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International Socialism, Winter 1999


John Baxter

Is the UN an alternative to ‘humanitarian imperialism’?


From International Socialism 2:85, Winter 1999.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


In the recent Balkan War we have seen the concept of humanitarian intervention used to justify the massive military onslaught against Serbia. Robin Cook was particularly keen to justify the bombings. He declared the intervention to be a ‘war against fascism’. He compared the regime to that of fascist Spain in the 1930s and demanded that the left rally to his cause. [1] Many on the left, including Ken Livingstone, did back the slaughter.

The concept of ‘humanitarian war’ is not entirely new. We should remember that in scores of previous wars our rulers have attempted to justify themselves by reference to the justice of their cause and the evil of the enemy. [2] Nevertheless, a new generation of liberal thinkers have been swayed by the rhetoric used to justify recent wars. Mary Kaldor, the proponent of humanitarian intervention criticised by Ken Coates in his article, is a case in point. She was perhaps best known as a prominent member of European Nuclear Disarmament, contributing with Ken and others to E.P. Thompson’s collection of essays in favour of nuclear disarmament, Protest and Survive. [3] Her transition from peace activist in the early 1980s to enthusiast for military intervention in the 1990s began with her calls for military intervention in Bosnia. [4] In her article in The Observer she argues that the world is entering a new era where, as a result of global interdependence, ‘wars between states ... are becoming an anachronism.’ Instead ‘the new wars such as those in Bosnia, Kosovo or Rwanda are waged against civilians, and are fought in the name of ethnically exclusive claims to power’. [5]

But while Kaldor welcomes the precedent set in Kosovo, she doesn’t like the form that this humanitarian intervention actually took. Against the horrors of actually existing humanitarian intervention she holds up an ideal whose political goal ‘is to support democrats rather than to negotiate from above with the warring parties’, and which ‘is defensive and non-escalatory by definition’. [6] This all rather smacks of second thoughts – after all, as early as January 1999 Kaldor was calling for the use of ground troops and the extension of the area of operation of UN forces to ‘confine local military forces to their compounds’. [7] Later, when the intervention was launched under NATO auspices, she argued that bombing could only be justified if rapidly followed by deployment of ground troops. [8] Today, with the ethnic cleansing of Kosovan Serbs taking place with the connivance of Western forces, and the devastation of the bombing, Kaldor can only keep hold of her liberal conscience by arguing that this is not what she meant by humanitarian intervention!

Ken Coates is absolutely right to attack the muddled thinking and apologetics for imperialism that underlie Kaldor’s arguments. He rightly points out the double standard of supporting Western intervention, supposedly to defend human rights and stop transgressions of international law in Iraq and Kosovo, whilst ignoring repression at the hands of Western allies. When Ken argues that ‘against ethical imperialists there needs to be a new peace movement’, he is absolutely correct, but in order to be able to build such a movement we need to be clear who our friends and enemies are. In this article I would like to take up Ken’s argument that in order to ‘create a more civilised international regime, in which human rights may flourish’ we have to reform the United Nations. [9] This article will focus on the differences in our analysis, but it should be stressed from the outset that this discussion is only meant to further aims which we both hold.

’The impulse to avoid new wars’?

Ken argues that, at the end of the Second World War, ‘the impulse to avoid new wars was powerful enough to give us the UN Charter, with all its faults and all its promises.’ It is true that the Charter, signed in San Francisco in 1945 by the founding states of the UN, is a statement ringing with hope for all humanity. It resolved:

… to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, to reaffirm faith in human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom. [10]

But, given the last 54 years of repeated wars, oppression and abuses of human rights, we would have to conclude that the UN has failed in its task. The question that we have to answer is whether this failure arises from something fundamental to the UN, or whether it is an organisation we could hope to change. Many on the left, including those like Ken who stood out against the bombing of the former Yugoslavia, will agree that the UN has its faults, but argue that the principles of the UN Charter are an ideal worth fighting for, and that we must fight for its reform. For many, the experience of the war over Kosovo reinforced this idea. After all, the US and its allies by-passed the UN in order to avoid Russian and Chinese vetoes on the Security Council.

However, it is wrong to mistake the laudable rhetoric which so often emerges from the UN for its real purpose. The UN did not emerge out of people’s hopes for peace, but from the machinations of the Great Powers as they existed at the close of the war. The fact that in Kosovo the UN did not prove useful for the US and its allies should not distract us. The UN is, and always has been, the creature of the major imperialist powers. For the last 50 years the US has been the most powerful imperialist nation, and as such it has been the US that has dominated the organisation.

