The attention of the world is understandably centred on persuading the United States to wait for UN Security Council approval before invading Iraq. Such a resolution might render such a US attack legal under existing international law. More importantly it offers a very slight chance that more cautious US allies such as France and Germany might stay the American hand.
The US will undoubtedly invade Iraq, most likely after bullying the Security Council into some kind of qualified approval from the Security Council, allowing the US to invade in the name of the UN.
In any case, the result will be the same: tens of thousands of people murdered, either by the most powerful military force in the world or by their own government. Modern large-scale war is necessarily a matter of mass destruction and mass murder.
So the question then becomes, in what way is a Security Council invasion of Iraq more morally acceptable than a US invasion? It might decrease the level of illegality involved, but as any child knows, there is a big difference between law and morality. How could a Security Council resolution in itself legitimate an immoral war? We are being offered a choice of two unacceptable candidates for global authority: the oil-addicted Lone Ranger from Texas, USA, or the five self-selected â€œPresidents for Lifeâ€ who control the Security Council.
The United Nations is often identified with the Security Council, when in fact the Council is only one of a set of deliberative and executive organs â€“ almost all of which are more democratic. The Council is the least representative and the least responsible of all UN organisations. Fifteen countries sit on the Security Council at any one time: ten non-permanent members elected from the almost 200 members of the Assembly for two years, and five permanent members – the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain.
But the five ugly sisters control the Council. Not only do the five permanent members hold a veto power over any matter before the Council, they can also veto suggestions for their own removal by the General Assembly. They are exactly the political and moral equivalent of â€œpresidents for lifeâ€. Non-permanent members passing through are deeply vulnerable to quite overt and public pressure from the big five. This yearâ€™s crop of the vulnerable, other than Germany and Spain, includes Pakistan, Angola, Bulgaria, Syria, Guinea and Cameroon.
How can such an institution hold the moral authority for the slaughter that is an inevitable consequence of modern war? We are used to demonstrations opposing American wars. We may soon be seeing conscientous objections to Security Council wars.
One of the most likely outcomes of Security Council authorisation for an American invasion of Iraq will be demands for serious reform of the Security Council itself – and beyond that, the first ripples of a wave of thinking about reinventing the institutions of democratic government on a global scale.
To date, most calls for Security Council reform have dealt with four main issues: the status of permanent members; the size of the Council; the veto; and questions of consistency and transparency in decision-making. The five permanent members represent the victors of World War 2, with consequent distortions half a century later. Outside Westminster, the idea of Britain as a major power seems little more than a plot line for an episode of Yes Minister. The exclusion of the former â€œenemy statesâ€ of Germany and Japan, and any permanent representative of Latin America and Africa, simply heightens the anachronism.
Numerous commissions and inquiries have recommended constructive approaches for expansion and reform, and for gradual erosion of the veto power, but all have been blocked by the intransigience of the permanent members.
But these and similar well-worn issues of Security Council reform, much-needed though they are, only skate on the surface of the real issue: is reform of the Security Council capable of producing a constitutionally-based representative and responsible organisation capable of maintaining global peace?
It may seem absurd to link planning permission for a vile war of US self-interest to the apparently utopian idea of global democracy, but history has a way of throwing up challenges to outdated thinking and unrepresentative institutions in unexpected way. Who would have thought a decade ago that the committee that regulates the details of trade would become a focus for moves for global democracy?
Interestingly, the first moves have come from within the UN system itself. The former president of the World Court – the UN court that adjudicates disputes between governments – called for judicial review of Security Council decisions by the World Court. Perhaps a small move, but to any one who remembers basic European constitutional history, or looks at any number of dictatorships in the world today, an essential one. As John Foster Dulles once said, “The Security Council is not a body that merely enforces agreed law. It is a law unto itself.” Invasion of Iraq might well be a case in point: the Security Council has passed resolutions of dubious legality in the past.
Fundamentally, the flipside of economic and cultural globalisation is the political demand for global democracy. The debacle of World Trade Organisation meetings imprisoned behind serried ranks of riot police showed that issues of unrepresentative and irresponsible global economic governance can suddenly catch the imagination of broadly-based movements, armed with critiques ranging from the pragmatic to the openly utopian.
To date the UN in general and the Security Council in particular have not made it to this popular agenda for democratisation of global governance. But acquiescence to an American war of colonisation could well change that very quickly. Like the WTO, the UN is an organisation expressing a relationship between governments, rather than between peoples.
Again, the current composition of the Security Council makes that clear: the decision to support the right of the US to invade Iraq will be made by such exemplars of representative democracy as China, Russian, Pakistan, Angola, Bulgaria, Syria, Guinea and Cameroon – in addition to the US itself.
A generation ago the idea of the people of Europe directly electing members of a legislature for all of Europe with powers to oversee the powerful European Commission seemed outrageously utopian. Now it seems simply to be the precursor to a global assembly with powers to oversee and restrain a much reformed Security Council. Without such re-invention of the institutions of democracy on a global scale, genuine legitimate global governance in a world that is both highly unequal and highly militarized is an impossibility.