The U.N.'s Strengths and Weaknesses in Iraq


Feb 18, 2004

This commentary originally appeared in San Diego Tribune on February 18, 2004.

Court battles over butterfly ballots and hanging chads in Florida in 2000 gave Americans a small taste of how complicated and contentious national elections can be to set up and implement. But it will be far more difficult to organize elections in Iraq, where an armed insurgency continues, religious and ethnic rivalries remain intense, and democracy is a foreign concept yet to take root.

With so many factions battling for power in Iraq, and with American troops under fire as occupiers, it has been difficult to get all sides to agree on a single organization they believe will fairly oversee the transition to democracy. Now, in an effort to break the deadlock over forming a new elected Iraqi government, most groups are reaching a consensus that the United Nations is best qualified for the job.

Ironically, the U.N.'s refusal to back the U.S.-led war in Iraq strengthens its ability to help achieve the U.S. goal of a democratic Iraq. The United Nations is seen as a more neutral party, giving the international organization added stature and credibility.

U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's recent meeting with Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf was an important step in breaking the impasse over Iraq's transition. U.S. officials have advocated regional caucuses to select an interim government scheduled to take power on June 30, but leaders of Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority have insisted on direct elections before Iraqi sovereignty is restored. The U.N.-brokered compromise will probably lie somewhere in the middle: direct elections sooner than the United States envisaged, but not until after an Iraqi government assumes office at the end of June.

The United Nations' experiences in such places as East Timor, Cambodia, El Salvador and recently in Afghanistan show why it is best qualified to organize and conduct Iraqi elections.

During East Timor's transition to statehood, the United Nations successfully oversaw all aspects of the 1999 referendum for independence and the 2001 elections for a constituent assembly. Following decades of civil war in Cambodia, the United Nations helped carry out free and fair elections in 1993. In El Salvador, the United Nations oversaw the 1994 elections and deployed nearly 900 observers to polling stations on Election Day. In Afghanistan, the United States and United Nations collaborated in organizing an assembly of representatives of political parties, ethnic and tribal groups, and professional groups called a loya jirga, and established a democratic constitution.

In Iraq, critical aspects of an election will include the adoption of an electoral law and the design and implementation of a system of registration of voters, political parties and candidates. Iraqi candidates and political parties also will need to be ensured free and fair access to coverage and advertising in newspapers, television, and radio.

With the growing possibility of civil war in Iraq, however, the United Nations faces a number of limitations. While it has the ability to oversee voting and the counting of votes, it is unable to provide security at or around polling stations during elections.

Security is not the United Nations' strong suit. The organization's first envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, was killed in a suicide bombing attack in August. After the East Timor population voted for independence from Indonesia in 1999 following a U.N.-organized referendum, militia groups killed nearly 1,000 people and destroyed 70 percent of East Timor's infrastructure as U.N. personnel helplessly looked on.

Nor was the United Nations able to provide security to many Cambodians during the U.N.-organized elections in 1993. The election campaign was marred by violence, and voting could not take place in Khmer Rouge-controlled territory because the United Nations could not ensure the safety of voters.

Elections will likely trigger more violence, especially with the sprouting up of militias loyal to Sunni, Shiite and other religious, ethnic and tribal leaders. Iraqi police and security forces, supported by the United States and coalition forces, are needed to provide security during elections. This includes deploying forces to polling stations to provide security and ensuring that voters are not harassed on their way to the polls.

The United Nations also has limited power to enforce election results if some Iraqi groups choose not to accept them. The United Nations has failed when it tried to do this elsewhere. For example, the Cambodian People's Party was edged out during the U.N.-sponsored national elections in 1993. But it refused to cede power and retained de facto control throughout most of the country. The United Nations had neither the power nor the proclivity to enforce the outcome of the elections.

The lesson for the United States is clear. Handing over the organization and implementation of Iraqi elections to the United Nations is a sensible step, but the United Nations should not be counted on to ensure security or enforce election results. Recognizing the U.N.'s limits is just as important as understanding its strengths.

Jones is an associate political scientist at RAND Corp., a nonprofit research organization, and a co-author of "America's Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq."

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