The birth of the United Nations

The UN was launched in 1945 at the close of the Second World War. Officials within the US State Department had been planning for peace from as early as 1941, and by 1943 the formation of the United Nations was a declared objective of US foreign policy. [11] The closing years of the war saw rounds of conferences at Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam as the three major powers, the US, Russia and Britain, horse-traded for influence. The launch of the United Nations was part of this process.

The shifting alliances and splits between and within the ruling classes of the different countries founding the UN were complex, but, put simply, Russia and Britain saw their interests as being to maintain the pre-war system of spheres of interest, acting as largely independent trading blocs. For Britain this reflected the desire to hold on to empire and to develop a trading block in Western Europe. For Russia it reflected the desire to develop a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. [12] Russia and Britain were lukewarm about the prospect of the United Nations but were not prepared to openly oppose it.

The US emerged from the war the most powerful nation, with more than half of the world’s industrial capacity, almost two thirds of the world’s gold reserves and a military capacity which dwarfed that of other states. [13] The desire to prevent damaging wars was no doubt important to US strategists, but only in so far as wars damaged American interests. Those interests were reflected in a desire to see free trade throughout the world, so as to provide open access for America’s powerful business interests. The creation of the United Nations would provide a forum in which the US could use its weight to hold back the aspirations of its former allies to create trading blocks resistant to American influence. [14] But at the same time the US wanted to maintain and develop its own sphere of influence in South America and the Pacific. In the words of John McCloy, US Assistant Secretary of War at the time, ‘We ought to be able to have our cake and eat it too … we ought to be free to operate under this regional arrangement in South America, and at the same time intervene promptly in Europe’. [15]

Whilst at times the US had to make compromises in order to keep the Allies on board, it was always American interests which dominated in the negotiations to set up the UN. What emerged from the negotiations was a United Nations system dominated by the Security Council, which was in turn controlled by the five permanent members. The five represent the balance of power as it existed at the close of the war: the three Allies, with France and China.

At the launch of the UN, as today, other countries had to be satisfied with membership of the General Assembly, a talking shop which has passed thousands of resolutions but has no real power. Even so, at the founding of the UN, America wanted to ensure that the Assembly would not pass any embarrassing resolutions, and made sure it was packed with powers sympathetic to the US. The criterion for membership was a declaration of war on the Axis Powers. The US pressured its previously neutral allies in South America to declare war by the deadline of 1 March 1945. The success of this strategy can be judged from the fact that in the first seven years of the General Assembly (1946–1953) of the 800 resolutions adopted the US was defeated in less than 3 percent, and in no case were important US security interests involved. [16]

The UN during the Cold War: 1945–1989

Within two years of the founding of the UN the Cold War had begun. A terrible symmetry was imposed on the world, with the two Great Powers armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons. Whilst there was no conflict at the heart of the system, the two superpowers fought their wars largely by proxy at the edges of the system. Between 1945 and 1989 there were 138 wars, resulting in 23 million deaths. All were fought in the so called Third World. The Korean War killed 3 million, the Vietnam War 2 million. Military interventions not classified as wars, like those in Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Grenada in 1983, claimed thousands of lives. [17]

The US attitude to the UN General Assembly changed during this period. In the early years when it could count on a majority in the Assembly it was particularly keen on using the Assembly to promote its initiatives and, if necessary, to bypass the Security Council. However, during the 1960s, as decolonisation gathered pace, a seat in the General Assembly was seen as a confirmation of nationhood, and the number of members soared. By 1961 the numbers had grown from 51 to 100, and by 1993 there were 184. [18] America’s dominance was destroyed. On more than one occasion the Assembly has condemned US actions, for example in 1983 when it described the invasion of Grenada as ‘a flagrant violation of international law’. [19] The difficulty in controlling the Assembly votes forced an uneasy alliance between the USSR and America to re-establish the role of the Security Council, and since 1961 all UN military action has been authorised by the Council. [20] This recalcitrance on the part of the Assembly also explains why in the mid-1980s both countries were unwilling to pay their full financial contributions to the UN, leading to a crisis in funding. [21]

The period of the Cold War is recognised by even the most sympathetic liberal commentators as a period in which the standoff between America and the USSR prevented the UN from acting as an effective peacekeeper. [22] In the major conflicts (with the exception of Korea) the UN stood back and let the superpowers get on with it. The US and the USSR could slaughter with impunity in Vietnam, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan and Cambodia, sometimes monitored by UN observers. The other permanent members did not tend to involve themselves in conflicts where their interests could clash with those of America. On the one occasion when France and Britain did, in Suez in 1956, America was able to bypass their vetoes on the Security Council and push a motion through the General Assembly calling for their withdrawal. Britain and France had to bow to their economically superior ally. [23] But where the US had no interests, the other permanent members could intervene without fear of interference from the UN: France was able to launch brutal wars to defend its colonies in Algeria and Indochina; China invaded Tibet; Britain murdered and tortured thousands to crush the so called Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya in 1953. Countries outside of the Security Council elite have also been able to get away with slaughter when it has not been in the interests of the Great Powers to intervene. The UN did nothing when Indonesia took advantage of the withdrawal of Portuguese troops from East Timor in 1975, launching an invasion in which over 200,000 were killed.

