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Will We Turn the U.N. Charter into a “Scrap of Paper”?

by Howard N. Meyer on Mar 4, 2003

“Just for a scrap of paper Great Britain [is] going to war,” Germany’s chancellor, Theobold von Bethmann-Hollweg complained as the First World War began. The “scrap of paper” was the treaty that Germany disregarded when it invaded Belgium.

Because of such dismissal of international agreements, the esteem that Germany had enjoyed until then among neutral nations quickly changed to hostility and fear. Britain and France exploited the “scrap of paper” remark in the United States, where there then was respect for international treaties, which the 1787 Constitution had elevated to the “supreme Law of the Land.”

Today we must ask, is the United States about to treat the Charter of the United Nations as a scrap of paper? We would be doing so if, without the authority of the U.N. Security Council, the administration were to launch American armed forces against Iraq.

The Charter is a treaty, an exchange of pledges among nations, overwhelmingly ratified in 1945 by the U.S. Senate. The U.N.’s Security Council, now debating war against Iraq, was established by that Charter. We agreed with our fellow member nations that the Security Council should have sole power to decide whether peace is threatened or whether there has been an act of aggression. The Charter forbids the use of force by one nation against another without the authorization of the Security Council except in self defense against an “armed attack.”

The United States played a major role in planning the United Nations and drafting its Charter. Restricting the use of force was the culminating achievement of a sustained effort by American statesmen and diplomats to achieve world peace through law.

When President George H.W. Bush, in 1990, went to the Security Council to request authority to lead a coalition to rescue Kuwait, he complied with the Charter of the United Nations. He did so before he requested consent of Congress to send in our forces. The Security Council’s approval helped win congressional support for “Desert Storm.” The coalition’s success in that effort restored for the United Nations prestige that had diminished during the Cold War.

High regard for the United Nations continues in the rest of the world. Most recently, as it began to seem that the United States might “go it alone” in Iraq, 15 European nations declared (Feb. 18) in positive terms: “We are committed to the United Nations remaining at the center of the international order.”

As the move toward war on Iraq began in 2001, the White House acted as if its plans needed neither congressional approval nor that of the United Nations. But immediate domestic opposition overcame the idea of bypassing Congress.

Also believing it unwise to disregard other countries, Secretary of State Powell persuaded the president to address the United Nations about Iraq’s defiance. The Security Council then agreed to warn Iraq to yield. It was not willing, without a further resolution, to legitimate the use of force by the United States.

The White House continued to maintain that it needed no authority from the Security Council. Recently, however, the administration changed its strategy. It decided to press the Security Council for an authorizing resolution, letting it be known that war would be started without the Council’s permission if the United States decided that Iraq had ignored the Council’s warning.

Such a resolution demanded an intense effort. While an effective resolution required unanimity of the five permanent members (three of them doubtful from the start), pressure was exerted on the ten non-permanent smaller members. Even if those votes were gained for the U.S.-British-Spanish resolution, they would produce only an illusory majority; no resolution is effective under the “veto” terms of the Charter unless all five permanent members — Russia, China and France, as well as the United Kingdom and the United States — concur or abstain.

International law and the Constitution’s clause establishing treaties as the “supreme Law of the Land” render the use of force by the United States against Iraq illegal without a legitimate Security Council resolution. To warn that the Security Council will be disregarded if it does not bow to the White House is to disregard international law and threaten violation of our Constitution.

Educators, other professionals, and business and labor leaders should give attention to the impending violation of the Constitution’s clause on the supremacy of treaties. They should remember the contributions of the United States to building the rule of law among nations, and the institutions that administer it. If they don’t, the nation’s potential to defend peace and freedom will be sadly diminished.

The government of the United States has pledged to respect the rule of law and is bound by its own contributions to the law of treaties. Its leaders are bound by the Constitution. But the administration now in power threatens to disregard those obligations. Attention must be paid before it is too late.

Howard N. Meyer is the author of "The World Court in Action" (2002) and a writer for the History News Service.