands how the United Nations really operates better than we do. The United Nations is all about promises. Most member countries sign declarations, covenants, protocols and treaties after endless debates filled with high-flown rhetoric and lavish commitments, then go about their business as usual, ignoring the very documents they've agreed to. That's why President Bush's careful enumeration of Iraq's failure to abide by previous U.N. Security Council resolutions fell on so many deaf ears at the United Nations. Only a handful of nations really mean what they say when they commit themselves to U.N. obligations.

From 1992-1996, I was a member of the United Nation's sub-commission on Human Rights, attending meetings each August in Geneva. I went into the position skeptical of the United Nations and came out a confirmed cynic. For weeks on end, I watched my fellow members condemn the United States and Israel for alleged human rights violations, while ignoring blatant human rights abuses in countries like China, Cuba, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria and elsewhere.

Indeed the very document that governs U.N. jurisdiction in the human rights area, the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is a monument to the hypocrisy of member nations. The document commits signatories to allow for freedom of religious belief and practice, freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom from discrimination on the basis of "race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status." Both Iran and Iraq have signed the covenant, as have Egypt, North Korea, Sudan, Syria, and other paragons of political, religious and ethnic tolerance. With a wink and a nod, none of the rest of us is supposed to notice that these signatures mean absolutely nothing with respect to the intentions or practices of these nations.

But, of course, U.N. Security Council resolutions are supposed to be taken more seriously, carrying the ultimate weight and sanction of the body. The Security Council includes five permanent members, each of which may exercise veto power -- the United States, China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom -- plus 10 rotating members, which at the moment includes Syria, an Iraqi ally.

As President Bush reminded the United Nations last week, Iraq has flouted every pertinent Security Council resolution since 1991, including the commitments it made to secure a cease-fire in the Gulf War. If the United Nations expects to be taken seriously, it must enforce those resolutions by whatever means necessary, including military action. Otherwise, as the president noted ruefully, the United Nations will become "irrelevant."

Hussein is betting that many, if not most, U.N. members don't care, even if they've formally agreed to the resolutions. In large part, the problem here is cultural. Western culture has at its core respect for the rule of law. Laws, contracts, treaties and formal agreements mean something in the West. The rule of law is the most fundamental principle on which democracy rests. When the United States votes for a formal U.N. resolution or signs a declaration, we expect to abide by every jot and tittle -- which is why we haven't signed or ratified a number of U.N. documents that conflict or might interfere with U.S. law.

But that is hardly the case with many U.N. member nations, some of them despotic regimes for whom brute force is the only law they respect. So when Saddam Hussein promises to allow in inspectors, many U.N. members breathe a collective sigh of relief. Hussein's decision delays the inevitable. The United Nations can pretend it has real moral authority. Its members can pretend they hold one another accountable for obeying U.N. resolutions. And if and when the United States tries to enforce previous U.N. Security Council resolutions, we will be made to look like the bad guys.

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© 2002, Creators Syndicate