The crisis in Iraq might have dented the UN’s credibility. But it remains the best forum for solving problems that have no frontiers, says Shashi Tharoor

The Iraq crisis has created a large number of casualties, and some have begun to suggest that the United Nations should be added to the list. A poll taken by the Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press in 20 countries in mid-2003 showed that the UN had suffered a great deal of collateral damage over Iraq. The UN’s credibility was down in the US because it did not support the US administration on the war. But it was also down in 19 other countries because it could not prevent the war. A 2004 Pew poll continued to show that the organization’s standing was lower in America and in a number of Muslim countries than ever before. The label of “irrelevance”, which had been flung at the UN during the debates at the Security Council, continues to hang in the air.

We have been there before – the NATO bombing of Kosovo, without reference to the Council, generated similar concerns. But that phase did not last more than a few weeks, and the UN, after being bypassed during the war, was soon placed in charge of the ensuing peace. It hasn’t worked out quite that way in Iraq.

Back to the UN
Ironically, the key message of president George W Bush’s appearance before the UN General Assembly in September 2002 went the other way. In calling on the Security Council to take action against Iraq, he framed the problem not as one of unilateral US wishes, but as an issue of the implementation of United Nations Security Council resolutions. The UN and the earlier decisions of its Security Council remained at the heart of the US case against Iraq.

And despite failing to win Security Council support for the intervention, the US brought Iraq back to the UN within two months of the start of the war. The Council adopted Resolution 1483 in May 2003, asking the secretary-general to appoint a special representative to help the victorious coalition build an internationally recognized, representative government.

The very submission of this resolution by the US to the Security Council was an acknowledgment by Washington that there is, in secretary-general Kofi Annan’s words, no substitute for the unique legitimacy provided by the United Nations. This is not just a matter of legal theory. Without Resolution 1483 the US-led coalition could not have sold a drop of Iraqi oil. There would have been nothing to prevent, say, a Russian company from filing suit at the International Court of Arbitration in Paris, claiming it had a prior contract on that oil with the legal government of Iraq – that of Saddam Hussein. It was the new state of affairs in international law created by the Security Council resolution that allowed the Coalition authorities in Iraq to conduct normal commerce. And its unanimous acceptance by other Council Members – even those who led the opposition to the US intervention – demonstrated their understanding of the importance of collective action.

The duly-appointed special representative, Sergio Vieira de Mello, went to Baghdad and was making considerable progress in building bridges between Iraq and its future, notably in helping establish the Iraqi Governing Council. His tragic death, together with 21 other dedicated staff, in a suicide bombing of his headquarters on August 19, 2003, and a second attack on the same premises on September 22, led to the withdrawal of the UN’s international staff. But our heroic UN local colleagues stayed and continued to provide essential aid, notably delivering 500,000 metric tonnes of food per month; supplying some 11 million litres of water a month to Baghdad and Basra, and 2 million litres of fuel for water treatment plants; helping revive the school system and get children back into classrooms; delivering fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides in the lead-up to the planting season; and delivering medical supplies and helping the Iraqi Ministry of Health establish a disease surveillance system.

The provision of humanitarian relief is only one aspect of the UN’s continuing involvement in Iraq. Washington has discovered in Iraq that the US is better at winning wars alone than constructing peace alone: military strength has its limitations in the area of nation-building (as French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord said, the one thing you cannot do with a bayonet is to sit on it). When the Coalition decided to hand over sovereignty by June 30, 2004, it again turned to the UN to identify Iraqi interlocutors. Early in February 2004, special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, accompanied by UN election experts, made the first of several trips to Baghdad to assess options for rebuilding a sovereign, independent and democratic Iraq. He was able to meet with Iraqis of all persuasions, including those who would not talk to the Coalition. Brahimi’s recommendations were widely applauded, and the Interim Government he helped craft came into being ahead of schedule at the end of June.

Since then, the United Nations has been active in: helping Iraq convene and run a national conference in July to select a Consultative Council; aiding the new authorities write an electoral law and set up an Independent Electoral Commission; and working with these bodies to prepare for elections scheduled for January 30, 2005. The UN remains charged under Security Council Resolution 1586 with promoting national dialogue and consensus on drafting a new constitution, helping the government develop civil and social services, coordinating reconstruction, development and humanitarian assistance, promoting the protection of human rights, and helping the authorities plan for a census.