The UN after the Cold War

For many the end of the Cold War seemed to offer the possibility that the UN could finally act as a force for peace. [24] With the end of the Cold War we have certainly entered a new era of international relations, but any hope that the UN would come into its own has been demolished by the experience of the last ten years. The US has not sought collaboration, but instead has sought to take advantage of the weakness of its main rival and attempted to construct a New World Order in its own image. In the early 1990s it appeared that the UN could become the plaything of American strategic interests, but as the decade has dragged on it has become increasingly difficult for the US to use the UN to sanction its military operations. It has chosen instead to develop the role of NATO. [25] However, that is not to say that the UN is no longer useful to America in some circumstances, or to predict its imminent demise.


The UN-sanctioned war against Iraq showed exactly the form that post Cold War co-operation could take. Russia’s weakness after the revolutions of 1989, its desire to secure US investment, and its own strategic interests in the region meant it was prepared to give its backing to the Gulf War. China too was anxious to develop trade links with the US and abstained when, on 30 November 1990, the Security Council passed a resolution sanctioning the use of military force. Within weeks Russia was repaid when Bush authorised the shipment of $1 billion worth of food to the USSR, while the ban on high level US-Chinese meetings, imposed after Tiananmen Square, was lifted. [26] The war was launched in January 1991. [27]

The reason given for launching the second Gulf War was that Iraq had broken international law by invading a sovereign country, Kuwait. In fact, Saddam Hussein had every reason to think he could resolve his border dispute with Kuwait by military means. The UN had said nothing when Iraq invaded the sovereign state of Iran in 1980, launching the Iran-Iraq war, which would last eight years. It suited US and Soviet interests to see Iran and Iraq tied up in a war of attrition. [28] It was only after seven years of slaughter, when it appeared that Iran might win the war, that the Security Council finally determined that there had been a breach of the peace between the two countries. [29] America could not afford to see its arch-enemy in the region strengthened by victory, and so joined the war on the side of Iraq. The intervention was the key to changing the balance of forces and gave Iraq its victory.

The fact that Hussein murdered and tortured his opponents didn’t matter when he was fighting the Ayatollah Khomeini. However, when the monster the US had created got out of hand, Hussein was branded the ‘new Hitler’ to justify the onslaught against Iraq. This too was a ‘humanitarian intervention’, a war against fascism. Then, too, the humanitarian rhetoric won converts amongst the liberal left. [30] In reality, the war was necessary for two related reasons. The first was that the US was not prepared to see a huge proportion of world’s oil reserves fall under Hussein’s control. [31] The related strategic reason was that America was determined to construct its New World Order, to stamp US authority on the world and to banish forever the spectre of the Vietnam syndrome. The horrors of the Gulf War were conducted under the UN flag and this war against the Iraqi people continues to this day. Almost every day British and US jets continue to bomb targets in Iraq. UN sanctions are still killing 6,000 infants every month, and 2 million have died since the sanctions were imposed. [32]


After America’s relatively easy triumph under a UN flag in the Gulf, US president Bush was eager to reinforce his New World Order with another show of military might. The unfortunate country Bush chose was Somalia. Somalia was riven by warring factions and clans. These had grown originally out of the colonial exploits of the British, Italian and French states in the late 19th century, and had been revived as a result of various Cold War interventions. In December 1992 the UN launched ‘Operation Restore Hope’, again claiming to be launching a ‘humanitarian intervention’. [33] Relations between the US and Russia were still good and the relevant motion was passed unanimously in the Security Council. [34] American and UN troops were sent in huge numbers with a mandate to keep the warring factions apart and to allow food and other relief to reach the dying people. The Bush administration, then in its last days, claimed that 2 million people would be saved from certain starvation and death. In fact, while one optimistic report suggested that between 10,000 and 25,000 lives may have been saved [35], US troops alone claimed 10,000 casualties in a six month period in 1993. [36]

