It was clear that part of the US strategy was to set up the United Nations as the fall guy for the not-so-peaceful conclusion of the Yugoslavia war. The US rejected any UN role in decision-making about military action. But now Washington holds the UN accountable for the messy and violent aftermath of the US-NATO war.

By Phyllis Bennis

August 1999

It was eminently predictable. Only weeks after NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation)'s bombing campaign, US officials were already blaming the United Nations for their own inevitable failure to restore anything resembling peace in Kosovo and the rest of Yugoslavia.

It was only after the months of NATO bombing failed to stop the ethnic cleansing and expulsions in Kosovo, that Washington and its allies grudgingly allowed a role for the once-excluded UN. The bombing devastated Yugoslavia and shored up support for Slobodan Milosevic. So it turned out, not suprisingly, they finally admitted they needed the world body to orchestrate the deal for ending the air war, withdrawing Yugoslav troops, and creating an international protectorate in Kosovo.

But from that same moment it was clear that part of the US strategy was to set up the UN (already denied adequate resources, personnel and authority) as the fall guy for the not-so-peaceful conclusion of the Yugoslavia war. The US rejected any UN role in decision-making about military action. But now Washington holds the UN accountable for the messy and violent aftermath of the US-NATO war.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Henry Shelton and Secretary of Defence William Cohen focused their testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on condemning the UN. 'We need to put as much pressure as possible on the UN to do more,' threatened Cohen. Adding to the accusations, the Committee's chair, Senator John W Warner, berated how 'the United Nations moves very slowly to assume its responsibilities.'

What the officials ignored, among other things, is that thanks largely to US and its wealthy allies' miserliness, the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees had so far received only $140 million of the $400 million needed to rebuild homes for the returning Kosovar refugees. The New York Times reported that 'only 150 police officers of a projected 3,110 member international force are in Kosovo' and one could almost see the shaking heads of disapproval at the UN's failure.

But the real problem is that the entire 3,000-plus volunteer force must be individually recruited and sent to Kosovo by separate governments around the world. This is largely because the US has prevented the creation of any kind of standing UN reaction force or international police force that could, under the direction of the Secretary-General, move swiftly and proactively in crisis zones.

The Clinton administration refuses to help rebuild Serbia's bomb-devastated infrastructure so long as Milosevic remains in power, and it is pressuring other NATO members to do the same. That means that Kosovo, with its mostly Albanian population, will eventually receive millions in reconstruction money, while the rest of Serbia gets nothing. With ethnic tensions thus rising, the UN's task will remain that much more daunting, and Washington's position will make the UN's failure that much more likely.

The Clinton administration refuses to acknowledge how much it needs the UN for any hope of achieving a more peaceful world. The US violated the UN Charter and international law by using NATO, a military alliance, to authorise its air war against Yugoslavia instead of placing the issue before the United Nations.

There may be times when widespread human rights violations, such as those that occurred in Kosovo, may indeed necessitate at least the consideration of international intervention even within a sovereign state - but only the UN is entitled to make such a grave determination. Claimed fear of a possible veto by other Security Council members (however exaggerated, given Chinese and Russian dependency on Western economic support) does not give the US and Britain the right to do an end run around the UN's primacy in matters of international peace and security. By acting solo, the US trumpets its contempt for other nations.

So what's going on here? Why is the US leading the charge to discredit and undermine the UN and international law even further, now that NATO's unauthorised war in Yugoslavia is over?

It's an old story, really. It's the story of a strategically unchallenged dominion, at the apogee of its power and influence, rewriting the global rules for how to manage its empire. The Greeks did it a couple of thousand years ago. Thucydides described how Mylos, the island conquered to ensure stability for Greece's golden age, would be governed by wholly different laws than the Athenians' tranquil (if slavery-dependent) democracy at home. So too, the Roman empire.

In the last couple hundred years the sun-never-sets-on-us British empire did the same thing. And now, having achieved once-unimaginable heights of military, economic and political powers, it's Washington's turn.

It takes the form of the US excluding itself from treaties and other international agreements that are applicable to others. It is evident in Washington's rejection of the International Criminal Court, designed to hold individuals accountable for war crimes and genocide.

