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The expanding might of
UN peacekeeping



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

Comments directly to

August 30, 2006

LONDON - Despite the rhetoric emanating from Washington, London and Tel Aviv the fact is the situation in the Lebanon is being allowed to return to the status quo ante - as it was before the recent war. All that is being changed is that the UN force is being enlarged dramatically. But there is going to be no mandate for it to disarm Hezbollah.

No big change for the Lebanon or for Israel, but a big one for the UN. The UN is now back in favor as everyone's favourite peacekeeper, having recovered from the setbacks of the early 1990s when for different reasons it fell on its face in Rwanda, Bosnia and Somalia. Now Washington happily pays much of its bills. The Chinese contribute more military and civilian policemen than any of the other Security Council member. The big powers airlift its troops to the field and send their navies to give offshore logistical support. The UN will soon field an army only second in size to that of the U.S..

Perhaps events are leading the Security Council by the nose back to the promises of the UN Charter. Article 42 says, "the Security Council…may take such action by air, sea or land forces as may be necessary to restore international peace and security." In 1947, the UN's Military Staff Committee prepared a proposal which the Big Five agreed to, on the size of a UN force: Air force: 700 bombers, 500 fighters. Naval force: 3 battleships, 6 carriers, 12 cruisers, 33 destroyers, 64 frigates, 24 minesweepers and 14 submarines. Army: 15 divisions, 450,000 men. Not enough for a world war, but certainly enough for a Saddam Hussein.

We can ponder what the world would have looked like if the Cold War had not intervened and this forward thinking had not been rapidly shelved. Would there have been a Suez crisis? The post-independence Congolese civil war. The Vietnam War? Numerous Middle Eastern wars. The Yugoslavian wars?

UN peacekeeping at the command and control level is now becoming much more flexible. In the Lebanon the local actors have insisted it be under the direct command of New York and not run by Paris or Rome as Washington would have preferred. But in recent years the U.S. was mandated by the Security Council to lead the UN intervention force in Haiti in 1994, the Australians in East Timor in 1999 (and now they are there again) and the British in Sierra Leone in 2000.

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The UN operation in Sierra Leone is rightly considered a model of success. It arrived in a situation of total anarchy with child soldiers roaming the streets. It got off to a bad start with 500 peacekeepers captured and held hostage. But at the end of its six year mandate in 2005 the mission had successfully disarmed, demobilized and reintegrated more than 70,000 former combatants, restored government authority throughout the country, organized both local and national elections, rebuilt the local security forces and repatriated nearly 30,000 refugees.

A more robust UN has its dangers - it will inevitably devalue the old time peacekeeping devised by Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, a tool fashioned out of necessity when more ambitious plans were necessarily frozen by the imperatives of the Cold War. TFF Associate Brian Urquhart, who for many years was head of UN peacekeeping and ran the UN campaign in the Congo in the early 1960s, wrote in his autobiography of the many tensions implicit in that quite terrifying operation that left Urquhart himself beaten unconscious and Hammarskjöld killed in an air crash as they sought to mediate. Many of the soldiers, Urquhart recounts, from Swedes to Indians to Ethiopians, wanted to use force. The Swedes, at one point, took off to start bombing in retaliation for the murder of an Italian airman, only to be thwarted by bad weather.

Urquhart and his boss, the American Ralph Bunche, gradually persuaded them of the virtue of restraint. "They simply did not want to understand either the principle involved or the bottomless morass into which they would sink if they descended from the high ground of the non-violent international peace-keeping force. The moment the UN starts killing people it becomes part of the conflict it is supposed to be controlling and therefore part of the problem. It loses the one quality which distinguishes it from and sets it above the people it is dealing with." 

Wise words. As the UN expands both in numbers and muscle it shouldn't lose sight of them. The Security Council has made the right decision - it is not the job of the UN force to disarm Hezbollah. That is the job of the politicians and cannot happen until there is peace between Israel and the Palestinians.


Copyright © 2006 By JONATHAN POWER


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


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