The UN: Peacemaker or puppet?
Written by Eric Walberg    PDF Print E-mail
With its largest peacekeeping mission planned in Sudan, Eric Walberg considers the UN's track record in the first of two articles

16/8/7 -- Founded amidst the rubble of World War II -- well, actually in untouched San Francisco, with delegates spirited in by United States military planes, and nursed and spied on by a US determined to make the most of its new unrivalled world hegemony -- the United Nation started out with much more potential than its stillborn predecessor, the League of Nations, precisely because the US was committed. Even the Republicans were onboard, and all the major powers were present and willing. However, this US blessing was a two-edged sword and the UN's history is one of ups and downs with few political highpoints.

The UN got its first body blow with the launching of the Cold War by Churchill and Truman as part of their strategy of trying to mould international relations to save the imperial order from the expected tidal wave of socialist revolutions. The use of the UN label to send US and allied troops into Korea in 1950 was the first salvo in this ongoing battle. The other fatal blow was the agreement of the major powers, in particular, the US and Russia, to create a Jewish state in the British mandate of Palestine in 1948 (interestingly, Britain abstained on this tragic decision, and it passed by one vote).

These two policies have haunted it ever since and, with a very few exceptions, have meant that the UN has been effectively undermined in its political role as peacekeeper and harbinger of collective security, the focus of this article. The second article in this series deals with its other main peace-making function -- social and economic development assistance to the poor -- where it has had more success, but has been undermined in recent years by underfunding and the encroaching corporatisation of the UN.

Its political role in the tumultuous Middle East is instructive. The Arab-Israeli war that followed the declaration of a Jewish state in Palestine by the UN meant it had to immediately deal with the problem it created. Swedish Count Folke Bernadotte of Wisborg was agreed as mediator, but was promptly assassinated by Israeli terrorists. After more than a year of painstaking negotiations, his assistant, African-American Ralph Bunche, managed to secure separate armistice agreements between Israel and Egypt, Lebanon, Transjordan and Syria, which left Israel with all the territory it had conquered, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, and no state of Palestine -- a template for all future Israeli "compromises", for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1950. Huh? Since then, Israel has basically ignored the UN and its dozens of critical resolutions. There are currently three UN peacekeeping missions that have been protecting Israel ever since, at great expense and with no gratitude, we might note. On the contrary, Israel has killed dozens of UN peacekeepers over the years with impunity.

Then there's the centrepiece of UN peacekeeping efforts and its first fully fledged effort in this role -- UN peacekeepers covered the withdrawal of British, French and Israeli forces from Egypt, following their invasion in the wake of the nationalisation of the Suez Canal and kept the peace for 10 years.

Why was this such a stunning success, after the disastrous efforts in Palestine, Korea and Kashmir? Could it be because US imperial plans diverged from British and French, and because Egypt had the Soviet ace up its sleeve? A rare confluence of events, which President Gamal Abdel-Nasser took masterful advantage of. Interestingly, Canada's Lester Pearson managed to negotiate the imperial powers' tiff and got the 1957 Nobel Prize for his UN-sponsored mediation. However, the denouement was not so happy, as when Nasser ordered the UN troops to withdraw in 1967, Israel went on the attack, occupying all of Palestine and Sinai, killing the 14 remaining UN soldiers in the process. Too bad Pearson didn't give back his prize in protest.

The only effort that gets an A in my books dates from the late detente period: the 1989 supervision of Namibian independence, where the UNTAG monitored the withdrawal of South African troops, registered voters, and managed the 1989 elections. Like the Suez crisis, another case where the US was onside. Of course the aftermath there rivals that of UN efforts in Palestine and the Congo in terms of horror -- the US was no longer onside.

Virtually all other UN efforts have been at best disappointing and at worst disastrous -- the Congo in 1960, where the UN effectively allowed the assassination of the legitimate President Patrice Lumumba, Cyprus in 1964 and still counting, the Golan Heights in 1974 and still counting, Kuwait (1991), Somalia (1992), Bosnia (1993), Rwanda (1994), East Timor (1999), Sierra Leone (2000)... Nothing to be proud of, though the Nobel Committee yet again awarded UN peacekeepers its 1988 prize, this time "for lifetime achievement" so to speak.

