Global Policy Forum

To Do its Job, the UN Needs to Take Sides


By Michael Soussan

International Herald Tribune
August 27, 2004

One year after getting kicked out of Iraq by terror, the United Nations is angling to return to active duty in Iraq. But has it learned the lessons from its past experience? . Mark Malloch Brown, head of the United Nations Development Program, spoke for many of his co-workers recently when he called on the United Nations to regain its position of "neutrality" in the world. Unfortunately, the only way the United Nations could achieve true neutrality in today's conflicts would be through inaction.

. On the first anniversary of the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad on Aug. 19, 2003, Selim Lone, the former UN director of communications in Iraq, summed up the attitude of UN leaders when he argued, in The Guardian, that the United Nations became a target of terrorism because it was too closely associated with the United States. In doing so, he did not mention the following facts.

. A few days before the suicide bombing that killed 22 people - including the special UN envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello - and wounded more than 150, UN leaders asked U.S. forces to withdraw their heavy equipment from the front of the compound, dismantle the observation post on the roof of the UN building and remove an obstacle from the access road. Later, according to an independent investigation into UN security failures in Iraq, the U.S. military insisted on laying a concertina wire across the access road to protect the UN building, but again, UN officials requested that the obstruction be removed. The access road was open to traffic on Aug. 19 and was used by the attackers to approach the UN headquarters building.

. Ultimately, therefore, it was in an attempt to dissociate itself from the U.S.-led coalition that the United Nations became vulnerable to attack.

. The suggestion that the United Nations, which was founded at the initiative of the United States, is hosted in New York, and is in large part financed by American taxpayers' money, should forego U.S. protection in Iraq in order to curry favor with the Iraqi people was wrong-headed. First, it assumed that the terrorists were representative of the Iraqi people. Second, it assumed that the United Nations could be neutral in the fight between coalition forces and the terrorists who were trying to sabotage Iraq's future. Finally, it meant receiving less protection from the United States after the war than had been received from the regime of Saddam Hussein prior to the war.

. Those who believe that the United Nations should not take sides in the struggle between democratic forces and terrorist ideologies might wish to reread the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The conflict is between those who seek to abide by it and those who rule, or aspire to rule, by flaunting it. The United Nations took sides when it adopted this declaration in 1948. The question is whether the organization can live up to its promise.

. The very name "United Nations" was coined by President Franklin Roosevelt, in the "Declaration by United Nations" of Jan. 1, 1942, when 26 nations pledged that they would continue fighting together against the Axis powers. The "United Nations" of 1942 had a common enemy: fascism.

. The idea that the United Nations should be neutral emerged during the cold war, when UN peacekeepers were sent into zones where the world's superpowers had agreed to oversee a truce. Since the cold war, the most challenging UN missions have had little to do with peacekeeping and everything to do with enforcing peace and building democracy. These are not missions in which the United Nations can act neutrally, as we have learned from the organization's experiences in Srebrenica and Rwanda. The neutrality that was necessary to maintain cooperation between the superpowers during the cold war is detrimental to the United Nations' sense of mission today.

. The war on terrorism has made it increasingly difficult for the United Nations to operate where it is most needed. But instead of blaming this on the United States - which, while dominant, is only one of 15 Security Council members that design UN missions - UN leaders would do better to blame the terrorists themselves and the states that support them.

. The world organization could hardly have done more to dissociate itself from the United States and its allies than by withholding the authorization for the use of force in Iraq. And yet it still became a target for the terrorists, as did every other entity that sought to help Iraqis rebuild their country. There is no neutral ground in Iraq today. So if the United Nations wants to remain neutral, it should stay out. Because neutrality is not a cause worth dying for.

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