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Madrid: UN's credibility critically wounded

by Ritt Goldstein Sunday, Mar. 21, 2004 at 11:36 AM

With the UN's quick condemnation of the Basque group ETA for Madrid's carnage, a sad new triumph of politics over truth was born. And a lot of UN credibility died in its birth.

Madrid: UN's credibility critically wounded

By Ritt Goldstein

Within hours of Thursday's fateful Madrid blasts the United Nations Security Council met. During a five minute session the council's 15 members unanimously adopted a resolution condemning the Basque separatist group ETA for the deadly attacks. But as it became increasingly clear that ETA was not responsible, questions of attempted manipulation of the public were abundant.

Spain's ruling Popular Party went down in defeat to the Socialists in Sunday's national election. It did so amid accusations that the government had withheld information on the bombings in an effort to influence the forthcoming vote.

A tough line on ETA had long been part of the Popular Party's platform. If indeed such a horrific ETA attack occurred, it would be certain to win Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's chosen successor the prime ministership. But with the Iraq war strongly unpopular among Spaniards, Islamic jihadi involvement in Thursday's nightmare would have grave implications for the Popular Party's votes, and it indeed did.

Despite doubts among experts in many corners, the Spanish government's reaction to Thursday's tragedy was immediate. Spain's interior minister, Angel Acebes, demanded that there was "no doubt" with regard to ETA's responsibility. But while Spanish passions could well be expected to influence judgement, what of the 14 remaining members of the Security Council? And notably, this was the first instance of a terrorist attack where any group was ever explicitly condemned by the council, let alone done so in five minutes.

Explaining how ETA came to be blamed, the council's French president, Ambassador Jean-Marc de la Sabliere, said: "The Spanish government stated that, and the Spanish delegation has asked the council to put this element in their resolution and members of the council accepted it." The US ambassador to the United Nation, John Negroponte, explained that blame was assigned to ETA at the Spanish government's urging, and because "it is the judgement of the government of Spain that these attacks were carried out by ETA and we have no information to the contrary".

Though repeated questions were raised in many quarters, and the head of Europol, Juergen Storbeck, had voiced reservations regarding ETA's involvement, the Security Council nevertheless chose to condemn ETA. But the fact that council members such as the US and France chose to portray their action based upon the Spanish government's wishes, illustrated a concurrent distancing from the decision. The council's actions were appreciated as questionable from their outset.

On Saturday, as Spanish protesters accused their government of attempting to promote the theory of ETA's responsibility for its political advantage, Acebes repeatedly insisted that ETA was the prime suspect. But on Thursday, the Spanish police had already found a van containing detonators and a tape of Koranic verses, ETA had issued a rare denial of responsibility and concurrently blamed "an operation of the Arab resistance" and an al-Qaeda related group had claimed the act as their own. Something else was uncovered as well.

In Thursday's alleged al-Qaeda letter claiming responsibility, the group Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades taunted Aznar and the coalition forces, saying: "Aznar, where is America? Who will protect you, Britain, Japan, Italy and others from us?" The specter of the "war on terrorism" bringing the terrorism increases that had been warned of by Western intelligence services became suddenly real. And the vulnerability of the Iraq Coalition's democratic governments to be voted from office - many of these governments supporting the war in spite of substantive popular protest - became a reality too.

The Spanish government is the first of those in this category to fall, in spite of the Security Council's action which might have given it the legitimacy to continue. And efforts were made to maintain that legitimacy, to cite ETA as potentially involved - both within Spain and abroad - through Sunday's election.

A Sunday Reuters article reported that: "Some Spaniards were vitriolic in accusing Aznar of 'manipulating' public opinion over the bombings." And on Sunday's national US television, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice all insisted that there was insufficient information to know who was responsible for the Madrid attacks. But this was long after Thursday's Security Council resolution naming ETA, and with an apparent election debacle facing Spain's war supporters that very day.

Notably, the Bush administration has claimed al-Qaeda activity at every opportunity. Their failure to do so here, and in the face of substantive evidence of Islamic jihadi activity, being the one curious exception.

Highlighting another agenda, all three US officials argued that the Madrid attacks should firm world resolve in the "war on terror", with Rice insisting the war was being won. Their television appearances could be described as containing elements of a "pep talk". But as the new Spanish prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, has just said that he will recall Spain's 1,300 Iraqi peacekeeping troops by June 30, the rationale behind a broad effort to preserve and promote war on terror support becomes more apparent.

In a statement laden with paradox, Rumsfeld likened the coalition efforts to helping "the neighborhood children against the bully". But the secretary appears to have blithely forgotten the accusations by many UN members of Bush administration bullying in the run-up to the Iraq War.

Much to his credit, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan repeatedly avoided media queries as regards responsibility for Madrid, but simultaneously demonstrated the UN's weakness in the face of big-power politics. Notably, it was the fate of the UN's predecessor, the League of Nations, to fall during the 1930's as the world's major powers of the time chose to pursue paths of national expediency rather than multilateral interest.

A 1999 report by the US Department of Defense emphasized that the existence of a multilateral world, a multipolar world, was the best way to ensure lasting global stability. But it warned that: "International systems tend to last two to three generations. They are both created and destroyed by large-scale conflict. Like complex biological systems, international systems appear to go through life cycles with birth, flexibility in youth, more rigidity as the system matures, and demise."

Many international diplomats have recently called for the UN's "revision and renewal", and particularly a revised design for the Security Council.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)

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