Politics & Policy

Legitimacy Test

The U.N. moral-authority problem.

Among the many dramatic consequences of the U.S. victory in Iraq will be a rethinking of the role of the United Nations and its claims to moral legitimacy. That word “legitimate” got a strenuous workout during the war debate, and was often exercised by those who favored the U.N. as moral arbiter. But both supporters and opponents of the U.S. intervention have to agree that the U.N. played no decisive role in arbitrating the dispute with Iraq, as either a legal or moral authority. Rather, the U.N.’s pronouncements and meetings were dominated by a predictable political gamesmanship, with each country asserting its own priorities without regard to these four key principles laid out in the U.N. charter:

To save humankind from the scourge of war

To affirm faith in fundamental human rights

To maintain respect for international law

To promote peace and social progress

The U.N. charter itself does not attempt to abolish war as such. It calls for “effective collective measure for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace.” But when it might have been possible to rid the world of Saddam Hussein twelve years ago, the U.N. chose a route that was politically expedient rather than morally courageous. Thus did the Iraqi regime continue to be a menace to its own people and to the region with the tacit blessing of the U.N., even as Saddam toyed with inspector teams and used the existence of trade sanctions as a propaganda device to enhance his own power.

Unable to secure any of its goals while standing on the sidelines — as the U.S. and its Coalition partners took matters into their own hands — U.N. spokesmen like Kofi Annan now claim that only the U.N. can confer legitimacy on a postwar Iraqi regime. But neither Iraqis nor the rest of the world are waiting for the U.N. bureaucracy to make up its mind on what to do. The legitimacy of the military action, for all its high costs, receives its biggest boost from the air of liberation that is now being breathed by the Iraqi people. Given the sudden clarity concerning the nature of the Iraqi dictatorship, along with the U.N.’s own failure to act, one wonders what is left for the U.N. to do.

The goal of creating an international body that promotes peace and stops war while advancing human rights and social progress is hardly unique to the United Nations. This has been the purpose of international law since the idea was first fully envisioned in the work of Francisco Suarez in the 16th century and Hugo Grotius in 1625 (The Law of War and Peace). But even the ancient world spoke commonly of the jus gentium, a law of nations that could be applied by Roman courts and also in foreign nations. This law was made by men to apply to states but it was to be rooted in natural law, which incorporates the desire for self-preservation and therefore peace and security, and which is in turn rooted in a recognition of, and deference to, a transcendent and sovereign Lawgiver.

The first principle of the traditional sense of international law was opposition to lawlessness and tyranny. To understand the meaning of tyranny, however, it is essential to understand the natural-law roots of freedom. For this we can turn to another international-law theorist. Samuel Pufendorf, a student of Grotius, who distinguished between the natural law, reflecting the moral sense intrinsic to our very humanity, and positive law, which is rooted in the actions and often whims of legislators and driven by concerns of political expediency. International law should operate as a reflection of, and with deference to, the natural law and imply certain duties owed to God, to ourselves, and to others. Communities of nations governed by civil authorities would gather with the aim of coming to a consensus concerning the right and wrong of government within states and dealings between states.

But the following centuries’ buildup of the nation-state based on a different notion of law, namely positive law, presented certain highly problematic challenges for the idea of international law. If the state is to be governed by purely positivist considerations, without regard to natural law or the recognition of the Lawgiver, it follows that international law would proceed on the same ground. The major step in this direction came after World War I with the League of Nations. Rather than an embodiment of the traditional idea of international law, it was proposed by prominent world statesmen as a political institution that would universalize the model of regimentation and political control that was fashionable in the Progressive Era.

In this new idea of international law, traditional moral imperatives that animated the classical liberal tradition took a backseat to the wishful thinking and managerial ambitions of politicians. It was based on an overly optimistic account of the ability of the political class to control and manipulate the affairs of the world. It sought no unity on universal principles rooted in transcendent concerns but rather a political consensus based on political priorities of the time.

The institutionalization of the United Nations, the charter of which was drawn up in 1942 and ratified in 1945, followed the next world war, and it was similarly rooted in an overly optimistic belief in the prospects for political management of societies and the world community. The main emphasis was on its bureaucratic structure: a general assembly, a security council, an economic and social council, a court of justice, and a secretariat. It was clear at the outset that the U.N. was to operate in the same manner, and, more importantly, on the same philosophical basis, as the major nation states at the time, which had long embraced positive law of legislators over the natural law of God.

The difference can be seen in how the original U.N. charter envisions the proper role of the state and its relation to society. To the architects of the U.N., it was not the job of states to merely maintain the rule of law and otherwise permit society to flourish in an atmosphere of freedom. Rather, it was said, with all the confidence that intellectuals in the 1940s had, that the U.N. would promote “higher standards of living, full employment, and … social of international economic, social, health, and related problems” (article 55).

In these words, we gain a glimpse into the essentially anti-liberal philosophical foundation of the U.N.: It imagines the nation-state as a highly meddlesome, central-planning entity, not merely allowing freedom or encouraging the practice of virtue, but directing the path of social development through coercive edict and planning. Aside from the text of the charter, that the Soviet Union and China, both totalitarian countries, were regarded as meriting the status of permanent members tells far more about the political culture of the time than even the document’s own expression of political pieties.

The U.N.’s declaration of rights only affects respect for the natural law with its condemnation of slavery and its affirmation of the right to freedom. But it also contains many claims that are unsupportable absent a highly interventionist state:

“Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay”; “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control;” “Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory.”

So on it goes through the list of rights that cannot possibly be guaranteed without a robust state heavily involved in the civil affairs of a nation, a state ruled not by an enduring moral code of transcendent origin but one managed by political elites who are apt to conflate their own will with the common good. Indeed, there is a lie at the root of the history of the U.N., namely that a society such as the Soviet Union, with all its controls and gulags, can be possibly be considered a member in good standing of the international community. What’s more, this totalitarian nation was permitted to have a huge amount of influence in the juridical oversight of international affairs, even as Soviet imperial ambitions expanded without impediment.

Thus, we see why it is that the U.N. seems unable to confront dictatorships or muster the moral will necessary to deal forthrightly with nations that flagrantly violate all standards of human rights. It has a history of doing this and is acting in the same manner today. As I write, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights is meeting in Geneva, in sessions chaired by Libya and attended by the world’s most repressive regimes, including Sudan, which still permits the practice of slavery.

The absence of a moral cry against this is a reflection of the belief that anything a committee does is consistent with right governance. It is hardly a surprise that so few take the authority of the U.N. seriously. It would be dangerous if people did. It is long past time we reexamine the moral and legal foundations of the U.N. itself, and consider other options for the enforcement of the law of nations.

Rev. Robert A. Sirico is president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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