Former U.N. General Assembly President Stresses Importance of Diplomacy

Former U.N. General Assembly Jan Kavan talked to students about the Iraq war and the need for rigorous international diplomacy.
Jan Kavan, the United Nations General Assembly president during the organization's dispute with the Bush administration in 2003 over authorization of the Iraq war, told Saint Mary's students that international law and diplomacy are cornerstones of a more peaceful international order and warned against unilateral U.S. military action against Iran.

"In the absence of clear international rules, who decides what human rights are?" Kavan asked the audience of more than 100 students and staff on Nov. 15 in LeFevre Theatre. "Who decides that abuses in Iraq justify an invasion, but that a military regime in Burma shooting at monks does not?"

Kavan began his political education as a Czechoslovakian student leader in the 1968 Prague Spring reform movement against an authoritarian Communist government that exiled him. He spent the 1970s and 1980s in London campaigning for international human rights and nuclear disarmament.

Returning to Prague during the 1989 Velvet Revolution, Kavan later served in Czech governments as foreign minister and ambassador to the U.N., where he was elected president of the General Assembly in 2002 as the debate over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was beginning.

While recognizing that "today the world is better off without Saddam Hussein," Kavan and many U.N. colleagues rejected a U.S.-drafted resolution supporting the Iraq invasion in March 2003 because they believed Hussein could have been removed by other methods that had greater international support.

"Without the support of the international system, even a well-intentioned invasion can represent an old-fashioned imperial one," Kavan noted.

In his analysis of potential sources of international conflict, most notably U.S. and European concerns about Iran's nuclear program and support for terrorism, Kavan urged the international community to avoid a repeat of mistakes from the Iraq war.

"Only the U.N. can legitimize military action against Iran," Kavan said, adding "The U.S. needs to stop acting in a unilateral way as the world's policeman."

The Iraq war has not only destabilized the Middle East, Kavan argued. It has given other countries the impression that they have license to attack their neighbors without international support.

"The Bush administration did not understand the power of this precedent," he said, arguing it could lead to greater instability between India and Pakistan or Russia and former Soviet states.

Kavan acknowledged that the U.N. would benefit from reforms - including an expansion of the agenda-setting Security Council to include regional powers such as Japan, Brazil and South Africa. But he conceded that the U.N. is only as strong as the will of its member nations, especially its most powerful ones.

"Powerful governments need to be put under pressure from people in their own country," he said.

-- John Grennan
Office of College Communications

Photo by Gorbachev Lingad '10