Annan Repeats Misgivings About Legality of Iraq War


New York Times

September 22, 2004

UNITED NATIONS, Sept. 21 - Secretary General Kofi Annan opened the annual United Nations debate of world leaders today with a plea for greater observance of international law and a reminder of his misgivings about the legality of the war in Iraq.

"Those who seek to bestow legitimacy must themselves embody it, and those who invoke international law must themselves submit to it," he told the audience of delegates in the General Assembly hall, which included President Bush and Ayad Allawi, the interim Iraqi prime minister.

Mr. Annan, who last week told a BBC interviewer that he considered the war in Iraq "illegal" because it proceeded without Security Council approval, stuck to the point by citing the example of Iraq in his larger argument about the primacy of international law and how it applies to advanced powers as well as unprincipled individuals.

"In Iraq, we see civilians massacred in cold blood while relief workers, journalists and other non-combatants are taken hostage and put to death in the most barbarous fashion," he said. He then drew a parallel to American actions. "At the same time," he said, "we have seen Iraqi prisoners disgracefully abused."

He also noted pointedly that "even the necessary fight against terrorism is allowed to encroach unnecessarily on civil liberties."

Despite these repeated references, a senior United Nations official who briefed reporters on the speech said that Mr. Annan had always hoped to focus this year's General Assembly session on the notion of the rule of law at a time of terror and preventive war and did not mean to dwell on Iraq.

"He's already stirred things up enough with his famous `illegal' quote to the BBC last week," the official said. "He was very keen that everyone should understand that stirring things up is not his stock in trade."

The official added, "He is not looking to revive the argument about the precise legality, legitimacy or whatever of the military action taken in March of 2003 in Iraq."

Still it seemed that the war in Iraq was on Mr. Annan's mind as he argued that justice must be applied universally and flouted nowhere. "Every nation that proclaims the rule of law at home must respect it abroad," he said, "and every nation that insists on it abroad must enforce it at home."

Mr. Annan spoke to the General Assembly hall just minutes before Mr. Bush addressed delegates to the two-week session, which is being attended by 64 presidents, 25 prime ministers and 86 foreign ministers. There are representatives from all 191 member states and the Palestinian and Vatican observer missions.

For the United Nations, the year has been one in which its credibility was at once restored by pleas for assistance in Iraq from the Bush administration, which earlier had questioned the world organization's relevance, and battered by the emergence of evidence that its oil-for-food program was ridden with corruption and may have channeled $10 billion to Saddam Hussein.

Its ability to act quickly has also been called into question by the delayed response to the ethnic cleansing campaign in Sudan - called an act of genocide by the United States - in which 50,000 have died and 1.2 million have been made refugees.

Mr. Annan conceded that the organization was in need of reform and noted that a high-level panel he appointed last year to come up with a modernization plan would report back by the end of this year on ways to increase its effectiveness.

Cautioning his listeners not to lose faith in the United Nations, he said, "Let's not imagine that, if we fail to make good use of it, we will find any more effective instrument."