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Gary Younge
The golden rulemakers

Following its refusal to back the first Gulf war, America cut off aid and pushed to make it a virtual pariah state. As the UN's chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, packs his bags for Baghdad following Friday's security council resolution, the UN risks being used as a fig leaf for the military and economic pretensions of the US and Britain.

Having argued that bombing Iraq without UN authorisation would be illegal, we must now explain why bombing with UN blessing would still be immoral. For, while it was right to insist that the US act within the auspices of the UN, it was wrong to raise false hopes that the UN would be either capable or necessarily willing to prevent a military attack.

The UN is anything but perfect. Its structures are outmoded, its methods are undemocratic and its record of restoring, defending or establishing democracy around the globe is weak. As such, like any multilateral institution, the resolutions that emerge from it reflect the balance of power among those within it. As globalisation has accelerated over the past decade, for example, we have seen the ascendancy, with the UN, of the representatives not of nations but of capital.

In 1999, UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, told the Business-Humanitarian Forum: "The business community is fast becoming one of the UN's most important allies - that is why the organisation's doors are open to you as never before." Two months later, the United Nations Development Programme accepted $50,000 from 11 multinationals in return for privileged access to their offices.

Likewise, one of Russia's key concerns about a war on Iraq is not loss of life, but the loss of billions of pounds in contracts. "There are very legitimate interests that Russia have got," said Tony Blair, before heading to Moscow last month. "There are outstanding contracts with Iraq. They want to know we are sensitive to them, and we are."

As Yemen found out to its considerable cost, the UN operates, by and large, according to the golden rule - that those who have the gold make the rules. Those without are left to fend for themselves. It is the UN's inability to deliver for the poor, on aid, trade, the environment and development, that makes it appear "irrelevant" to most - not its tardiness in delivering war for the wealthy.

Nonetheless, the existence of the UN, founded as it was on humanitarian principles, has proved an irritant to the great powers. And never more so than now.

In the aftermath of September 11, George W Bush's adviser on foreign affairs, Condoleezza Rice, asked senior staff at the National Security Council to think seriously about "how do you capitalise on these opportunities" in order to change US foreign policy. The answer was a strategy that would formalise America's role as the world's most powerful rogue state - like a well-armed vigilante, acting in its own interests and outside of the law, alone where necessary and with others where possible. In this context, with America heading at breakneck speed to the conclusion that it could and should impose its will unilaterally on the rest of the world, forcing it to the UN's negotiating table applied an important brake.

This was an achievement. Whatever problems there may be with the UN resolution passed last week (and there are many), at least it does not authorise force. This came about not because Blair supported Bush, but because nobody else did. Isolated from the rest of the world, the Americans felt it too great a risk to go it alone, and went to the UN. Were it not for that, we would almost certainly now be at war. The return of the inspectors should also be welcomed. The world will be safer without weapons of mass destruction - whether they're owned by Iraq or Israel, exported by Britain or America, or imported by Pakistan or India.

So, for the moment, talk of pre-emptive strikes has been quashed, and regime change is being qualified. Moreover, their return represents a principle the US had tried to bury alive: that before there can be prosecution, there must first be proof.

Quite how long that moment will last, however, is a moot point. If forcing America to negotiate was an achievement, the outcome of those negotiations was most certainly not a victory.

The case against war remains as strong as it ever was. There is still no evidence that Iraq presents an immediate threat to the rest of the world - nor have any links to September 11, Bali or any other recent terrorist atrocities been established. Yet Friday's resolution was packed with blatant tripwires, unrealistic timetables and intrusive rules - which no sovereign power would accept under normal circumstances - and a potentially lethal fudge, which the US and Britain may well choose to interpret as a mandate for war.

While it has slowed the US and Britain down, it has not altered their course. Even as they cloak themselves in the legitimacy conferred by the UN's imprimatur, they insist they're just as happy to act without it. Said a US official last week: "The president has all the authority he needs should he decide to strike Iraq, thanks to the congressional resolution."

Great play has been made of the fact that the French insisted on the substitution of "and" for "or" in one part of the text, as evidence of the detail with which the agreement has been hammered out. But all of this amounts to little more than antics about semantics if the Americans are going to bomb anyway.

The biggest threat to the UN's credibility now is not Saddam Hussein, but Bush. The American position, endorsed by Britain, is cynical. They support multilateralism when multilateralism supports them. When global rules prove inconvenient - be it Kyoto, steel tariffs or the chemical weapons test ban treaty - they are happy to do without them.

Mirroring that cynicism will do those who oppose the war no good. Our problem with the UN resolution should not be that it fails to meet our pragmatic demands, but that it is not based on the principles that would give it credibility. There is no contradiction between calling on America to act within international law and insisting that international law should be applied fairly, adhered to universally, and executed consistently. If Iraq is in material breach of UN resolutions, then Israel is no less so. If the rights of UN inspectors are sacrosanct, then the rights of asylum seekers, under the universal declaration of human rights, are no less so either.

Yet so long as a few pick and choose which laws should be followed or flouted, then none can have confidence that legality has any relevance over and above what you can get away with. So long as the UN is prey to bribery and bullying, then the resolutions that it passes will have no more moral authority than the cheques that are drawn on their account.

G.younge@theguardian.com

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