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Is the UN becoming a warrior?



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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April 20, 2011
These days I pick up the paper or switch on the news and find that the UN is fighting- one battle here and another there. The UN never used to fight quite like this. It was the peace-keeper.
UN soldiers and helicopters have been fighting in the Congo and now Libya and Ivory Coast. No one seems outraged. When journalists asked Alain Le Roy, the head of UN peace-keeping, why the UN was deployed in this non-traditional peace-keeping role in the Ivory Coast, he replied that the Security Council had adopted unanimously (as they did for Libya) a resolution that sanctioned “all necessary means…. to prevent the use of heavy weapons against the civilian population”.  When diplomats at the Security Council quizzed Mr Le Roy, arguing that shelling the presidential palace could not be called protecting innocent civilians, Le Roy argued that the true target was heavy weapons in the area.
Phyllis Bennis of the Washington-based think tank, International Policy Studies, speaks for a lot of us long-term watchers of UN peacekeeping operations when she says that “the air strikes are more of a political than a humanitarian operation”. She argues that that powerful forces are once again using the UN as an instrument for their own interests, rather than legitimising it as an institution of international law.
This is what the UN terms “peace-enforcement”, not peace-keeping in the traditional sense. The Soviet Union and China despite their initial doubts about peace-keeping went along with it on occasion- as in the bloody Congolese civil war in the 1960s- but peace-enforcement has always made them much more nervous.
Not now.  Both Russia and China did not oppose  the Security Council vote authorising military intervention in Libya and the Ivory Coast. However, Russia does say the resolution has been interpreted too broadly. US and NATO jets have widened the combat from protecting civilians, by taking out the heavy weapons that Gadhaffi uses to shell the rebels and civilians, to gearing up to go after President Muammar Gadhaffi himself.
Last week the three leaders of the US, Britain and France published an op-ed article implying that the resolution gave the UN members a carte blanche to do everything necessary to thwart the Gadaffi regime- with the implication that they would go after Gadhaffi himself, even though it was only a month ago they were pointing out that the UN resolution didn’t allow it. Russia seems displeased but is only making a small fuss, compared with what the Soviet Union used to do at the UN. On one tense occasion Khrushchev took his shoe and banged it on the table. China is quiet. One can only read into this there is a de facto consensus for cutting the head off the Libyan snake.
There seems to be a new trend in the Security Council in which what has been called “the responsibility to protect” is gaining hold. It is based on a resolution passed in 2005 that backs the idea of the UN intervening to stop genocide.
UN peacekeeping went through bad patch after its failures in Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia when the powers-that-be underestimated its task and in the case of Rwanda, the site of the worst massacres since the war in Cambodia, simply ignored the pleas of the UN commander on the ground for more troops. Later, the UN was politically weakened by the decision of NATO to bomb Serbia without a UN mandate. The NATO nations simply ignored international law.

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In 2006 the UN recovered its step and the Security Council passed the first ever resolution backed by the big five veto-wielding powers on a Middle East peace-keeping issue- to send UN troops into Lebanon.
It also authorised the sending of a massive force of 27,000 peace-keepers into Darfur, a region of Sudan. It seems to have had a benign effect, effectively ending the fighting.
These successes seem to have emboldened the Security Council to get tough on the Ivory Coast and Libya, crossing the threshold from peace-keeping to peace- enforcement. And added to that UN helicopters themselves have been going into action. Clearly successful in Ivory Coast the situation in Libya seems to be much more complex and difficult. Stalemate seems the likely outcome unless Gadhaffi is killed or pressured to cut and run.
Like it or not- and purists like myself who have always hoped that the UN would err on the side of non-violence do not- this is the way the UN is going. The world is acting together as it never has before in the history of mankind. It is hard for many to say no to that.

Copyright © 2011 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172
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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
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Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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