With President Bush sending more American soldiers to the Persian Gulf and with pundits galore cheering him on, there is still time to ask:
Can we - do we want to - avert a devastatingly costly war in the gulf? Are we really interested in seeking a peaceful resolution to this conflict?If so, the United States can ask U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar to exercise his authority to request that the Security Council or the General Assembly submit the dispute between Iraq and Kuwait, plus its allies, to the International Court of Justice for an advisory opinion.
The question to be put to the World Court is this: Did Iraq, a member of the United Nations, violate the U.N. Charter when it invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2?
On the face of it, this may sound like a foolish question to put to the 15 learned jurists in The Hague. Isn't there a high level of consensus, outside of Baghdad, that Saddam Hussein violated the sovereignty of Kuwait - along with the U.N. Charter - when he ordered his armed forces to attack and occupy Kuwait?
Yes, there is, but if the World Court were to issue an advisory opinion declaring that Iraq is indeed guilty of violating the territorial integrity of Kuwait, this judgment might conceivably persuade Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait.
The reader's immediate reaction to this statement would no doubt be skeptical: "If the Security Council's sanctions haven't yet budged Saddam, why should an advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice?"
True, but if Saddam should decide to ignore the World Court's opinion, this would justify further actions, on the part of the five permanent members of the Security Council, to implement the trade embargo against Iraq.
The most tangible action the Security Concil could take, following such a World Court opinion, and a refusal of Iraq to comply, is to establish a U.N. command under which all multinational forces now deployed in the Persian Gulf would be brought together.
Such action would underscore that the conflict in the gulf is between the international community and Iraq and not between the United States and Iraq.
It might thus provide Saddam with a much-needed face-saving opportunity.
Dislodging Saddam from Kuwait - after having sought recourse under international law and with the aid of U.N. forces fighting under a U.N. flag - would be a great victory for the United Nations, the World Court and international law. It could pave the way for a number of legal and political actions.
First, Iraq's territorial and monetary claims against Kuwait could then be submitted for adjudication by the World Court.
Second, Iraq's use of chemical weapons against Iran as well as its Kurdish minority was a clear violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocal prohibiting the use of poisonous and bacteriological methods of warfare. Why no country brought this transgression to the attention of, and action by, the United Nations is a mystery.
(William M. Evan is a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of "Social Structure and Law" and co-editor of "Preventing World War III" and "The Arms Race and Nuclear War.")