March 18, 2003
NEW YORK -- The international community is debating whether a U.S.-led war against Iraq would be legal without approval from the United Nations.
Here are some questions and answers about that issue:
Q: Can the United States and allies legally launch war without Security Council backing?
A: The U.N. Charter allows nations to take military action with Security Council approval as an explicit enforcement action, such as during the Korean War and the 1991 Gulf War. The charter permits nations to defend themselves; most experts agree preemptive defense is allowable against imminent attack.
The United States and Britain claim they can legally launch war against Iraq under resolutions dating from 1991 ordering Saddam Hussein to disarm.
The Bush administration argues that Hussein's presumed arsenal amounts to an imminent threat and therefore justifies preemptive strikes. Washington also argues that Hussein harbors al-Qaida terrorists and, therefore, was their ally in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Other council members -- chiefly France, Germany and Russia -- disagree. They say U.N. inspections are working and that Iraq can be peacefully disarmed. Many question an Iraqi link to al-Qaida.
They also say previous resolutions give no authority for military action.
On Monday, the United States, Britain and Spain abandoned efforts to win U.N. backing.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been blunt: "If the United States and others were to go outside the Security Council and take unilateral action, they would not be in conformity with the charter."
Q: Isn't Iraq violating disarmament resolutions?
A: The Security Council adopted 17 resolutions from the end of the Gulf War through November demanding immediate cooperation in disarmament. Council members agree Iraq has defied the United Nations, but many do not believe Iraq poses an imminent threat. Most believe inspectors should be given more time to root out Baghdad's alleged weapons of mass destruction.
Q: Isn't this a continuation of the 1991 Gulf War?
A: Many commentators supporting the U.S. and British positions believe so. Security Council Resolution 687, passed after the Gulf War, made a cease-fire conditional on Iraq's scrapping its arsenal.
Critics contend that "no-fly zones" enforced by the United States, Britain and France to protect northern Iraqi Kurds and southern Iraqi Shiites have perpetuated the war.
Q: The Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1441 in November requiring Iraq to cooperate with U.N. arms inspectors. Doesn't that permit enforcement?
A: That resolution would not have been adopted unanimously if it contained a trigger for war. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Negroponte, assured the council that the resolution contained "no hidden triggers."
The resolution said Iraq would suffer "serious consequences" if the council decided its weapons declaration contained "false statements or omissions" and if Iraq failed to cooperate with inspectors. The United States has declared Iraq in "material breach" of its obligations; the Security Council has not made that determination.
The resolution does not specify consequences. The United States and Britain say they, as part of the "coalition of the willing," may now decide those consequences.