Last year the Clinton administration, through David Scheffer, US Ambassador for War Crimes Issues, reaffirmed the administration's official support for such a court. He followed a position asserted at the end of the Second World War, when the US fought for individuals to be held personally accountable for crimes against humanity. But when the new court was approved in July 1998 by 102 nations, the US joined an eclectic assortment of countries voting against - Israel, Libya, China, Iraq, Qatar and Sudan.

Why did the US join this odd group in opposing the Court? Because, Scheffer said later, 'the court places at risk those who shoulder the responsibility for international peace and security'. There should be an international court, but US officials and soldiers should be immune from its jurisdiction.

The law of empire was clear in the US refusal to sign the 1997 convention prohibiting the use of anti-personnel land mines. The rest of the world agreed that the mines, responsible for far more civilian than military deaths, should be outlawed. The campaign that orchestrated the convention was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.

But the US, while claiming to support the convention, demanded that it be exempt, and be allowed to continue using land mines in Korea's demilitarised zone and around the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Everyone else should ban land mines, the US agreed, but we should be the exception.

Washington's self-exceptionalism also shows up in the campaign to protect children in warfare. Stemming from growing international concern about the use of children - through kidnapping, coercion, and lack of economic alternatives - as soldiers or other military workers, servants or slaves, the Convention on the Rights of the Child outlaws all recruitment of children under the age of 18 into national armies or paramilitary organisations.

But the Pentagon finds it convenient to continue to recruit 17-year-olds. So the US joins only Somalia in refusing to sign the Convention.

And the law of empire is perhaps most clear of all in how the US, the only country in the world with the power to do so, shifted international decision-making out of the hands of the UN, substituting unilateral action and NATO decision-making. The interventions of the 1990s saw a concerted effort to weaken, and ultimately replace, the role of the UN in favour of US unilateral assertion of power.

In 1990 the US, however cynically, promoted the UN as its chosen legitimiser, orchestrating through bribes and threats and punishments a Security Council vote authorising Washington's coalition war against Iraq. In the 1992-94 period of escalating failures of international peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda and elsewhere, the US continually blamed its own and Western failures on the UN.

President Clinton still implies the UN is responsible for the deaths of US Rangers in Somalia during a non-UN authorised, unilateral Pentagon mission in 1993. By 1995, Madeleine Albright called the UN 'a tool of American foreign policy'. And by 1996, as the US continued bombing Iraq, Washington claimed it no longer needed UN resolutions to justify its airstrikes. (The US-British 'no-fly zones' established after the Gulf War were never authorised by the UN.)

In the run-up to Operation Desert Fox in 1998, Security Council members were afraid Washington was going to sideline them once more. A parade of Council ambassadors stated explicitly that their resolution calling for 'severest consequences' in the event of a future violation by Baghdad, did not authorise a unilateral US military strike on Iraq. Their fears were right.

Then-US Ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson followed his fellow ambassadors out of the Council chamber, blithely shrugged when informed of his predecessors' concerns, and told the press, 'We think it does.' And four days of bombs and cruise missiles devastated Baghdad.

By 1999, having denied the UN and European diplomatic organisations the authority and resources needed for serious preventive diplomacy in the escalating Kosovo crisis, Washington took the final step. It abandoned the UN altogether, replacing the legal requirement of UN authorisation for the use of force, with the projection of NATO, a military alliance, as champion of yet another bombing campaign.

Of course the UN is the right organisation to be in charge of the Kosovo situation right now - but it must be granted the money, personnel and authority it needs to do the job. Of course, the US should have promoted the UN as the central actor there years ago - by paying its UN dues, by supporting UN efforts (along with those of the OSCE - the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) to respond proactively before the humanitarian crisis in Kosovo escalated, by supporting the creation of a UN Department of Preventive Diplomacy and a standing, independent UN-controlled rapid-response civilian/police/peacekeeping force.

Setting up the UN to take the blame for US and NATO failures is no way to bring peace to Kosovo - nor to Sierra Leone or Colombia or anywhere else. Being the richest and most powerful nation in the world doesn't give the US the right to trample international law, to run endgames around the UN, to use or discard the global organisation on the whims of superpower arrogance or domestic politics.

The world has had enough of empires writing their own rules. - Third World Network Features

About the writer: Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and author of Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today's UN.