10 February 2004

Interview with Louise Frechette

10 February 2004
The Times of India

UN in, US out

Interview with Louise Frechette, U.N. Deputy Secretary-General

Last year, the US went ahead with its invasion of Iraq despite failing to win a UN mandate. Since then, the failure to find any illegal weapons there has underlined the questionable nature of ‘pre-emptive war' and reopened the debate on what is permissible under international law. In Delhi recently, UN deputy secretary general Louise Frechette spoke to Siddharth Varadarajan on the Iraq situation, and the ability of the world body to deal with questions of peace and security. Excerpts:

Does the United Nations, which was bypassed by the US in its drive to war in Iraq last year, feel vindicated now that Washington has been forced to turn to it for assistance in stabilising the country politically?

One can continue to debate whatever happened around the Iraq question last year, especially the decision of the US and Britain to go to war without UN support. But the secretary general is clear that every country must close ranks today to find a path for the stability and prosperity of Iraq. In our discussions with the US authorities in Iraq, we have insisted that the UN's role be clearly defined.

So long as Iraq is under foreign occupation, do you think any institution other than the UN could organise free and fair elections?

That's going way ahead of the situation. The experts team of the UN will study the situation in Iraq with a view to assessing the suitability of holding elections. The team will hold discussions with the Iraqi Governing Council and the Coalition Provisional Authority, and others there. Whatever we do has to be in support of the Iraqi people. Everybody agrees there has to be an early end to the occupation and a full return to Iraqi sovereignty. The US has come up with various proposals, including caucuses. But some players in Iraq don't find them acceptable. They want regular elections. In any case, this is the main question the UN will examine: Whether a full election is possible or not.

Have you got an assurance from the US that the mission's recommendations will be binding? What happens if the US has a different assessment?

Well, the US was among the countries that wanted the UN to send this mission. Our role is not to arbitrate but to give advice. There is one caveat — the secretary general insisted that the mission be assured full protection while it is in Iraq.

Now that it is clear no weapons of mass destruction will be found in Iraq and that none have existed there for some years now, how will the UN achieve a closure on this subject?

This is a decision for the Security Council. I don't know what it will decide. But the investigations carried out over the years did find a lot of material. At least since the end of 1998, when Richard Butler pulled UNSCOM out under US pressure, it is clear there was nothing more to find. The Iraqis were saying they had no weapons, yet sanctions remained, and then this war took place.Well, the Security Council is really the body to look into all these issues. There is quite a lot of documentation. Still, some questions have not been answered.

There is much talk of Saddam Hussein being put on trial. What do you think would be an appropriate court?

No UN position has been adopted on this yet. This could also be something the Security Council will take a view on. We have welcomed that his status has been clarified as a prisoner of war. We'd hope justice is done in his case, insofar as the question of due process is concerned. It could be an international tribunal or a domestic or mixed one. Rather than this or that court, due process is the key.

You are among those who've called for a debate on the meaning of Article 51 of the UN Charter which allows countries the right to self-defence. Do you feel the Charter has too narrow a definition of self-defence? The US claimed the right to pre-emptive war but what happens when it is, as now, unable to provide supporting proof?

Every time there is a serious disagreement on a common framework, multi-lateralism is undermined. The international community has to debate some very difficult questions. The pre-emptive force issue is one. The logic of pre-emptive war could easily lead to a proliferation of unilateral use of force. But the UN Charter is also not a suicide pact. States cannot be expected to adhere to it unless they are convinced that genuine threats will genuinely be dealt with by collective action. Then there is also the question of what happens when the government of a sovereign state subjects its own citizens to genocide, or other grave violations of human rights. Does the international community has the right to intervene or must it merely look on? Is there a ‘responsibility to protect', as everyone now agrees the UN did in Rwanda? And if the international community does decide to intervene, do we have the resources to live up to our ambitions?

But there is a mechanism, which is the UN Security Council, and which the US failed to utilise. By that yardstick, wasn't the invasion of Iraq illegal?

The Secretary General has said the decision to go to war should have been taken by the Council. What we are talking about are the implications for the UN, for the Security Council, of divisions on such issues. These questions need to be debated and resolved.

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