Blair and the UN - a personal view

AS Clare Short says, it's ten minutes to midnight. The clock is ticking towards war, almost certainly in defiance of the United Nations. Political Editor GRAHAM DINES gives a personal assessment.

AS Clare Short says, it's ten minutes to midnight. The clock is ticking towards war, almost certainly in defiance of the United Nations. Political Editor GRAHAM DINES gives a personal assessment.

TWENTY-ONE years' ago, the British colony of the Falkland Islands was invaded and occupied at the behest of a military junta headed by a cruel tyrant who thought nothing of liquidating his political opponents.

The government of Margaret Thatcher was left reeling. The Argentinians stormed ashore, captured the British governor and the detachment of Royal Marines guarding the capital Port Stanley, and assumed the London government would just accept the situation.

Within four days, a task force headed by two Royal Navy aircraft carriers and including marines, the SAS and Welsh guardsmen was despatched by Mrs Thatcher to reclaim the Falklands for the Crown.

At the same time, the United Nations was asked to condemn the Argentine action and to support the British use of force. Crucially for Mrs Thatcher, it did. No permanent member of the Security Council voted `no,' recognising that such aggression had to be stopped.

With the moral authority of the UN on her side, Mrs Thatcher was determined to eject the Argentines despite heroic efforts at conciliation by the United States government and the UN Secretary-General.

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Within a few weeks, but at the cost of several hundred lives of British servicemen, the islands were reoccupied. Not only was it a great British feat of arms, it was a triumph for the United Nations which stood firm for international law and order.

Mrs Thatcher was absolutely right to order the task force to sail. John Major was correct nine years later to act with the United States and a UN sponsored international coalition to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait; as were Major and Tony Blair when they intervened in Kosovo, Serbia, and Bosnia, and Blair in Afghanistan.

The authority of the United Nations should be paramount. That's why, for the first time in my life, I find myself unable to support a British military operation.

Despite the Prime Minister's efforts, the Iraq-Saddam Hussein situation is not black and white.

That Saddam's regime is cruel and despotic is not in question. Perhaps Major and George Bush's father should have ordered their forces to cross the Kuwait-Iraq border and occupy Baghdad in 1991.

But they didn't, and Saddam has continued to defy resolution after resolution of the Security Council on his arms programme. He made monkeys out of the arms inspectors in the late 1998s, and continued to defy international opinion.

There is some evidence that he possesses weapons of mass destruction, but crucially none that he intends to use them against either his neighbours or against British interests.

However, the new batch of weapons inspectors – under the authority of last November's Security Council resolution 1441 – has been having some successes is making him disarm. Given more time, they might be able to complete the job.

Time is not what Bush or Blair are prepared to contemplate. President Bush said a few weeks ago that Saddam's obduracy was like the plot of a bad `B' movie and he was getting sick and tired of it.

But the rest of the world isn't. A second resolution giving him a deadline to disarm or face war, sponsored by the US, UK and Spain, will be vetoed by France and Russia and possibly China.

There will be no authority from the United Nations to proceed with war. Former Cabinet minister Tony Benn – I admit hardly a dispassionate observer – is right to point out that the use of force against the wishes of the UN will be illegal in international law and he fears British soldiers, sailors and airmen could be tried for war crimes if Iraqi civilians are killed.

By supporting Bush against the United Nations, Tony Blair risks everything. He could be forced from office, either through an internal Labour Party coup or by losing a vote of confidence in Parliament.

More and more Tories are joining the vast ranks of Labour backbenchers, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists to try to stop action.

This country is deeply divided. Ranged against the Prime Minister are more than 80% of the ordinary British people, academics, clerics, and show business personalities.

Across the board, politicians have formed an impressed alliance. Labour's Clare Short, Chris Smith, Glenda Jackson, Tam Dalyell, and Tony Benn are lined up with Tory big guns Kenneth Clarke, Douglas Hogg and John Gummer, and the Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy.

There seems little or no prospect of a second UN resolution. And having sent half the British army to camp in the Kuwait desert, does anyone really believe they will hang around playing football while the Americans march on Baghdad?

If the United Nations authority is to be upheld, any Security Council vote must be observed. The Labour Party prides itself on being internationalist, but the Prime Minister risks permanently damaging the one institution tens of thousands of Labour voters admire and support.

Snubbing the UN and going to war should not be an option. But if, by some miracle, France, China and Russia abstain and a second resolution is passed, then I might – just might – be prepared to give Tony Blair my support if it means British and American troops are wearing the blue helmets of the United Nations.