The Iraq crisis has created a large number of casualties, and some suggest that the United Nations should be added to the list. International public perception certainly points that way. The label of "irrelevance," which had been flung at the UN during the unfruitful debates at the Security Council, continues to hang in the air. But the UN still remains the only Organization with the international legitimacy and experience to deal with problems that threaten the world's well-being and security. And it continues to play a crucial role in Iraq.
But a Pew poll taken 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 – and in 19 other countries because the UN failed to prevent the war. A 2004 Pew poll continued to show that the Organization's standing was lower than ever before in the US and in a number of Muslim countries.
Ironically, when President Bush called on the UN Security Council in September 2002 to take action against Iraq, he framed the problem not as one of unilateral US wishes, but as an issue of the implementation of earlier Security Council resolutions. The UN was 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 Coalition build an internationally-recognized, representative government. The fact that Washington submitted this resolution to the Security Council was a tacit acknowledgment that there is, in Secretary-General Kofi Annan's words, no substitute for the unique legitimacy provided by the United Nations.
This point is not just a matter of legal theory, either. Cooperation with the UN was integral to the United States during the post-war period. Without Resolution 1483, the US-led coalition could not have sold a single drop of Iraqi oil; the resolution created an international law that allowed the Coalition authorities in Iraq to conduct normal commerce.
UN representatives were also on the ground in Iraq facilitating the reconstruction effort. The duly-appointed Special Representative, Sergio Vieira de Mello, went to Baghdad and made considerable progress in building bridges between Iraq and its future, when his mission was cut short by a suicide bombing of his headquarters on August 19, 2003. Yet despite this tragedy and a subsequent attack which led to the withdrawal of international staff, the heroic UN local staff stayed and continued to provide essential aid, delivering 500,000 metric tons of food and some 11 million liters of water a month to Baghdad and Basrah. The UN has also helped revive schools; delivered fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides in the lead-up to the planting season; and provided medical supplies to local hospitals.
The Coalition has also turned to the UN to benefit from its experience in building democratic institutions and processes. When the Coalition decided to hand over sovereignty by June 30, 2004, it again turned to the UN to identify Iraqi interlocutors and chart the way forward. A team led by UN Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi helped craft the Interim Government at the end of June, ahead of schedule. Since then, the United Nations has been active in helping Iraq convene and run a national conference to select a Consultative Council; in facilitating the new authorities' development of electoral law and set up an Independent Electoral Commission; and in working with these bodies to prepare for elections scheduled for January 2005.
The Security Council has also adhered strictly to its role as instructor and advisor, making it clear that the Iraqis own this process. The Council acknowledged that the UN would only undertake certain tasks "as circumstances permit" – code for "when we can ensure the security of our staff." Since July, a new Special Representative of the Secretary-General, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi of Pakistan, has been deployed to Baghdad with a small team, bolstered by experts rotating in and out of the country.
Clearly, the security situation in Iraq remains a serious concern. Everything that can be managed or coordinated from outside Iraq will be, until the situation improves. The necessary conditions include sufficient security forces to protect our civilian staff, or – more hopefully – an overall decline in the violence and improved general security for everyone in Iraq.
UN staff have reason to resent accusations made by some commentators that they will not face dangers to help people, however. The accusation is doubly offensive, considering three of our colleagues are currently 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 – is a basic and essential prerequisite.
The desire to ensure the safety of staff has not hindered the UN from making invaluable contributions to the development of a viable, democratic nation. The Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (IECI), which the UN helped establish, will oversee the impending Iraqi election. While not organizing, conducting, or monitoring the election, the UN is advising the Iraqis, at their request. Dozens of UN staff have provided – and continue to provide – extensive technical assistance to the IECI. And this is all accomplished with only a few individuals based in Baghdad.
The critical phase in the lead-up to the elections is this month. Voter registration started on November 1, on schedule, and 85 percent of the 542 registration centers are now open. (Incidentally, the Oil for Food Program's food distribution lists provide the basis for 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 enough 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 likes of 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.
The ultimate objective of all UN involvement in Iraq has been for Iraqis to regain control of their own political destiny. We hope that the elections take place, and that they are as inclusive as possible. The divisions that bedeviled the Organization in early 2003 are behind us; Secretary-General 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 in the midst – ready and willing to play its unique part in helping create a new Iraq.
Shashi Tharoor is the UN Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information. This article appeared in YaleGlobal Online, a publication of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, and is reprinted by permission. Copyright © 2004 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization