16 March 2004

Madrid: UN's credibility critically wounded

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.

I had not realised how shaky the grounds for blaming ETA were. It would have been infinitely better if Spain's allies in the UN had quietly whispered a little sage advice about double-checking the claim. But then it would be better if several US allies had moderated the Bush administration's drive to war rather than going along with a weak case (as Australia now all but admits) for the sake of the US alliance.

The Canadian government asked for watertight secret intelligence. None was forthcoming.

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