The latest in the string of UN efforts looks to be a US-led effort to occupy western Sudan under UN aegis, despite the African Union's albeit underfunded presence there now. This proposed action, as was the case with NATO intervention in disintegrating Yugoslavia is justified as "humanitarian intervention", a term first employed in the late 1960s around the Biafran War and developed in the 1990s by Medecins san frontieres co-founder and current French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. The logic behind this term is self-explanatory, though the way it is used in a US- dominated unipolar world makes any application fraught with peril (or rather imperialism).

So what is the prognosis for a successful mission in Sudan? Will the massive presence of 30,000 troops and personnel undermine the Sudanese government? Will it lead to the disintegration of Sudan with the succession of Darfur and the south, allowing hungry world powers to gain easy access to Sudan's oil and many other resources? Will it succeed as a beachhead against the further spread of Islam in Africa? Or will it bring peace, stability and prosperity to a region that has never known such things, with no hidden agenda?

It's impossible to predict the future, but experience does not give us much reason for optimism. We do know that this adventure will be very expensive -- $2b a year, money which if channelled into development assistance would obviate the need for Western-backed military intervention. The wild card is China, which grudgingly approved the UN intervention but is actually working closely with the Sudanese government to develop its oil resources despite accusations that the Sudanese government is responsible for the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. China is happy to support regimes on a pragmatic business basis, with no hidden agenda to destabilise them, unlike the US, which is always looking for ways to promote political changes to meet its imperial needs.

Of course, it is rather much to expect peacekeeping to create a permanent solution. The goal is to stabilise a situation to give the politicians and diplomats the opportunity to establish a permanent peace. Hence, the UN's Peacekeeping Department's Peace- building and Peacemaking Sections. But nice labels do not make a success story. The mission in Sudan just might "work", at least to separate the many warring factions and allow tempers to cool. But after that, the real agenda for the region -- succession from Sudan and/or the divvying up of its resource wealth will make a smooth transition to long term peace impossible. And the real actor here is not the UN, whose peacekeeping/making has been increasingly overshadowed by "humanitarian interventions" by the US and NATO, and their own newfound interest in state building.

The launching of the Cold War led to the founding of NATO in 1949, ostensibly to counter the Soviet threat. However, once the "Soviet threat" disappeared its real role in the defence of the US empire has become clearer, with its many interventions where the UN feared to tread; namely, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, to name just the most infamous. Another tact in this policy has been its radical expansion into eastern Europe and "partnerships" and "dialogues" with various regions -- including Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Israel and others as part of the Mediterranean Dialogue established in 1994. The US even managed to con Russia into establishing a NATO-Russian Federation Council in 1997 for cooperation, but this nonsense has now been deposited in history's rubbish bin along with Russia's hapless precursor.

NATO and bald US invasions have overshadowed UN efforts since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And with the launching of NATO's Rapid Response Force in 2003, we can expect more frequent and more "rapid" invasions around the world to keep things under control. Suffice it to say, only if and when the US enters its post-Iraq Vietnam-syndrome phase and ends its present terrifying "war on terror" can we even imagine that real peacekeeping can take place. And only then will it be possible to resolve the other tragic flaw in UN peacekeeping efforts -- Israel and its mini- imperial "interventions" in the Middle East. Until we get there, peacekeeping will inevitably fail as a strategy to make the world truly safer to live in.


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    16/8/7 -- Founded amidst the rubble of World War II -- well, actually in untouched San Francisco, with delegates spirited in by United States military planes, and nursed and spied on by a US determined to make the most of its new unrivalled world hegemony -- the United Nation started out with much more potential than its stillborn predecessor, the League of Nations, precisely because the US was committed. Even the Republicans were onboard, and all the major powers were present and willing. However, this US blessing was a two-edged sword and the UN's history is one of ups and downs with few political highpoints.

Eric Walberg

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Canadian Eric Walberg is known worldwide as a journalist specializing in the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia. A graduate of University of Toronto and Cambridge in economics, he has been writing on East-West relations since the 1980s.

He has lived in both the Soviet Union and Russia, and then Uzbekistan, as a UN adviser, writer, translator and lecturer. Presently a writer for the foremost Cairo newspaper, Al Ahram, he is also a regular contributor to Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Global Research, Al-Jazeerah and Turkish Weekly, and is a commentator on Voice of the Cape radio.