Global Policy Forum

Bruised But Intact, the UN Is 60


By Paul Reynolds

October 24, 2005

The United Nations has reached the age of 60 with its first blush of youth and idealism long gone, but hoping that experience and a mid-life rethink will give it new purpose. Last year it embarked on reform, having been told by its Secretary General Kofi Annan that it was at a "fork in the road". It was generally felt that whatever its past problems, it had to be put in better shape for the future.

"Indispensable" is the word used to describe the UN by a former British ambassador there, Lord David Hannay. "When the mountains fall in Pakistan or a tsunami sweeps the world, everyone asks: 'Where is the UN?'" he told the BBC News website. "The 2003 invasion of Iraq demonstrated the bankruptcy of any alternative," he claimed. "The unilateral way has not been shown to have been a brilliant policy to put it mildly. If the alternative to the UN is not viable then we must make this organisation work better. "They are getting very close to the Vietnam position in the US in that Iraq is becoming a problem. Candidates in the 2008 elections won't want thousands of troops there. "They might declare a fudged semi-success, but they are sure going to conclude you can't do that again."

'UN resolutions'

That, of course, is not the view of US President George Bush. In a speech to the General Assembly in September last year, he stated that the United States and its allies had in effect been supporting the UN when they invaded Iraq: "The dictator agreed in 1991, as a condition of a ceasefire, to fully comply with all Security Council resolutions - then ignored more than a decade of those resolutions. Finally, the Security Council promised serious consequences for his defiance. "And the commitments we make must have meaning. When we say 'serious consequences', for the sake of peace there must be serious consequences. And so a coalition of nations enforced the just demands of the world," he declared.

Whatever the judgment of history on the Iraq war, it was, according to David Hannay, the end of the Cold War which gave the UN the chance of a "second life". "After the Cold War ended, the inconceivable became the conceivable," he said. "Before then the UN could think only of its own survival. It could not stop a war between the superpowers or wars between their proxies. It did useful work popping up here and there. But that was not what it was set up to do."


What it was set up to do was basically to stop all further wars. The original idealism was expressed by Lord Halifax, the British ambassador to the United States, who as chairman put the final draft of the UN Charter to the delegates in the Opera House in San Francisco with the words: "This issue upon which we are about to vote is as important as any we shall ever vote in our lifetime." The charter was passed unanimously and even the press got up and cheered.

But whether the idealism was really that strong or universal is doubtful. Right from the start, the victors from World War II - the US, the Soviet Union, Britain, France and China - insisted that they be given veto powers. They were determined not to allow any action or intervention with which they seriously disagreed and, for the duration of the Cold War, this was a recipe for UN paralysis. The notable exception was the Korean War, which the Security Council launched to stop the North from conquering the South. The Council was able to act only because of the self-defeating absence of the Soviet Union. It was boycotting the Council at the time in a row over who should represent China. It soon returned and did not make the same mistake again.


Blocked from a real interventionist role, the UN fell back on useful humanitarian and monitoring missions but also took refuge in passing resolutions which had little bearing on actual world politics. The Middle East is an example of its impotence. It failed to stop wars in 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1982. Its key Security Council resolution 242, outlining a solution for the Israelis and Palestinians along the lines of land for peace, has been only partially fulfilled, and in the Middle East partially has meant not nearly enough. It did send troops to the Congo in the 1960s when the country began to fall apart after the precipitate departure of the Belgians. The breakaway province of Katanga was brought back under central control, but the experience was not a happy one for the UN, and was symbolised by the death in an air accident in the jungle of its Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold.

In more recent years, it has perhaps been more successful. Its sanctions helped persuade white South Africans to hand over to majority rule. Its quiet diplomacy helped bring an end to the Iran-Iraq War, and it played useful roles in winding up conflicts and developing democracy in Namibia, Mozambique, Cambodia, El Salvador and East Timor.

However it failed in Bosnia (where intervention was led by the US and its Nato allies) and Kosovo (it was Nato which acted against Serbia, not the UN) and above all in Rwanda where it failed to prevent genocide. It became immersed in scandal over its programme to send food and medicines to Iraq.

'Two cheers'

And in the background, it was developing international obligations - against torture, against the proliferation of nuclear weapons, on the Law of the Sea among many others - which helped to bind the member states together in a worldwide rule of law. It also drew up plans and goals to alleviative poverty in an effort to show the poorer countries that it was interested in more than war. It did lose the confidence of the US under President Bush and, partly to try to regain that confidence, the UN decided to reform itself last year.

The results have been worth "two cheers", said David Hannay. The two cheers would acknowledge the decision to set up a Peacebuilding Commission to try to avoid future conflicts, the Council on Human Rights to take over from the discredited Commission on Human Rights, a commitment to a convention against terrorism by July and the new duty on member states to fulfil a "responsibility to protect" their citizens, which if not honoured could open the way for UN intervention.

The absent cheer would mark a failure to take tougher action on the spread of nuclear weapons, to define terrorism and to lay our clear guidelines for the use of force. And there has been no agreement on enlarging the Security Council. The five permanent members remain the same as those who first took their seats as veto-holders in 1945.

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