TCS Daily

The Final Arbiter?

By Dale Franks - October 14, 2002 12:00 AM

One of the chief arguments against the policy of regime change in Iraq, as well as the Bush Doctrine of preemption in general, is that it ignores, or worse, undermines, the legitimacy of the United Nations. The UN, we are told, is the repository of legitimacy for international law, and any policy that undermines it is irresponsible and dangerous. It is not unreasonable, however, to inquire as to whether that is actually true.

The idea that legitimacy flows from the UN implies that the UN exists on a higher plane than that of the nation-state itself. But, of course, this is simply not true. The UN is a creature of the nation-state. It is a diplomatic construct, not some form of super-legislature or governing body.

The very make-up of the UN Security Council was specifically devised to eliminate the possibility of the UN evolving into such an organization. Britain, China, England, France, Russia, and the United States all have permanent seats on the Security Council, and they each have veto power over any Security Council resolution. Indeed, for the first 50 years of its existence, the veto power held by the USSR prevented the UN from playing any significant part in international events during the Cold War, with the exception of the Korean War, where the USSR chose not to exercise its veto.

This arrangement highlights the fact that the UN is a tool of the nation-state, not superior to it. The five permanent members of the Security Council are immune from any Security Council censure, no matter how outrageous their actions may be, because they can veto any act of the Security Council. So, if, say, China, were to invade Taiwan, the Security Council would be powerless to act on this act of naked aggression, because China could simply veto any prospective UN action. Does this mean that China's aggression would be legitimate? If so, then it comprises a troubling kind of legitimacy.

The real legitimacy to international law lies in the acts of the nation-states that create such law. The UN provides a convenient meeting place for nations to hammer out the treaties that form the core of international law, but it does not, in and of itself, provide legitimacy to it.

It is clear that the UN and its proponents prefer to believe otherwise. They have suggested that the UN should have the authority to levy taxes on member states. They feel that treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol or the International Criminal Court are, or at least, should be, enforced against the United States, even though we have never ratified those treaties. Suggestions like this threaten to turn the UN into an unelected super-legislature.

But nation-states are sovereign bodies. They are not, and never have been, bound by treaties to which they are not a party. Nations-states are the principle actors in world affairs, not the diplomatic conclave of the UN.

This is precisely as it should be, especially when one considers the political makeup of so many UN member states. The UN is made up of representatives from nearly every government in the world, irrespective of the nature of those governments. Democratic, tolerant, liberal governments share an equal voice with totalitarian dictatorships.

The central political idea of American democracy is that all power ultimately resides in the people. The acts of the House of Representatives of the Senate are legitimate because the citizens have consented to that arrangement. Legitimacy, in this view, is an instrument of the people that is passed up to the government, and provides it with the authority to act in their name. Our UN representatives are legitimate, because they impart the views of the government we have selected.

That is not the kind of legitimacy that most UN representatives embody. They are the appointed ambassadors of regimes that reflect the will of no one other than the dictator who runs them.

The trouble with such despotic regimes is that they are, by definition, chiefly concerned with the maintenance of their own power. Their representatives serve at the pleasure of unelected dictators. This is not the environment in which a selfless concern for the good of the international community is usually cultivated. Instead, representatives of despotic states serve the interests of their government to the exclusion of all else.

Additionally, these regimes regularly violate any number of UN resolutions; especially those that might tend to weaken their hold on power, and are rarely, if ever, taken to task by the UN. For example, some of the world's worst human rights violations occur in Arab countries where the common citizen is routinely denied the freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, or nearly any other freedom you'd care to name. Yet, representatives from many of these same cruel regimes sit on the UN's Human Right's Commission. In fact, the current Chair of the commission is Colonel Moammar Khadaffi, the "president" of Libya. Anytime someone's title contains both the words "colonel" and "president," you can bet the government probably has a fairly spotty human rights record; however, such a record is not, evidently, enough to bar one from chairing the UN Commission of Human Rights.

It is, again, an odd sort of legitimacy that allows totalitarian dictators to sit in judgment on the human rights record of liberal, democratic, elected governments, while at the same time ignoring their own egregious violations.

It also points out why the idea of the UN as a fount of legitimacy is so dangerous. If that idea is true, it means that unelected despots can band together to promulgate international rules that violate both the sovereignty of liberal, democratic nation-states, and the liberties of their citizens. Handing our sovereignty and our civil rights over to the likes of Moammar Khadaffi, Robert Mugabe, or Jiang Zemin is probably not the best course of action to take. Until the last despot is overthrown, and the nations of the world consist solely of liberal, popular governments, ceding too much legitimacy or authority to the UN will continue to be a dangerous game.

The UN is an extraordinarily useful institution in many ways. It is not, however, the final arbiter of legitimacy in international affairs.



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