The United Nations has downplayed Secretary-General Kofi Annan's broadcast remark that the war in Iraq was illegal. A spokesman said the comment was consistent with Mr. Annan's long-held position. But the U.S. ambassador questioned the wisdom of the remark, and defended the decision to go to war.
Secretary General Annan's use of the word "illegal" to describe the Iraq war during a British television interview this week is receiving worldwide headline treatment.
Coming just weeks before a U.S. presidential election that some view as a referendum on the war, the secretary-general's comment adds fuel to the campaign debate.
But a day after the statement was broadcast, Mr. Annan was clearly in no mood to discuss the matter. After facing reporters to read a statement on Sudan, the secretary-general hurried off before any questions on Iraq could be asked.
Spokesman Fred Eckhard downplayed Mr. Annan's comment, saying it was a well-known and long-held position. "He has over the past more than a year used words 'not in conformity with the charter' to describe his view of the Iraq war," he said.
Spokesman Eckhard said the secretary-general only used the word "illegal" after being pressed to do so by the interviewer. "I think If you saw it," he said, "you saw that the secretary-general was quite reluctant to use that word, and in the end, after repeated pressure from the interviewer, he said, when the final question was 'Is it illegal?' He said 'Yes. I have indicated, it is not in conformity with the UN charter. From our point of view, and from the charter point of view, it was illegal.'"
Regardless of his intent, the secretary-general's comment clearly irritated ambassadors from countries with troops in Iraq. U.S. Ambassador John Danforth said the remarks were both ill-advised and poorly timed. "If I had been his adviser, which I wasn't, I would have advised him not to say it at all, and if he was going to say it at all not to say it now, but he did," he said.
Ambassador Danforth defended the U.S.-led invasion, and argued that it was not only legal, but necessary under previous Security Council resolutions. "Resolution 14-41 held that the then-government of Iraq was not in compliance and promised there would be serious consequences if they were not in compliance, then the question for those countries that were part of the coalition was, well, do all these resolutions mean nothing? Does the Security Council mean nothing? Is it totally ineffectual when it says there are going to be consequences? That's really meaningless. So it seems to me it would have undercut the rule of law had there been no action. Had we just said, so we pass resolution, but they're so much waste paper. I think that the action we took with respect to Iraq was something that was required if we were going to maintain a rule of law," he said.
Both spokesman Eckhard and Ambassador Danforth, as well as other U.N. diplomats dismissed the controversy surrounding the secretary-general's remarks as nothing serious. Ambassador Danforth called it "just a different interpretation."
Chinese Ambassador Wang Guangya shrugged off reporters' questions, saying, "All of us have our views on the Iraqi war. But what is important is that we help bring peace and stability to the country."