Ban Mischief at the U.N.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is close to making an enormously significant misjudgment about his role and authority. Mr. Ban has repeatedly called for an "international" inquiry into the May 31 clash with Israeli commandos, provoked by supporters of Hamas on a Turkish-flagged ship off the Gaza Strip, resulting in nine killed and dozens wounded. According to the media, he is seriously considering launching such an inquiry by his own personal decision.

For Mr. Ban to act without express U.N. Security Council authorization, however, would far exceed his legitimate authority. It would create a troubling precedent, with implications not just for Israel but for the United States, extending well beyond Israel's blockade of Gaza or the May 31 events. Nonetheless, President Obama has not moved decisively to quash the idea, and his inaction is understood in U.N. circles as implicitly consenting to Mr. Ban's illegitimate initiative.

The U.N. Security Council already has issued a statement by its president, which, although harshly critical of Israel, was significantly watered down from its original draft. The final text said specifically that "the Security Council takes note of the statement of the United Nations Secretary-General on the need to have a full investigation into the matter and it calls for a prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation conforming to international standards."

The real issue, therefore, is the United States' position, and the White House's nonexistent public response to date strongly suggests it would like to see Mr. Ban proceed with his idea.

In the U.N.'s arcane world, "taking note" of something is simply an acknowledgment it exists. "Taking note" implies neither approval nor disapproval and has all the force of saying "taking note that the sun rose this morning." In short, the Security Council, given the opportunity to authorize Mr. Ban to create an international inquiry, chose not to do so. (Moreover, under the U.N. Charter, the General Assembly lacks authority, whereas here, the Security Council is plainly dealing with a matter involving "international peace and security.")

In fact, U.S. spokesmen said in the immediate aftermath of the Security Council statement that a truly independent, transparent investigation conducted entirely by Israel would be satisfactory. Israel is, in fact, undertaking an investigation with international participants that it asserts will meet this standard.

Additionally, on June 2, the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva entered the fray. By an entirely predictable 32-3 vote, with the United States one of the three dissenters, the HRC created its own "fact-finding mission" to investigate. We can predict with total confidence, based on the Goldstone Inquiry, created by the HRC in January 2009 to investigate Israel's Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, what this new inquiry will conclude. Israel, it will say, violated international law in creating the Gaza blockade, was unjustified in intercepting the Gaza flotilla and used disproportionate force in boarding the Turkish vessel.

Why, then, is there still talk of yet another inquiry being established by Ban Ki-moon? Even its ardent Obama-administration supporters know that the HRC, established four years ago to replace its thoroughly discredited predecessor, is itself now discredited and that any HRC report would be widely disregarded in both Israel and the United States. By contrast, an inquiry established by the U.N. secretary-general, whose conclusions almost certainly would be the same as those of the HRC investigation, could well have considerably greater weight and credibility. And if, as many suspect, greater pressure on Israel is what President Obama actually wants, a secretary-general's report would be much more effective.

Israel rejects Mr. Ban's idea, and Mr. Ban himself recognizes it would be futile to proceed if Israel refuses to cooperate, as it undoubtedly will do regarding the HRC inquiry. The real issue, therefore, is the United States' position, and the White House's nonexistent public response to date strongly suggests it would like to see Mr. Ban proceed with his idea. That would enable Mr. Obama to say, disingenuously, that the United States never actually voted to create such an inquiry, all the while letting the U.N. Secretariat know quietly that the White House was perfectly comfortable with it. Unambiguously, Mr. Obama's silence gives consent.

But we also should fully understand the broader implications of a Ban Ki-moon inquiry without express Security Council authorization. This would be a precedent for future power grabs by U.N. leaders, which could well come back to haunt the United States. The U.N. Charter is rhetorically expansive as it is, and when the secretary-general asserts authority beyond the protective reach of Washington's Security Council veto, all manner of mischief is possible.

Before Mr. Ban acts, congressional opponents of yet another inquiry should mobilize. Though they cannot stop Mr. Obama's behind-the-scenes support for this decidedly bad idea, they can respond to it legislatively. These are precisely the circumstances in which a legislative reduction in U.S.-assessed contributions to the U.N. would be warranted. And here, because the abuse of the U.N. Charter is especially flagrant, the amount of the withholding should far exceed our assessed share of the modest cost of the inquiry itself. This is a case where the secretary-general and other U.N. members need to understand that the United States is prepared to take punitive financial action to protect its interests. That way, and that way alone, we might actually get their attention in New York.

John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.

Photo Credit: UN Photo/John Isaac

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  • John R. Bolton, a diplomat and a lawyer, has spent many years in public service. From August 2005 to December 2006, he served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. From 2001 to 2005, he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security. At AEI, Ambassador Bolton's area of research is U.S. foreign and national security policy.

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