New Zealand and the UN
In 1945 Prime Minister Peter Fraser spent more than two months in San Francisco at the founding meeting of the United Nations. One of the few heads of government present, he helped New Zealand punch well above its weight. He supported the amended Charter that emerged, though he wasn't happy with the great powers' veto which had to be conceded if they were to participate. In the years that followed, the out-numbered Russians used that veto, sometimes capriciously. There were other problems too. The Charter was based on the right of nations to live a sovereign existence. But it also talked of the desirability of regimes accepting the "freely expressed wishes" of their people. While Hitler was being eliminated, it was clear that Stalin's Eastern European empire, no matter how many bogus plebiscites he staged, didn't comply with that clause. Worst of all, there wasn't any practical provision for amending the Charter to take account of change over time. By the end of the twentieth century the second and third largest economies in the world (Japan and Germany) lacked permanent seats on the Security Council, while France - even in 1945 the runt of the litter, and more glaringly so now - does.
The largest problem for the modern international community is how to deal with regimes that aren't in accord with the "freely expressed wishes" of its people. The fifty founding members of the UN had difficulty envisaging cruel regimes like "Papa" Doc's Haiti, Mugabe's Zimbabwe and North Korea. In the early days the UN delayed membership. Franco's dictatorship in Spain and Salazar's Portugal didn't join till 1955. But the full horror of Stalin's purges wasn't known in 1945. After 1960 African dictators popped up, and a racially-based franchise in South Africa enabled an Apartheid coup d'etat. Twenty years ago some of the people currently shouting against George W. Bush's threat to invade Iraq, one of the most brutal regimes on earth, were urging intervention in South Africa to help the disenfranchised majority. Then, as now, the UN Charter was so riddled with arcane rules that it was powerless to help repressed peoples in member countries.
New developments caused problems, too. Technology, especially sophisticated weapons, shrank borders. Rare in 1945, terrorism is now increasingly common. The use of oil revenues to fund Muslim fanaticism as a means of diverting attention from the democratic deficit in the Middle East weren't contemplated at the time. The modern confrontation between Jews and Arabs was in its infancy. Over the years, when push came to shove, some of the great powers circumvented the UN because of its complex rules and lethargic procedures. The Russians often did; the British and French acted alone in Suez; Nato bombed the Balkans, and the Americans shrugged off UN obligations when it suited. Which raises the interesting question why the Bush regime this time has allowed itself to become bogged down in the UN over Iraq. Presumably a major factor is that the US believes the UN must confront its seeming inability to intervene when it becomes clear that an individual regime becomes such a threat to world peace that it can't be allowed to continue in existence.
However, empowering the UN to undertake regime change is a radical new departure, and the Americans should have realised they might deliver themselves into the hands of international poseurs like Chirac, or leaders in desperate need of domestic diversion like Schroeder. Interestingly, the US hasn't yet advanced an argument for a fundamental overhaul of the UN Charter. As currently structured, it is clearly past its shelf life.
This is where a small country like New Zealand could usefully get involved. We will always need a UN. Sixty years ago we fought successfully for many features of the current one. Helen Clark has often said she admires Peter Fraser. She certainly possesses his clarity of thought on many international issues. She is the ideal person to take a lead in pushing for UN reform. If, as seems likely, Saddam's long-overdue exit takes place by force, then she - and the rest of us - will have to come to grips with a new reality. If might is not to be entrenched as right in the international world, we need a new charter for the UN. One that can confront the issues of our time.
Historian and author Michael Bassett was recently Fulbright Professor at Georgetown University in Washington DC.