The United Nations seems to be intervening everywhere these days. Andy
Clarkson explains why - and why the UN cannot create a peaceful New World
'The purpose of peace enforcement units would be to enable the United Nations
to deploy troops quickly to enforce a ceasefire by taking coercive action
against either party, or both, if they violate it....the concept goes beyond
peace-keeping to the extent that the operation would be deployed without
the express consent of the two parties.' (UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali,
Foreign Affairs, Winter 1992/93, pp93-94)
Today many are looking to the United Nations to play a leading role in the
creation of a new, more stable, world order. These increased expectations
have generated an air of assertiveness around the formerly moribund New
York-based body. Boutros-Ghali's posturing about the UN going 'beyond peace-keeping',
setting up permanent 'ceasefire enforcement' units and using 'coercion' matches
the high profile that his organisation has now adopted.
In reality, however, the UN's more interventionist role is not about constructing
a more peaceful and stable post-Cold War world. It is a consequence of the
breakdown of the old global order, and a sign of the new age of international
conflicts. The UN has been projected into the limelight as a useful front
through which the Western powers can demonstrate their authority. And it
is in danger of cracking up under the strain.
The United Nations is an institution of the Cold War years. The USA emerged
in 1945 as the dominant nation on Earth, but the discrediting of imperialism
through the Second World War imposed constraints on the exercise of American
power around the world. Leading US statesman Isaiah Bowman was already arguing
in May 1942 that the USA needed to rule the postwar world but also to 'avoid
the conventional forms of imperialism'. The new United Nations Organisation
established at the San Francisco conference in April 1945 was intended to
make the exercise of American power appear like international cooperation.
Washington had to arrange various stitch-ups to ensure that it maintained
ultimate control over its new creation. For example, Washington ordered
its Latin American client states formally to declare war against the Axis
powers in the last days of the Second World War, so that they could all
qualify as UN members. Similarly, even when the Maoists had taken power
in China in 1949, the Americans insisted that Chiang Kai-Shek's deposed
Nationalists should be treated as a world power by the UN. Thanks to the
USA, from 1949 until 1972 one of the five permanent members of the UN security
council was a small island on the edge of the Pacific officially described
as 'China', but now better known as Taiwan.
Although the United Nations was an American invention, Washington recognised
that the UN had to look like a relatively even-handed and genuinely global
institution during the Cold War stand-off with the Soviet Union. In this
it proved very successful. Even the most radical third world regimes wanted
to sign up as members of the US-run organisation. In addition, the UN sponsored
many worthy bodies such as the educational Unesco and the World Health Organisation.
When it mattered, however, America either got its way in the UN or rode
roughshod over UN conflict procedures to attack third world states. From
the Korean War in 1950-53 through to the invasion of Grenada in 1983, Washington
manipulated UN regulations or brushed them aside to pursue its own interests.
With the ending of the Cold War, there was a general outburst of optimism
that the United Nations could begin to live up to the ideals upon which
it had ostensibly been founded. The end of the Cold War has certainly changed
things, but in a way that has nothing to do with idealism. The collapse
of the Soviet Union and the decline of third world radicalism has removed
the major constraint on the Western powers using the UN as they see fit.
While secretary-general Boutros-Ghali has stepped up the UN's universalist
rhetoric, in practice the UN's universal pretensions have been shelved.
It has become a vehicle to promote more overt Western intervention in the
third world and the East.
The UN has carried out as many political/military interventions in the past
four years as it did in the previous 40, and it has violated its most sacred
principles to do so. For example, the UN's founding charter, adopted in
1945, explicitly bans it from interfering in the internal affairs of member
'Article 2 (7). Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorise
the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially the domestic
jurisdiction of any state.'
Who cares about such formalities nowadays, as the UN intervenes in people's
internal affairs from Serbia to Somalia? The first big post-Cold War breach
of the UN charter came in 1991, when the USA and Britain occupied northern
Iraq under the pretext of creating 'safe havens' for Kurds. Not one UN member
objected that this intervention violated Iraq's national rights.
The way in which the Western powers are using the United Nations more blatantly
than ever before to pursue their geopolitical interests was made clear in
January 1992, when John Major called the first ever UN security council summit.
It was a conference of the nuclear powers club, convened to discuss the
problem of post-Cold War nuclear proliferation. It ended by issuing a declaration
which amounted to a Western threat to the third world-- a pledge by the
security council to use 'appropriate measures' against any state suspected
of violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Anybody in the third
world with doubts as to what 'appropriate measures' might mean only had
to look at the way in which the USA and Britain had destroyed Iraq, partly
on the pretext of preventing proliferation, under the flag of the UN.
A knife in Swapo
An early post-Cold War example of the United Nations acting as a proxy for
imperialism came when it helped South Africa to deal with the Namibian liberation
movement, Swapo. At every stage of the 'peace process' which it presided
over in Namibia, the UN imposed demands and restrictions on Swapo which
gave the advantage to the apartheid regime. When the South African administration
in Namibia integrated its (supposedly disbanded) Koevoet death squad into
the local police force, the UN shrugged off Swapo protests. When Swapo members
returned home to Namibia on 1 April 1989, believing themselves to be under
UN protection, thousands were gunned down by Koevoet forces. The UN then
endorsed the South African story that Swapo had provoked the violence by
breaking a ceasefire agreement. The United Nations held the Namibian victims
of South African imperialism responsible for their own fate.
