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The Trojan horse

By Jay Bulworth

Katharine Gun is a 29 year old English woman who spent a part of her formative years in North-east Asia. As a result, she is fluent in Mandarin Chinese. She used to work as a translator at Britain's super-secret GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), the signals intelligence agency that violates privacy every day by eavesdropping on phone calls, emails and other communications. Katharine exposed US espionage against member delegations at the UN Security Council in the lead-up to the war on Iraq. Espionage at the United Nations is prohibited under the Vienna conventions on diplomatic relations. When charged under the Official Secrets Act, she signalled her intention to argue the defence of “necessity” — the prevention of an illegal war involving the loss of thousands of lives. On Tuesday February 24, 2004, her legal team served documents demanding to see any advice given to ministers about the legality of the war. Two days later, all charges were dropped and Katharine Gun walked free.

It should be noted that the leaks showed a “surge” in US espionage against member delegations. The US engages in such activity every day. What was unusual was the “surge”, or increase, in surveillance as the US tried to manipulate the vote and obtain authorisation for its war on Iraq. There are people of goodwill who believe in the sanctity of international law, and who feel disturbed by this event, as they do about the US-led aggression against Iraq without UN authorisation.

This article is for those people. It is written in order to dispel illusions in the United Nations, which was created as an instrument of US foreign policy. Furthermore, the reader should understand that the US began spying on member delegations even before the UN existed.

As early as April 1945, when the United Nations was being constructed in San Francisco, the US conducted comprehensive surveillance against the delegates of all 46 countries that were in town to finalise the structure of the new organisation. Stephen Schlesinger's recent book, Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations[3] (Boulder, 2003), reminds us of how the US controlled the negotiating process from start to finish. In the US Army base known as the Presidio, which was only a few kilometres away from where the negotiations were being held, US military intelligence was intercepting communications by all the visiting delegates to their countries. In addition, the Federal Bureau of Investigation followed the delegates as they went about their business. The FBI also followed members of pro-democracy and anti-colonial lobby groups operating in San Francisco at the time. The intelligence was passed on to US Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, who had been sent by President Harry Truman to oversee the negotiations.

The archives relating to this episode have never been opened completely; much of the intelligence, which is nearly 60 years old, remains censored. But the episode illustrates the continuity of the US's attitude to the UN.

The UN role in Iraq

Turning to the more specific case of post-1991 Iraq, the factual record is unambiguous: the UN has acted throughout as an instrument of US strategic policy. For more than a decade, the UN gave its legal authority to economic sanctions against Iraq, resulting in the deaths of a large number of Iraqis, most of whom were children.

UN Security Council Resolutions requiring Iraq to disarm after the 1991 war were deliberately framed in the negative: inspectors were required to certify that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction. This meant that the inspections could — and did — go on indefinitely, because there was no way that Iraq could ever satisfy a negative test. Even Australia cannot prove it does not have weapons of mass destruction.

UN inspectors participated in the disarming of Iraq's defences. The Security Council raised no serious objection to the Anglo-American bombing, which lasted for more than a decade. Those few UN officials who objected had no option other than to resign in protest. Several UN inspectors worked actively with the CIA, conducting searches at its behest and passing target data to US military planners. As the build-up to the invasion gained momentum, the UN did not condemn Washington's war preparations. Until the very last minute of the US-led invasion, the UN focused its diplomatic efforts on pressuring Iraq to disarm even more. The US's National Security Strategy, released in September 2002, confirmed what many analysts had been saying all along: that the Bush Doctrine was a “highly voluntarist 'will to power; project, with four key concepts informing it: permanent war, unilateral action, international impunity and multiple war theatres” (Petras 2002[2]). The US's assertion that it would engage in preventive strikes was a clear expression of its intention to violate international law. Had another state issued such a proclamation, the UN Security Council — led by the US — would have condemned it as belligerent. Since it was the US that was acting in this manner, however, any condemnation by the UN was unthinkable. Predictably, the Security Council unanimously approved Resolution 1441, stating that Iraq was in material breach of its obligations and warning it of “serious consequences” if it did not comply with an enhanced inspection regime.

On December 7, 2002, when Iraq submitted a 12,000 page declaration on its chemical, biological and nuclear activities, the US stepped in and confiscated large extracts of the document. The UN and its US-installed functionary, Kofi Annan, looked the other way. Finally, after a blatant war of aggression, the UN Security Council unanimously endorsed the puppet assembly installed by the US. All 15 members of the Security Council supported the following declaration:

    The Security Council, ... “welcomes the positive response of the international community to the establishment of the broadly representative Governing Council”; “supports the Governing Council's efforts to mobilise the population of Iraq”; “authorises a multinational force under unified command to take all measures to contribute to the maintenance of security and stability in Iraq”; and “requests the United States on behalf of the multinational force report to the Security Council on the efforts and progress of this force”.

There could be no clearer demonstration of the command that the US exerts over the UN.

Or could there? After the first colonial administration (led by retired US general Jay Garner) proved unsuccessful, a new governor was sent in. He was Paul Bremer, the former managing director of Kissinger Associates, a worldwide consulting firm started by Henry Kissinger. Bremer also ran into fierce opposition from a powerful resistance movement. These fighters were hitting back at their British and American occupiers as well as at the local Iraqi collaborators. The UN stepped in to take the heat out of the situation: Kofi Annan dispatched Sergio Vieira de Mello to work with Bremer and provide a figleaf of respectability. De Mello was supposed to install a puppet junta (the so-called “Governing Council”) that had no domestic legitimacy or credibility but would do the bidding of the US occupation forces.

