UC Berkeley News


U.N. at a ‘critical juncture,’ says Aguilar Zinser
Nations must be persuaded to respect its decisions, says former Security Council head

| 28 January 2004



During his tenure on the U.N. Security Council, Mexico’s Adolfo Aguilar Zinser spoke out boldly — too boldly for some — against U.S. unilateralism.
UN/DPI photo by Mark Garten

The former Mexican ambassador to the United Nations became an eloquent ambassador for the U.N. in his speech last Thursday to a capacity audience in Morrison Library.

An outspoken and hard-to-categorize figure in Mexican politics, Adolfo Aguilar Zinser played a key role in the presidential campaigns of both the leftist candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas in 1994 and the conservative Vincente Fox, Mexico’s current president. Subsequently named to the U.N. post, Aguilar gained international recognition during the lead-up to the U.S. war in Iraq, when he sat on, and for a time chaired, the U.N. Security Council. His controversial reputation was solidified when he refused to retract a remark he had made to a university audience in November — that the U.S. had traditionally regarded Mexico as its “backyard” — and resigned under pressure as a consequence.

In a public talk sponsored by the campus’s Center for Latin American Studies — his first in the U.S. since leaving the U.N. — Aguilar referred to the United Nations as a “badly needed” organization, while calling attention to the “distorting” effect of the lack of women in its leadership and describing its often-dysfunctional culture. The international organization, he said, “is a moral proposition that has become a complicated institution with a huge building, giant bureaucracy, and methods of work that defy all common sense.”

Only once you travel outside U.N. headquarters — where “you can spend the whole night” discussing the placement of a semi-colon in a resolution — do you realize the impact of the organization, he said. Around the world, people “depend for their survival on the physical presence of the U.N.” through its humanitarian and peacekeeping missions.

Aguilar told the campus audience that the United Nations is at a critical juncture. Though the organization’s founding mandate was to help prevent the use of force, nations regularly violate U.N. resolutions, he said. Consequently, it has become most effective in its humanitarian role on behalf of individuals, he noted.

“I was astonished by President Bush’s statement, in his State of Union address, that ‘the United States asks no permission to use force and to go to war,’” he said, reinforcing statements he had made in the days following his November resignation from his U.N. post. (In a Nov. 21, 2003, open letter to President Fox, Aguilar said that the United States “exercises its power over and above collective agreements and international law.”)

Referring again to Bush’s State of the Union speech, Aguilar told the Morrison audience, “This is the destruction of the United Nations … if the founder of the U.N. says that it challenges the basic concept for which the organization was created.”

Support for the U.N. embargo
It was during Aguilar’s term on the Security Council that the inability of the U.N. to prevent war played out dramatically before the eyes of the world. Aguilar described the deliberations that took place within the council regarding potential action against Iraq, especially during fall 2002, when the Bush Administration sought to persuade the council to endorse its plans.

Members of the council discussed “day and night” the evidence that might support an attack on Iraq — though most felt, he said, that Bush had long before decided to go to war, with or without the blessings of the U.N. To be sure, Saddam Hussein’s previous crimes (such as his use of weapons of mass destruction against the Kurds and Iran) were amply documented. But there was no evidence of WMDs at that time, he asserted, nor of connections between Hussein and Al Qaeda.

Ironically, Aguilar said, the WMDs were not there precisely because the U.N.-sanctioned embargo of Iraq had prevented Hussein from continuing their development. “It was an effective deterrence action. We all have to remember that experience,” he said.

A way forward
Proposals aimed at reforming the United Nations have been plentiful. But Aguilar highlighted just one “very simple and yet complicated thing” that he believes would help to revive the institution: substantially increasing the role of women in the operation of the organization, and particularly in peacekeeping operations.

“There are a lot of women in the U.N. taking notes,” he said, but there is only one woman leading a peacekeeping operation, and few in the organization’s leadership. Aguilar cited a study by the United Nations Development Fund for Women documenting how women’s leadership in peacekeeping operations makes a critical contribution to their success.

The Mexican intellectual also made a specific appeal for the U.N. to act with more force and conviction regarding Africa. In the hands of child soldiers in the continent’s ethnic conflicts, he said, conventional rifles and pistols from developed nations become weapons of mass destruction. “If the U.N. does not do the job it ought to do in Africa, we are in deep trouble,” he said. “Because the problems of Africa are going to catch us all. Some of them are already catching up with us: the problems of migration, the spread of diseases, constant violence.”

Aguilar ended his commentary with an observation about his own country. In response to a question from the audience, he maintained that Mexico’s special relationship with the United States — shaped by immigration and a common border — gives it significant leverage in its relations with its powerful neighbor to the north. Calling the U.S.-Mexican border “an equalizer,” he believes that Mexico can and should act with greater confidence toward the United States. “We can be very friendly,” he said, “but also very assertive.”