A more recent intervention has been in Cambodia, which the UN has virtually
colonised. Japan has sent nearly 2000 troops there - the first time that the
Japanese military has officially been abroad since 1945--as part of the 20
000-strong UN contingent. The special UN representative in Cambodia is Japanese
diplomat Yasushi Akashi. Until elections are held, his UN team is to run
five key areas of Cambodia's administration: foreign affairs, national defence,
internal security, information and finance. In other words, everything that
According to the Far East Economic Review, 'these unprecedented powers
for a UN operation, essentially allowing the world body to assume control
of all important state functions, are designed to prevent partisan manipulation
of the 1993 elections'. By posing as democratic UN peacekeepers, the Japanese
are able to reassert their authority directly in South-East Asia for the
first time since the end of the Second World War.
The UN's adoption of a more high-profile role has, however, been far from
unproblematic. Interventions motivated and shaped by the global interests
of the Western powers have proved unable to meet people's increased expectations
of the UN as a humanitarian peacemaker. Instead, the UN has become a focus
for the breakdown of the old global balance of power. The more that the
United Nations acts as a Western agent around the world, the more it risks
being pulled apart by growing rivalries and disagreements among the Western
The disputes over the state of the UN's finances are symbolic of the way
the organisation is being torn between the powerful Western competitors.
It is cash-strapped because many of its leading members are not paying their
dues. By the end of July 1992, UN members collectively owed $1 billion (with
the USA owing half of that).
The unwillingness of leading UN members to pay up reflects their disagreements
over what shape such an international body should take in the future. Germany
and Japan are deeply irritated at still being considered 'enemy nations'
in the UN charter, and being excluded from the top table of the permanent
security council. For its part the USA, annoyed at the tendency for other
powers to question its leadership role, is increasingly acting in a unilateral
fashion over issues such as Somalia or the Iraqi 'no-fly' zone, regardless
of UN procedures.
The end of the Cold War has brought the tensions among the Western powers
to the surface in the United Nations. When Mikhail Gorbachev announced that
the Soviet Union was dissolved on Christmas Day 1991, it left the UN security
council in some disarray. In order to prevent either Germany or Japan from
taking the Soviet Union's place, the American, British and French members
of the security council hastily ensured that the seat went to Boris Yeltsin's
new Russian Federation in an informal arrangement made with no consultation
among ordinary UN member states.
Major then called the special UN summit in January 1992 to ensure that the
permanent membership of the UN security council survived in its present
form. According to the Independent's diplomatic editor Annika Savill,
'the object of the summit was all along to ensure quickly the transition
from a Soviet to a Russian seat on the security council - that is, to ensure
that the body remained one of five permanent members with the right of veto,
with Britain as one of them'. Britain views its UN permanent seat as the
sole remaining proof of its Great Power status.
As the UN has assumed a higher profile in international affairs, so Germany
and Japan have become more anxious to have a leading say in its affairs,
especially since they are expected to pay a large slice of the UN's bills.
On the other hand, the existing five permanent members of the UN's security
council - the USA, Britain, France, Russia and China - want to preserve the
international status quo.
This turmoil in the higher echelons of the UN is exacerbating the trend
towards more militarised international relations. To block the German and
Japanese campaigns for a permanent seat, the five have criticised Bonn and
Tokyo's failure to commit troops to UN police actions. In September 1992,
both the Germans and Japanese had their applications for permanent seats
on the UN security council rejected. Japan then sent 1800 troops to Cambodia
to aid its campaign. In December, chancellor Helmut Kohl justified the despatch
of German troops to Somalia on the grounds that 'the issue is whether Germany
is able to fulfil its duties in the international community, in the UN, in
accordance with its size and importance'.
The Western powers' more open manipulation of the United Nations has produced
fresh tensions and public rows with UN chief Boutros-Ghali. When the UN
security council chose him to head the organisation in November 1991 it
was because he had done everything possible to ingratiate himself. A former
deputy premier of Egypt, educated at the Sorbonne in Paris and married to
the Jewish daughter of a wealthy Alexandria capitalist, Boutros-Ghali had
played a part in ensuring the success of the US-sponsored Camp David agreement
between Egypt and Israel in 1978. He had all the necessary credentials required
to be the West's poodle.
Once in office, however, Boutros-Ghali was confronted by the increasing tension
between the number of world problems he was expected to solve and the West's
ideas on what role the UN should play. Last July Boutros-Ghali lambasted
his 'Eurocentric' paymasters on the security council for concentrating on
a 'war of the rich' in Yugoslavia and ignoring the plight of African countries
like Somalia. When he was chastised in the British press, Boutros-Ghali
accused Britain's UN delegates of treating him like 'a wog' and 'poisoning'
opinion against him. The result was another decline in the UN's prestige.
The relationship between the UN secretary-general and Washington is particularly
fraught. The USA has found the UN's 'humanitarian' credentials a useful
cover for foreign interventions which are really designed to demonstrate
American world leadership. But far from bringing stability, Washington is
increasingly behaving like a Rambo. Its unilateral conduct and reckless
actions are undermining Boutros-Ghali's promotion of the UN as the instrument
that can regulate a New World Order. The UN secretary-general is now reduced
to scurrying from one troublespot to another, from Sarajevo to Mogadishu
to Addis Ababa, only to be denounced and demonstrated against by the people
there, since every intervention he has organised has failed to satisfy their
The United Nations cannot be the builder of a New World Order because it
is a creature of the old one. It was a product of American power at a time
when the USA bestrode the Earth unchallenged, and is now beset by worsening
tensions as US world leadership is called into question. It is not certain
how long the UN will last in its current form. But it is certain enough
that, in the meantime, the peoples of places like Iraq, Somalia and the
former Yugoslavia can expect to receive more of the UN's military attentions
as the Western powers go 'beyond peace-keeping'.
'The UN is coming more
and more to look not like an autonomous actor in international relations,
but like a rubber stamp for decisions taken by the White House, in consultation
with certain other Western capitals.'
African expert in international law,
Newsweek, 18 January 1993
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 52, February 1993