Cutting through the bullshit.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

An independent UN?

Way back in September 2002, the leader of the free world made these remarks

The conduct of the Iraqi regime is a threat to the authority of the United Nations, and a threat to peace. Iraq has answered a decade of U.N. demands with a decade of defiance. All the world now faces a test, and the United Nations a difficult and defining moment. Are Security Council resolutions to be honored and enforced, or cast aside without consequence? Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant?
I thought, well, if anyone is still entertaining any illusions that the UN is anything other than an instrument of US ‘foreign policy’, Dubya has well and truly put paid to that. It wasn’t the first time I’d made the mistake of overestimating the ability to arrive at obvious conclusions from the evidence presented.

Or the last. When Israeli bombers took out a UNIFIL ‘peacekeeper’ and his wife in Tyre on 17 July and the UN uttered not a peep, I was again surprised that people still harboured expectations of the by now thoroughly discredited ‘world body’. When they shelled the UNIFIL post at Khiyam for six hours on 25 July despite repeated requests to cease and Kofi Annan said he was ‘…shocked and deeply distressed by the apparently deliberate targeting by Israeli Defence Forces’, I thought perhaps the UN was finally going to grow a spine. But no, within a couple of days, he had recanted.

And yet, after its utter failure even to protest the slaughter of its own personnel at Israel’s hands, much less protect them, everybody still thought the UN was the agency to enforce a ceasefire. And what a ceasefire! Where Israeli Foreign Minister openly boasted of the Israeli government’s intimate involvement in setting its terms, and in the same breath expressed reservations about whether Israel would see fit to comply. Not to mention the cluster bomblets scattered all over southern Lebanon as a little parting gift just before the ceasefire took effect that are still killing and maiming UN disposal experts.

A series of surveys conducted by and its research partners between July 2006 and March 2007, found overwhelming support for enhanced powers for the UN. In particular, across the fourteen countries where the question was asked, the average of 64% supported ‘Having a standing UN peacekeeping force selected, trained and commanded by the United Nations’. Majorities of up to 77% (Peru) favoured the measure, and even in Argentina and the Philippines, pluralities of 48% and 46%, respectively, were in favour. A surprising 72% in the US and 64% in Israel also supported it.

Clearly respondents have not thought too deeply about how such a force would achieve the kind of independence of individual countries that they seem to desire. Only 46% overall from the same fourteen countries supported ‘Giving the UN the power to fund its activities by imposing a small tax on such things as the international sale of arms or oil’. Only in France did a big majority (70%) agree with such an initiative. So did small majorities in China, Israel, and South Korea, and pluralities in six other countries. In the US, a plurality of 50% opposed the measure, as did 55% and 56% majorities in Peru and the Philippines.

Furthermore, it doesn’t go without saying that troops and officers, all of whom come from and owe allegiance to particular states, indeed, who are members of the armed forces of particular states, will actually be able to act independently of their home countries’ expressed interests in any given situation.

What emerges from this is a picture of a widespread illusion that the UN can and should have the power to act independently of the states that comprise it. There would seem to be little understanding of the role of the Security Council and the way the structure of the UN ensures that it can only act when the US, the world’s principal transgressor of ‘international law, agrees, and that when carrots and sticks fail to procure the votes it requires, the US will act without reference to the UN. The independent peacekeeping force, presumably also hamstrung by Security Council control, is obviously not going to be strong enough to challenge outright aggression by a strong state like the US or Israel in any case. Indeed, the history of UNIFIL and other UN peacekeeping operations are not such as to instil confidence that they can protect the innocent in zones of conflict, or keep the peace between determined antagonists, much less make peace.

So I think we have to interpret the results in the context of an understanding of a myth of UN neutrality and commitment to peace. What respondents seem to be trying to express through these surveys is that they prefer states acted responsibly and that there be some agency to constrain them.

In this context, overall 64% in those fourteen countries favoured ‘Giving the UN the authority to go into countries in order to investigate violations of human rights’. In a sample of twelve countries, 73% agreed that the Security Council should have the power to intervene in a country ‘To prevent severe human rights violations such as genocide’ and 74% ‘To defend a country that has been attacked’.

On the other hand, when asked ‘When dealing with international problems, [survey country] should be more willing to make decisions within the United Nations even if this means that [survey country] will sometimes have to go along with a policy that is not its first choice?’, overall only 45% of respondents in sixteen countries agreed to limiting the independence of ‘their own’ states to that extent. According to the report,
Not surprisingly the three countries most ready to accept UN decisions are also permanent members of the UN Security Council: China (78%), France (68%), and the United States (60%). The public in Russia, also a member, tend to be opposed to abiding by such decisions by 44 percent to 33 percent, however.
Israel, surprisingly, is another county where there is strong support for making decisions within the United Nations. Fifty-four percent of Israelis agree that their leaders should abide by such decisions even if they disagree. This is striking given the extent to which opponents of Israel have used the United Nations as a platform for criticism of the Jewish state.
In sharp contrast, the Palestinians are the only public polled with a majority opposed to accepting such collective decisions. A large 81 percent majority of Palestinians say their government should not go along with policies they oppose. This is also striking given that Palestinian leaders have used UN resolutions as a basis for legitimating their demands for statehood.
Actually, this is probably not as striking as the authors think. Their reasoning is that is unsurprising that those countries with the most influence over the decisions they are to be bound by should support them. So surely by the same reasoning those whose ‘governments’ have no say whatsoever in the decisions that are to bind them are unlikely to support abiding by such decisions willy nilly.

A recent post on lenin’s tomb suggested that public opinion polls evidence a shift to the left in the US. Some of these results appear to support such a conclusion, provided we stipulate that the shift is a shift in opinion only. More direct and reliable indicators of an actual substantive shift, like number involved, length, militancy, and success of strikes, and attendance at demonstrations, would seem to suggest otherwise. The demonstrations commemorating the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq a few weeks ago were not inspiring, even taking into account any impact UfPJ’s refusal to participate might have had. I certainly hope to see impressive turnouts at next month’s actions commemorating 40 years of military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

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