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Who rules the peace?

The war on Iraq has been waged without UN authority in violation of the organisation's charter. Because the war is illegal, any post-war US occupation will be illegal too. That means the US should not be allowed to claim any power to rule or determine economic, political or social arrangements in post-war Iraq. Only the UN has the legitimate authority to provide governance and help rebuild civil society in Iraq now Saddam Hussein's regime has been overthrown.

May 1, 2003
6 min read


Phyllis Bennis is Red Pepper’s United Nations correspondent, and a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.


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According to the Geneva Convention, however, (article 55 of the fourth convention and article 69 of the first protocol) the US and UK are obligated to pay the cost of providing for the humanitarian needs (food, medicine, water, shelter, etc) of the occupied Iraqi people during the war and its aftermath.

The UN is itself pushing for a central role in that emergency relief – particularly for its large international humanitarian agencies such as Unicef and the World Food Programme. But in a difficult meeting with UN secretary general Kofi Annan in the first days of the war, the US national security adviser Condoleezza Rice essentially claimed that Washington had the right to dictate what role the UN would play in post-war Iraq.

Annan indicated that he didn’t believe the UN should be co-opted into providing the US with ex post facto legitimation for its illegal war. Yet two weeks into the war US secretary of state Colin Powell said: ‘What we have to work out is… how the UN role will be used to provide some level of endorsement for our actions, the actions of the coalition in Iraq.’

The US is determined that its military will rule Iraq when the war has ended. Within the administration there is disagreement as to how power will be divided between the overall Pentagon-chosen viceroy and the State Department-nominated heads of the various shadow ministries. Each of the shadow ‘ministers’ will be assigned several US anointed Iraqi exiles as advisers.

State Department officials fear that Pentagon ideologues are trying to replace their nominees with people like former CIA chief James Woolsey, a long-time campaigner for war against Iraq. But there is no recognition of the international obligations incumbent on what Annan called the ‘belligerent powers occupying Iraq’.

Testifying to Congress on 26 March, Powell described the limits of what the UN’s role would be in shaping the governance of post-war Iraq. A member of Congress asked for assurance that the UN would not wrest control of the country from ‘the coalition’. Powell replied: ‘I don’t even see a possibility of that right now… We would not support… essentially handing everything over to the UN for someone designated by it to suddenly become in charge of this whole operation.’ Later in his testimony, Powell said: ‘We didn’t take on this huge burden with our coalition partners not to be able to have significant, dominating control over how it unfolds in the future’.

On the parallel question of paying for the costs of emergency assistance and reconstruction, Powell was equally explicit. He said: ‘The UN has a role to play. If we want to get help from other nations, and we ask these nations to go get funds from their parliaments or their legislatures it makes it a lot easier for them to get those funds and to contribute those funds to the reconstruction/ redevelopment effort if it has an international standing… ‘Just give us money to give to the Americans’… will not work. There are a number of advantages to having a UN role in this effort.’

So, while the US expects others to help foot the bill for its own humanitarian obligations, it has no intention of sharing actual authority, power or decision-making with anyone. BBC World quoted a high-ranking Bush administration official who was asked whether France should have a role. The official said: ‘If they want to participate, they can pick up the garbage.’

European governments, including Britain’s, strongly oppose the plans for US military control of Iraq. Tony Blair is leading a European-wide effort to push for greater UN involvement in, and perhaps even control of, the reconstruction process. Blair apparently views this as a way of repairing his damaged relations with European opponents of the war – particularly the French and Germans. UN officials have indicated that they see the British proposal as a useful starting point for determining their role (beyond purely humanitarian relief) in Iraq. But one UN staff member said: ‘Even on that, the Americans have more or less signalled ‘forget about it’.’

After a fortnight of war senior Bush officials stated that ‘the US military will likely need to retain tight control over the country for longer than anticipated’ (The New York Times, 2 April 2003). Plans for announcing the ‘Iraqi Interim Authority’ were shelved. Turning over any local power to Iraqis would be delayed until various conditions were met. These ranged from the complete pacification and defeat of military and paramilitary forces in Basra and other cities, to the seizure of Baghdad and the destruction of the Iraqi regime. Powell did hint, however, that the US might ask Nato to play a role.

Already, the Pentagon has created the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance to be run by former US Army general Jay Garner. Despite his new post, Garner remains the president of SY Technology, which provides technical support for the missile systems used in the Iraq war.

There are numerous problems with the appointment of Garner. First, appointing any American to act as pro-consul in Iraq following an illegal war represents further defiance of the UN. Second, Garner personifies the suspect intersection of military brass and arms manufacturers. Third, he has made provocative statements about the capability of weapons (including a widely disputed claim about the US’s Patriot missile) and Israel (‘Israel has exercised remarkable restraint in the face of lethal violence orchestrated by the Palestinian Authority’). He is certain to provoke extreme reactions in the Arab world.

And the man the Bush administration is likely to appoint to ‘oversee’ post-war Iraqi oil production is Philip E Carroll, the former head of Shell. Carroll recently retired as chair and CEO of the Fluor Corporation, one of the five US firms the Pentagon has offered massive contracts for rebuilding Iraq.

But for Iraq to be really free and democratic the UN – not the US – must be in charge of emergency and post-war reconstruction efforts. Humanitarian organisations must be given free access to the country and be allowed to do their work unhindered by military restrictions or sanctions. These organisations must be allowed to make their own decisions regarding when it is safe to enter the country. They must be independent of the US military, and must not act as a fig leaf for US unilateralism. Garner’s authority should be turned over to a UN special representative. As the belligerent powers (and in accordance with the Geneva Convention), the only aspect of Iraq’s reconstruction that the US and UK should assume is its funding.Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think-tank based in Washington DC.

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Phyllis Bennis is Red Pepper’s United Nations correspondent, and a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.


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