Advising not doing
Although the UN was instructed to advise and help, the Security Council made it clear that the Iraqis own this process. And it recognized that the UN would only undertake these tasks as circumstances permit – code for “when we can ensure the security of our staff”. Nonetheless, since July, a new special representative of the secretary-general, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi of Pakistan, has been deployed to Baghdad, restoring a small (but growing) UN international presence, bolstered by experts rotating in and out of the country. Offices in Basra and Erbil are due to open shortly.

Clearly, the security situation in Iraq remains a serious concern. As we do not believe we should ask unarmed civilians to put their lives at risk unless there are no other means of delivering on our mandates, we will only carry out activities in Iraq that must take place inside the country. Everything else will be managed or coordinated from outside, until the situation improves, either because we have sufficient security forces to protect our civilian staff, or – more hopefully – because the violence wanes and the situation improves for everyone in Iraq.

Many UN staff resent accusations made by some commentators that UN staff will not face dangers to help people – an accusation that is doubly offensive when three of my colleagues were recently released after being held hostage in Afghanistan and thousands of others continue to risk death and debilitating disease in peacekeeping and humanitarian operations around the world. But protection and security for UN staff – indeed for anybody going into Iraq to help – are a basic and essential prerequisite.

That said, there is real progress on the electoral front. The UN has helped train some 6,000 registration clerks employed for the voter registration – both directly and by training Iraqi trainers – and we are on course to have 130,000 poll workers ready for the elections on time.

In some circles, much has been made of the fact that we only have modest numbers of electoral staff permanently stationed in Baghdad. We will certainly put more people in if the security conditions allow. But the comparisons that some have drawn with our electoral presence in East Timor and other places are nonsense. In East Timor the UN ran the elections – UN staff drafted the rules, registered the voters, designed and arranged the printing of the ballots, staffed the booths, counted the votes, and so on.

The impending Iraqi election is an election run by the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (IECI), which the UN helped establish. The UN is not organizing, conducting or monitoring the election. It is giving advice to the Iraqis, at their request. Dozens of UN staff, not all in Baghdad, have been providing extensive technical assistance to the IECI. And more are on their way as I write.

Crucial support
But it is the quality of the United Nations’ input, not the size of the UN team, that is the key to providing meaningful assistance to the electoral process. The technical support and strategic advice of a dedicated team of international experts have been crucial in enabling the IECI to prepare for elections. Inside Iraq, UN experts working with the Commission have been meeting with various political entities and civil society representatives to explain the electoral process. Outside Iraq, the UN has trained the members of the Commission and several hundred other electoral workers. Voter registration started on November 1, on schedule, and most of the 542 registration centres are now open. (Incidentally, they are using the Oil for Food Programme’s food distribution lists as the basis of the provisional voters’ roll.)

The technical preparations for the elections are critical – but so is the political and security environment. If politicians do not feel safe to campaign and voters are afraid to line up to cast a ballot, the election will be compromised. The political parties seem largely supportive, and the political space created by the prospect of elections is broadening to include the supporters of radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who had so far stayed out of it. But security remains a key variable – and it rests in the hands of Iraqis themselves and the US-led multinational force. The responsibility for determining whether the elections ultimately can take place in January belongs to the people charged with running those elections – the Iraqis of the Independent Electoral Commission. So far, they are determined to proceed.

Beyond Iraq
The ultimate objective of all UN involvement in Iraq has been that Iraqis should regain control of their own political destiny. We hope that the elections will take place, and that they will be as inclusive as possible. The divisions that bedevilled the organization in early 2003 are behind us; our secretary-general, Kofi Annan, has repeatedly stated that it is in everyone’s interest to see the emergence of a peaceful and stable Iraq. But the crisis isn’t over, and the UN is ready to do its part to help create a new Iraq.

But whatever happens in Iraq, let us not forget that the relevance of the United Nations does not stand or fall on its conduct on one issue alone. When this crisis is over, the world will still be facing (to use Annan’s phrase) innumerable “problems without passports”, issues that cross frontiers uninvited: the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; the degradation of our common environment; contagious disease and chronic starvation; human rights and human wrongs; mass illiteracy; and massive displacement. The United Nations remains the world’s indispensable instrument to deal with these problems, which will persist long after Iraq has disappeared from the headlines.

Shashi Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor is under-secretary-general for communications and public information at the United Nations. In the course of a 26-year UN career he has also served as the UN high commissioner for refugees and led the headquarters team responsible for peacekeeping operations in the former Yugoslavia. He was named a Global Leader for Tomorrow in 1998.