The UN Security Council, largely handicapped by the Cold War until the late 1980s, has become considerably more proactive over the last twenty-five years. The results are mixed.
One constant for the Council since 1980 is that it has been at grips with conflicts involving Iraq — conflicts with Iraq’s neighbours and also internal strife prior to and particularly since 2003. Every instrument at the Council’s disposal, including all the coercive ones, have been invoked at one time or another against authorities in Iraq or to assist them. After a promising beginning in helping to end the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), and in mandating the expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, which Baghdad had sought to annex in 1990, the Council’s silent tolerance of intrusive international humanitarian activities in Iraq’s Kurdish provinces as of 1991 was ground-breaking.
Nevertheless, the Council’s post-war strategy for Iraq outlined in Resolution 687 of 1991 wound up over-reaching, involved serious unintended consequences arising from an overzealous sanctions regime (and a related humanitarian program the UN did not possess the administrative machinery to oversee effectively), and eventually sundered relations among the Permanent Five (P-5) members of the Council through a series of fractious episodes from 1988 to 2003.
This working paper outlines a three-decade span of Security Council resolutions, actions and impasses on Iraq, investigating closely the period of diplomatic confrontation in 2002–2003 culminating in unilateral military action to remove Saddam Hussein from power by the US, the UK and a very few others without a mandate from the Council to do so. The UN was subsequently mostly side-lined in and on Iraq.
The paper considers damage to perceptions of the Council legitimacy stemming from the events of 2002–2003 and assesses its evolving approach to international security in Iraq and beyond since then.