By Robert Lane Greene*New Republic
August 27, 2003
It's not easy being pale blue. Many were surprised last Tuesday when a terrorist truck-bomb destroyed the United Nations' headquarters in Baghdad and killed the organization's top on-site diplomat, Sergio Vieira de Mello. While it's at least understandable that some Iraqis might want to kill their American occupiers, why attack the United Nations, which had refused to bless the war and which now simply plays an advisory and humanitarian role in the country?
The answer is that the United Nations is a victim of its own expectations and others' expectations for it. The world body sees itself as the arbiter of international peace and security, a source of humanitarian and development assistance for the world's poor and abused, and a leader in tackling global problems like climate change and AIDS. In effect, that means trying to be all things to all people. Unfortunately, these pretensions make it possible to blame the U.N. for pretty much anything.
Consider that in America and Israel, the U.N. is widely viewed as anti-Semitic, or in the criticism's milder form, unfairly anti-Israel. And for good reason: In 1976, the General Assembly infamously passed a resolution stating that "Zionism is a form of racism." It's less well known in the West that many Arabs are as frustrated with the U.N. as Israel is. Arab countries have long hoped that the world body would stand more firmly with the Palestinians. The American habit of vetoing Security Council resolutions critical of Israel has created the opposite impression: that the U.N. is a tool of the Americans and Zionists. In some sense, then, the recent Iraq war is just another example in the U.N.'s history of getting it from both sides: Hawks believe the body is ineffective if not downright pernicious for not having blessed the war; doves are upset that the U.N. couldn't stop it.
One reason critics have such a field day with the organization is that its identity is so ambiguous. The "United Nations Organization" has member states that provide funding, staff, and troops, and send delegations to the Security Council and the General Assembly. The U.N. also has a permanent bureaucracy--the New York-based Secretariat--whose staff consists of international civil servants forbidden, in theory, from taking orders from home governments. Former Undersecretary-General for Peacekeeping Sir Marrack Goulding has written that Secretariat officials feel that whenever the U.N. does anything right ("The U.N. has eliminated polio," "The U.N. has brought Namibia to independence") "the U.N." is taken to mean "member states," and credit gets distributed accordingly. On the other hand, whenever the U.N. screws up, it's typically the Secretariat that critics have in mind. That certainly seemed to be the dynamic at work on Iraq: The failure of "the U.N." to bless the war was clearly the failure of France, Russia, China, and others to support it. To critics, though, the distinction was unimportant. As George Will summed up the conservative view, the U.N. "is not a good idea badly implemented, it is a bad idea."
But it's peacekeeping, arguably the mission the U.N. is best known for, that's probably the factor most responsible for giving the body a bad name. Indeed, over the years the nickname "blue helmets" has become synonymous with helpless, hapless, lightly armed soldiers from small countries, unable to fire their weapons unless they are under such heavy attack that they will surely be killed anyway. Again, that's largely for good reason: The humiliation of 1995, when Bosnian Serbs captured U.N. troops and chained them to military targets as human shields, was perhaps a public-relations low point. And that p.r. low point accompanied a substantive low point, when U.N. peacekeepers looked on as Serbs overran a U.N.-designated "safe haven" in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica--and then massacred its male inhabitants.
But it's far from true that U.N. peacekeeping (and its frequent complement, post-conflict state-building) is wholly ineffective. There have been both successes and failures. The problem, so far as the U.N. is concerned, is that the successes are by definition quiet. Headlines you will never see include "Ceasefire between Ethiopia and Eritrea Holds for 476th Consecutive Day," "Zero Killed in Cyprus," or "East Timor Still Functioning." Most people don't realize just how frequently the United Nations puts itself between trigger-happy combatants around the globe: Lebanon, Cyprus, the Golan, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, Namibia, Angola, El Salvador, Cambodia, Somalia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Georgia, Liberia, Haiti, Tajikistan, the former Yugoslavia, Guatemala, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia and Eritrea, Cí´te d'Ivoire, the Congo, India and Pakistan and East Timor, just in the last 20 years. Which ones of these do most people associate with the United Nations? The ones in which U.N. troops failed to prevent disaster: Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia. (Granted, the U.N. effort in Bosnia was particularly disconcerting, since it sought to freeze the map after the Serbs had made territorial gains, effectively rewarding aggression.)
Not surprisingly, the debate over the U.N.'s effectiveness has sprung up again in post-war Iraq. The Pentagon, as the now-familiar story line goes, is committed to keeping as much control as possible; the State Department is more amenable to a greater role for the United Nations. A new, robust Security Council resolution would provide political cover for potential troop donors, especially India, Turkey, and possibly Pakistan. But this would necessarily involve a bigger role for the U.N. in the political process. The last thing the Secretariat wants is for the U.N. to be used as an overgrown NGO, or worse, as a scapegoat--and a target for bombings like last week's--should things go wrong.
Fortunately there's a compromise available--along the lines of the operation in Afghanistan. There the U.N. has helped oversee and blessed the political process, while America remains control over its forces hunting Al Qaeda and Taliban remnants in the countryside. The same approach could work in Iraq. Putting the bulk of our troops under direct U.N. command would be a disaster waiting to happen, since those troops need a mandate that allows them to shoot first when the situation requires it. But the political process would suffer little from inviting in the U.N. And the U.N. would bring valuable experience in state-building, acquired both in past failures and past successes.
Given the structural obstacles it faces and its own universalist ambitions, the United Nations may never escape the crossfire of blame it invariably seems to invite. But there's no reason it can't help us avoid the same fate.
*Robert Lane Greene is countries editor at Economist.com.
More Information on Peacekeeping
FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C íŸ 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.