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The UN charter is on its last legs
The UN's feeble response to the Lebanon crisis shows that it can no longer protect civilians
Saturday July 22, 2006
Kofi Annan finally made the headlines yesterday with his call for an immediate ceasefire in the Middle East crisis. It was too little, too late. That the United Nations secretary general waited nine days before seriously speaking out has dealt a severe blow to the organisation's humanitarian image. That he twinned his criticism of Israel's "excessive use of force" with repeated condemnations of Hizbullah again showed how deeply in thrall to the US the world is.
With Britain now firmly in the US camp even on the Middle East conflict, the G8, the EU and the UN security council are still not calling for a ceasefire. This international decision to sanction such atrocities is the most troubling dimension of the current war. To make this refusal to rein in Israel more palatable, Tony Blair and Annan have proposed instead an international force for southern Lebanon. It fooled no one: the force will take weeks to put in place.
Complicity in a war with such a high civilian toll is unprecedented in this era. It is particularly odious because all these leaders had, at last September's extraordinary UN summit, solemnly hailed as a historic milestone the declaration on the "responsibility to protect" civilians during conflict, labelling this protection as one of the most urgent global priorities.
The world's carefully constructed international system for maintaining peace and security, built around the UN charter, is now on its last legs. It tackles crimes by the weak but is mute and unresponsive in the face of lawless behaviour by the powerful.
To give currently forbidden actions more legitimacy, there was talk of modifying the UN charter's constraints on the use of force. But changing the charter is immensely complicated, so what is being fashioned instead is a new, looser system in which the powerful may do as they wish. Those who oppose their occupations will be labelled criminals. Thus Hamas's attack and capture of a soldier of an occupying state holding thousands of Palestinian detainees is labelled as terrorism, while the bombing of civilians is proclaimed as self-defence.
The past few weeks have created intense new hatreds against Israel and the US, and radicalised many Arabs and Muslims. Interestingly, Blair had indicated when backing the Iraq war that he would convince George Bush to be more forceful and even-handed in making a major push in resolving the Israeli-Arab conflict. But British Muslims, inflamed by the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, can now add Palestine and Lebanon to their grievances thanks to Blair's militant defence of the Israeli attacks.
Another victim of this new war is the UN, whose standing in the Arab and Muslim world is already deeply fractured. Annan apart, it was astonishing to see his Middle East envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, declare, as destruction rained down on the Lebanese and Gazans, that he agreed with Israel that conditions were not yet ripe for a ceasefire. Such a public disavowal of the organisation's primary humanitarian and protection mandates represents a new low in its moral standing.
Thus far Britain has supported the US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan - the current crisis has made Britain an indispensable player in the making of the new order that the US and Israel seek. Such a frontline role has obvious advantages in a world with a single superpower - but Britain's dramatic shift from a moderate postcolonial role and its distance from mainstream Europe carry great perils.
· Salim Lone is a former spokesman for the UN mission in Iraq