Far from keeping the peace and maintaining any pretence of neutrality, the US veered between cosying up to one faction and then to another, unsure as to who could provide the safest ally. It initially looked to the leader of the Somali National Alliance, General Aidid (the US Special Envoy even rented his house from one of Aidid’s senior aides). Yet US troops sat back and did nothing when one particularly vicious group overran the city of Kismayo, kicking out Aidid’s forces. This contrasts to their response to the crowds who demonstrated in Mogadishu to protest at the lack of action, many of whom were shot and killed by UN peacekeepers. Later, when Aidid proved an unreliable ally, US forces bombed a block of flats where civilian supporters of Aidid were holding a meeting, killing untold numbers of innocent people. They rained shells and missiles on a Mogadishu hospital where they thought he might be hiding, killing patients and staff. [37]

UN troops from all over the world committed atrocities against Somali civilians. Internal UN documents openly referred to Somali civilians as the enemy. Pictures appeared in the world’s press showed Belgian troops roasting a Somali boy over a fire. The troops involved were brought to trial but were acquitted because the Somali child had never brought a complaint. When an American Gunnery Sergeant shot a boy dead for allegedly trying to steal his sunglasses, his punishment was the loss of one month’s pay and demotion. Italian troops looted refugee camps. Malaysians beat up hospital staff. Pakistanis and Nigerians shot unarmed protesters. [38]

The American-led UN intervention was a disaster. The experience has been aptly summarised by Alex de Waal:

Operation Restore Hope was launched in December 1992 amid shocking – and carefully orchestrated – images of anarchy and starvation in Somalia, with the mandate of ‘creating a secure environment for the delivery of humanitarian relief’. Eight months later it turned into the greatest US military humiliation since Vietnam. In three months of urban counter-guerrilla warfare against the unpaid, irregular but resourceful militia of General Mohamed Farah Aidid in Mogadishu City, US military doctrines of overwhelming force and near-zero American casualties came unstuck. The culmination was the 3 October battle, after which pictures of a dead US pilot being dragged through the streets by a jeering crowd and the plight of another taken prisoner of war ... forced a truce and US withdrawal. [39]

Relief charities like CARE-US, USAID and OXFAM-US were amongst the first to call for troops. Their demand was that UN troops should be there to protect the aid workers. In practice this meant that the lives of ordinary Somalis were of secondary importance. [40]


If Somalia was a disaster, words cannot express the scale of the UN’s failure in Rwanda. The term ‘genocide’ has been frequently misused in relation to the situation in the former Yugoslavia, but no other word will do to describe the slaughter in Rwanda which left one in ten of the population dead. [41]

The killings were almost universally described as the result of ethnic tensions, but the troubles can be directly traced to the impact of imperialism on Rwanda. Before the arrival of European colonialism, the distinction between Hutus and Tutsis, the two major ethnic groups, was related to their economic role. The arrival of German and later Belgian colonialists cemented these divisions. [42] Using the classical divide and rule strategy of European colonialists, the Belgians used the Tutsi elite as an local ruling class. However, during decolonisation in the 1950s the Tutsi ruling class was in favour of a rapid withdrawal of the Belgians, seeing this as the only way they could hope to resist the demands for Hutu majority rule. Belgium saw the demands for national liberation from the Tutsi elite as dangerous and Communist-inspired and hoped to curry favour with the Hutu elite, who were in favour of a slower withdrawal so that they could build their own power base. Belgian troops fought side by side with Hutu militias in order to oust the Tutsi rulers in the so called 1959 revolution. [43] The new Hutu ruling class consolidated its position by playing the ethnic card.

The current period of crisis began with the massive fluctuations in coffee and tin prices in the late 1980s, and the IMF and World Bank’s structural adjustment programme in 1989–1990 which saw the government’s budget slashed by almost half. In order to distract attention from the attacks on the living standards of Hutu peasants, the government turned to scapegoating the Tutsis. At the same time the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), an organisation based on Tutsi refugees, was launching attacks from its bases in Uganda.

The reason for outlining the lead up to the slaughter in such detail is in order to give the lie to the simplistic assumptions of Kaldor, who classifies the war as one of the new type, ‘waged against civilians ... in the name of ethnically exclusive claims to power’. To dismiss the events in Rwanda as arising simply from differences in ethnicity is to ignore both the complicity of Western institutions like the World Bank and IMF, and the legacy of colonialism. For Kaldor, crises like the one in Rwanda require the intervention of the benign forces of Western civilisation. Those forces were present at almost every stage in the tragedy of Rwanda, but it is hard to argue that they did anything to make the situation better. Unfortunately for Ken’s argument in favour of the United Nations, it was precisely these forces which stood by while the slaughter happened.