De Mello was killed in the bombing of the UN building in Iraq in August 2003. It is obvious why the Iraqi resistance targeted the UN building just as it continues to target the occupying US force – the former institution has acted for more than a decade as an instrument of the latter. There is every reason to expect this situation to continue for the foreseeable future.

Australia, the UN and Iraq

After the federal election later this year, the Australian government can be expected to deploy more troops to Iraq as part of the occupying forces. If Labor wins the election, it will come under intense US pressure to contribute even more Australian troops to the ongoing occupation. If its track record is any indication, Labor is sure to agree, but will ask for UN authorisation before it does so.

There are two reasons for this: the first is Labor's diplomatic style. In December 1998, the Clinton administration undertook an operation called Operation Desert Fox. It included the use of cruise missiles and bombs in what the Australian foreign minister later described as “a substantial bombing campaign of Iraq” (Downer 2003[1]). Kofi Annan withdrew the UN inspectors in preparation for the US bombing. While this was going on, the Australian Labor Party raised no objection. Even on the eve of the 2003 invasion, the Labor leadership was concerned with the legality of the issue, not the flagrant imperialism on display. Its opposition was based on the lack of Security Council authorisation. By contrast, the Greens made their opposition to the invasion clear — UN or no UN.

The second reason is the Australian public's opposition to unilateral US action. Labor's calculation is that the public might be willing to acquiesce in a UN-backed deployment. This is because the UN has an aura of global togetherness; its rhetoric stresses the equality of all states and the harmony of all nations. It carries the seductive hint that one day the representatives of all the peoples of the world might interact in a meaningful fashion. The high ideals in the UN Charter inspire people who do not realise that they were the concoction of another member of the US delegation to San Francisco in April 1945, Virginia Gildersleeve. Her soothing platitudes continue to cloak the UN in a garb of goodwill.

This has given the UN an indefinable but benign image: not of international equality – for it operates quite openly as a bludgeon of the powerful; not of planetary justice – for it regularly consigns these issues to the never-never land of review committees, study groups and General Assembly resolutions. Rather, it has an aura of inclusiveness, which is accentuated by its ethnically diverse mix of US marionettes. The public prefers an international framework of order to a world ruled by force. Although understandable, this preference can be highly misleading: it does not take into account the nature of contemporary international law, which is no more than the previous codes and conventions of the dominant states. International law has democratic legitimacy to the extent that it has popular input. As it stands, international law has very little popular input. It should be understood that I am not rejecting international law per se. Instead, I am saying that we need not genuflect before it until it has had popular input into its development. International law as practised by the various foreign and consular services is vastly different to international law (such as environmental legislation) that has arisen as a consequence of public pressure.

UN Reform?

Attempts at reform of the United Nations, while well-intentioned, should not be the primary focus for activists. Plans for UN reform are typically the focus of people who depend on UN-related positions for career purposes, and who see the peace movement as a stepping stone to a posting to New York or Geneva. They can frequently be found in the company of functionaries who trade on their “expertise” in UN procedures. This kind of clerical competence has its place, particularly when searching for scholarships and grants, but it should not be mistaken for progressive politics. A measure of realism about the UN and its assorted hangers-on is long overdue.

The UN has a limited but important role to play as an international forum where grievances can be aired and where disagreements can be discussed and resolved. It also has a limited but important role to play as a means of coordinating humanitarian relief efforts. Beyond that, extreme scepticism should be exercised. The UN is a grouping of the governments of the world, not the people of the world. It therefore ought to focus on accomplishing a limited range of core missions, and on fixing its serious management problems.

As it is actually constituted, the UN structure gives near-absolute power to the five permanent members when they act together. Individually, they have near-absolute power to thwart any security initiative they do not like. In the absence of a democratic structure, the UN lacks a genuinely principled source of authority because it does not represent the various nations of the world, weighted according to population size. Until it does, we can hardly consider the UN to be a morally authoritative body for the formulation of international law.

In a representative global political order, we might accept the official representatives of the various states, regardless of their political content. Governments elected by corporate influence or imposed by dictatorial power might be objectionable, but they are a matter for the domestic forces in the relevant countries to deal with. In a representative global political order, internationalists could and should accept the wishes of the various nations. However, it is clear that the current structure of the UN does not resemble this situation in the slightest.

Reform of the United Nations or the creation of an alternative world institution is not a solution to the problem of US-led imperialism. That is something that might arise after the problem has been solved. But people of good will, who wish to change the world for the better, should not occupy themselves with these procedural blind alleys. For Australians, it is clear that referring an issue to the UN is one way for our governments to avoid dealing with a given issue, and to avoid taking a proper stand on it. The UN serves as a kind of bolthole to which contentious issues can be consigned. One can rail against the UN without having to do anything about a difficult issue.

The Supreme International Crime

What we are seeing at the UN today is the post-hoc approval of a war of aggression - what the Nuremberg Judgement called the 'supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole'. Article 6(a) of the Charter of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg defined crimes against peace as "planning, preparation, initiation or waging a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances, or participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the foregoing".

As recriminations over pre-war intelligence gain in strength, Australians might wish to consider whether the actions of the Howard government fit the description of “crime against peace”. Under current arrangements, there is no chance of the real aggressors being put on trial for this crime. Instead, the UN continues to provide a figleaf of legitimacy for the ongoing occupation. The peace movement should oppose the occupation of Iraq regardless of what the UN says. We might take our cue from President Bush's 12th September 2002 address to the General Assembly:

    Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding [to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war], or will it be irrelevant?


1. Downer, March 20, 2003, Reply to Question Without Notice 2:30pm, House Hansard, Australian Parliament House.

2. J. Petras, “"November-December 2002, 9-11: One Year of Empire Building", Canadian Dimension Magazine.

3. S. Schlesinger, Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations, Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, 2003.

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Created on March 31, 2004