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Running back to the UN



Jonathan Power

February 27, 2004

LONDON - As recently as mid November the U.S. was ignoring the UN despite it being obvious to the outside world that it was increasingly bogged down in Iraq. On November 15th , when the Coalition Provisional Authority and the Iraqi Governing Council signed an agreement that set up a transition plan, the UN was not even mentioned. But a short two months later Washington is on its knees before the UN, its transition plan in tatters.  It's revealing how in a real crisis- and Iraq is but the latest example- the big powers can run to it to chew the cud and find a solution short of war or revolution. When the antagonists have either talked or fought themselves into a corner they tend often to crawl back to the body that they were not long ago denouncing to find an exit from the horrors that confront them. But then a few years later they seem to have forgotten that it happened.

The present desperate return of the U.S. to the UN brings to mind the events of the 1954 crisis over the capture of 17 American airmen by China. American public opinion became extremely agitated. There was even some talk about the use of nuclear weapons. Belatedly, the UN was asked to intervene and Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld went to Beijing to talk to Premier Chou Enlai. It took six months of negotiating but the men were released. President Dwight Eisenhower has a whole chapter in his book on the incident but the central role of the Secretary General is almost totally ignored.

It is the same in Robert Kennedy's book on the Cuban Missile Crisis. There is only a passing reference to U Thant's letter to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. Yet it was U Thant's letter that elicited a crucial response from the Soviet leader indicating there was room for compromise. In Suez in 1956, the Lebanon in 1958, in the Congo in 1969 and the 1973 Middle East war it was the UN that provided an escape hatch for the big powers who had put themselves at the height of the Cold War on a collision course. In the wake of the Yom Kippur war, although both the U.S. and the Soviet Union had agreed in principle to a cease-fire, there was no way of implementing it. The situation looked exceedingly dangerous. Egypt was calling for Soviet help. President Richard Nixon put the U.S. on a nuclear alert. It was fast footwork at the UN, principally by a group of Third World countries, that helped break the impasse. They pushed for a UN force to go in- and by the standards of the slow-moving bureaucracy of today it did the impossible by starting to arrive on the ground the next day.

Critics can deride the Third World majority at the UN but even if it does combine to vote through the Assembly all number of meaningless or impossible resolutions it often seems to rise to the occasion on the most serious matters. It was during the charged Security Council debate that preceded the American decision to invade Iraq that the African members, who by the luck of the rotation held 20% of the vote, pondered dispassionately both sides of the argument before coming down against a war, seemingly at great cost to their immediate short term economic interests. And today it is a Ghanaian, Secretary General Kofi Annan and his right hand man, the Algerian, Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special envoy to Iraq, whom the Americans can't seem to have enough of.

We are also able to watch right now the Secretary General, hopefully at last, bringing to conclusion the painful 30 year separation of the Turkish and Greek parts of the island of Cyprus, following the British colonial failure and the first post-World War 2 attempt at the ethnic cleansing of part of a European country- by Orthodox Christians of Turkish Muslims. The UN first stopped a would-be pogrom, then halted the advance of a Turkish invasion and subsequently guarded the peace line separating the two halves, unnoticed by much of the world, but not unnoticed by the still nervous inhabitants of Cyprus. Who says the UN does not have staying power?

If the UN has been a force, a peacemaker and an interlocutor, today it must also seriously contemplate the need to become a colonizer. Perhaps in Iraq, given the antiquity of the civilization and the number of highly educated people, it need only be a helpmate, once the planned elections are concluded. But in Haiti, Somalia, the Congo and Sierra Leone where the system of government has all but disappeared the UN should consider taking the reins of power. In all these countries torrid personal ambition and gross administrative incompetence combined with the ruthless application of the most sordid and undisciplined forms of violence have destroyed any semblance of normal life or ordinary discourse. They all stand in danger of becoming shelterers of tomorrow's terrorist networks.

We probably have to wait for a change at the helm of command in the U.S. for this to happen. But, as Iraq shows, American opinion, along with that of its main allies in Iraq, is coming to appreciate the UN. The hope must be that this time Washington learns from the experience.


Also published in the International Herald Tribune as The UN: Much maligned, but much needed


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2004 By JONATHAN POWER


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