FOR MOST countries and people, the United Nations' somewhat tired looking headquarters is located at the intersection of Interdependence Avenue and Multilateral Cooperation Street in New York. On balance, the world is a better place because of U.N. contributions to normative advancement, preventive diplomacy, peace operations, peacemaking, and humanitarian relief and assistance missions. But for some, it lies at the crossroads of Indifference Avenue and Hostility Street in Manhattan. Part of the reason for this is that the organisation has been leaking legitimacy — its one great claim for international respect — through long-festering sores. Consequently, it is respected today more for what it represents and symbolises than for what it actually does and accomplishes. For example, over the past decade, its many peacekeeping achievements have been tainted by sexual abuses of the very civilians under its protection.

Power is the capacity to enforce one's preference on others. Authority is the capacity to create and enforce rights and obligations that are accepted as legitimate and binding by those who are subject to it. The greater the gap between power and authority, the closer we are to anarchy, to the law of the jungle where might equals right. The greater the gap between power and justice in world affairs, the greater is the international legitimacy deficit.

The United Nations is the site where power should be moderated by lawful authority as law and legitimacy come together. The bases of U.N. legitimacy include its credentials for representing the international community, agreed procedures for making decisions on behalf of international society and political impartiality.

The gulf between law and legitimacy is an altogether more serious crisis-in-the-making for the United Nations than is commonly realised. The reason for the underestimation of the extent and gravity of the gap is that different segments of the international community have problems with different elements of the gap and fail to capture the several dimensions in their cumulative effect.

The Security Council and the General Assembly are the geopolitical and normative centres of gravity respectively. The clash of corporate interests between them intersects with the increasingly bitter North-South divide that goes to the heart of the law versus legitimacy debate. International law was a product mainly of the European states system and international humanitarian law too has its roots essentially in Europe. Afro-Asians and Latin Americans are the objects but not the authors of supposedly international norms and laws. That is, the very universality from which the U.N. draws its legitimacy is in some crucial respects more token than real.

The legal competence of the Security Council to impose sanctions is clearly spelt out in the U.N. Charter. Supposedly an attractive non-violent alternative to war, sanctions became progressively discredited for their harsh humanitarian consequences on the civilian population. Instead of the authority of the U.N. legitimising sanctions regimes, the baleful effects of sanctions have eroded the legitimacy of the U.N.

With respect to the use of international force to avert or halt atrocity crimes inside state borders, the consensus is shifting away from the norm of non-intervention to the new norm of the responsibility to protect that was formally adopted at the U.N. world summit in 2005. But the sad fact is that while the doctrine has gained rapid acceptance normatively, it is yet to be translated into action operationally. The rhetoric-action gap is not due to an absence of fit cases crying out for urgent international action.

Part of the explanation for the gap is deep scepticism among many developing countries that the main motive for intervention is disinterested humanitarianism and not self-serving commercial and geopolitical calculations. Partly it is due also to repeated instances of double standards. In effect the West is saying to the rest: the amount of force you may use to quell internal dissent, insurgency and terrorism is not solely a matter of your judgment and discretion. The era of sovereign immunity from international accountability for internal use of force is gone. However, our use of force internationally is not subject to any international authorisation, oversight or accountability. We will decide, solely as a matter of our judgment and discretion, when, where and how much force to use, and for how long.

The most lethal force known to man is nuclear weapons. The biggest tension in arms control regimes is between nonproliferation and disarmament. If nuclear weapons did not exist, they could not proliferate. Because they do, they will. For the P5-N5 to insist that nonproliferation is an enforceable obligation while disarmament can be postponed indefinitely seriously compromises the authority of the Security Council as the enforcer of the anti-nuclear norm.

Even with respect to the process for selecting the Secretary-General, effectively the P5 determine the short-list. After several rounds of indicative balloting, Ban Ki-moon was the only one to escape the threat of a P5 veto, and his choice was then ratified by the General Assembly by acclamation. He is the legally elected head of the organisation. But does he command legitimacy? Having been given neither voice nor vote in his selection, why should the "international community" of states and peoples accept him as "their" leader and spokesman?

All the above examples involve the Security Council as the underwriter of international security. It suffers from a quadruple legitimacy deficit. Its performance legitimacy suffers from an uneven and selective record. It is unrepresentative from almost any point of view. It is hard to see how any global decision-making body, whether the G8 or the Security Council that does not include a seat at the top table for India can call itself legitimate. Its procedural legitimacy is suspect on grounds of lack of democratisation and transparency in decision-making. It is unanswerable to the General Assembly, the World Court or the nations of the world. George Monbiot argued recently that "Global governance is a tyranny speaking the language of democracy" ( Guardian, April 24). Many believe that the only solution to the Security Council's twin democratic deficit (representation and accountability) is an elected Peoples' Assembly.

Three important lessons

The U.N.'s legitimacy has also suffered because of the oil-for-food scandal which showed up lapses and weaknesses in U.N. management culture and practices. But in the total sweep of the scandal, these were minor. The really important lessons were three. First, the U.N. lacks the capacity and expertise to manage such a complex programme and should firmly refuse such tasks in future. Second, U.N. officials did in fact raise queries about potential shenanigans with the Security Council but were ignored. The Council's main members had other priorities. Third, the real money was changing hands between business firms and executives and government ministers and officials, not U.N. officials. The biggest dubious payment, AUD300 million, concerned the Australian Wheat Board's dealings with Saddam Hussein and showed remarkable lapses of oversight and memory by Australian officials and ministers. Also, after the U.S.-led invasion, the Coalition Provisional Authority lost $ 9 billion handed over to it by the U.N.

Until the First World War, war was an accepted and normal part of the states system, with distinctive rules, norms and etiquette. The only protection against aggression was countervailing power, which increased both the cost of victory and the risk of failure. Since 1945, the U.N. has spawned a corpus of law to stigmatise aggression and create a robust norm against it. Since 9/11, an America that was already over-armed has militarised its foreign policy to frightening levels. In light of this, dare one suggest that U.S. irritation at the U.N. is due as much to its effectiveness in constraining U.S. international behaviour as alleged U.N. ineffectiveness against others?

The Bush administration has rejected President Harry Truman's counsel that America must deny itself the licence to do as it pleases, ignored President John F. Kennedy's wisdom that America is neither omnipotent nor omniscient, and ridden roughshod over four decades of tradition of enlightened self-interest and liberal internationalism as the guiding normative template of U.S. foreign policy.

U.S. assaults on the law of the U.N. Charter governing the international use of force have undermined the norm of a world of laws, the efficacy of international law, and the legitimacy of the United Nations as the authoritative validator of international behaviour. As my colleague Paul Heinbecker, Canada's former U.N. ambassador, notes, the distance from hubris to delusion is short; the Administration covered it in a sprint.


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