The United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) was established after the ceasefire of 1993, with a mandate from the Security Council to ‘contribute to the establishment and maintenance of a climate conducive to the secure installation and subsequent operation of a transitional government’. [44] The UN force made no attempt to stop the genocide. Its role was to try to secure the ceasefire between the rival armies. Again and again UN forces witnessed, but made no attempt to stop, the brutal murder of Tutsis and opposition figures. Even the general who headed UNAMIR was disgusted with their role. [45]

Even the limited role of UNAMIR was too much for America after the debacle of Somalia. On 21 April 1994 Madeleine Albright, then US ambassador to the UN, successfully proposed a Security Council resolution for UNAMIR to be scaled down by 90 percent, leaving 270 troops on the ground. [46] When a few weeks later the scale of the slaughter was becoming so great that calls were growing for renewed involvement, the US still resisted, delaying a vote and holding up the deployment of an African force by withholding the armoured cars needed. Members of the Clinton administration refused to describe the slaughter as genocide, as that would imply a legal obligation to do something about it. [47]

The forces of world capitalism had created the tragedy of Rwanda, but they could have no part in solving it. This fact is demonstrated by the role which French troops, despatched with UN approval, were to play in the coming months. Over the years France had invested considerable money and effort in cultivating a close relationship with the Hutu regime, and it was alarmed at what appeared to be the imminent takeover of RPF forces. In June, France was able to launch a military operation, dressed up as a humanitarian intervention, in an attempt to prop up its Hutu allies. The French troops of the bizarrely named Operation Turquoise were welcomed with open arms by the Hutu militias, by this time on the verge of defeat, who danced in the streets ‘waving tricolour flags and carrying signs like "Welcome, French Hutus".’ [48] The perpetrators of the genocide were protected in the French-occupied regions and treated as the legitimate representatives of the local government. The French intervention could only delay the victory of the RPF, but, in the words of Philip Gourevitch, ‘the signal achievement of Operation Turquoise was to permit the slaughter of Tutsis to continue for an extra month, and to secure safe passage for the genocidal command to cross, with a lot of its weaponry, into Zaire’. [49]

With the victory of the RPF the genocide stopped, but another tragedy unfolded. The now ousted Hutu government had been able to portray the RPF as bent on genocide against the Hutus. There is little evidence that this is true, but the presence of Tutsi supremacists in its ranks cannot have given confidence to Hutu civilians. A mass exodus of Hutus to camps in Zaire and elsewhere began, but in amongst the refugees were activists, armed to the teeth and ready to relaunch a civil war. Under the protection of the UN High Commission for Refugees and the charitable NGOs which ran the camps in Zaire, the Hutu power activists were able to rearm and reorganise. They launched numerous raids across the border from Zaire, once again killing and maiming Tutsis.


Like Rwanda, Bosnia is one of the models for Kaldor’s ‘new wars’ in which the west must intervene. But if we examine the crisis in Bosnia we find the US developing new strategies for maintaining its imperial dominance. [50] By 1995 the unanimity on the Security Council had effectively ended. It had become clear to the Russian ruling class that the US was not going to step in and solve their economic problems. Russia was again prepared to use its Security Council veto to thwart America’s plans. It was at this point that America began to develop a new role for NATO.

In November 1995, the Dayton Peace Accord brought to an end the civil war in Bosnia, a war in which 200,000 to 300,000 Bosnians lost their lives. The peace deal was brokered almost exclusively by the US, who, in the words of Eric Hobsbawm, ‘virtually single handed took over the task of peacemaking, and in the end virtually imprisoned the Balkan negotiators ... for weeks in the depths of middle America, until they signed’. [51] The deal emerged after the balance of forces in the region swung decisively behind Croatia, which was a direct result of American led NATO intervention, repeatedly bombing Serbian positions and allowing the rapid advance of Croatian forces and the subsequent ethnic cleansing of Serbs from Krajina and sections of Bosnia. [52]

The peace plan cemented the ethnic partition of the region, with the land divided so that 49 percent of it went to a Serbian republic and 51 percent to a Bosnian-Croat federation. Initially the country would be run by a UN-appointed High Representative, who would oversee a gradual transition, over a three year period, to a genuine democracy. But the powers of the High Representative have been continually expanded as the Bosnian people have repeatedly elected representatives considered unsuitable by the international powers. [53] The UN High Representative, effectively a colonial governor, can write laws, veto political candidates in elections, and dismiss uncooperative elected members of Bosnian governing bodies. As time has gone on, far from moving towards democracy, the powers of UN appointees have become more and more dictatorial. Carlos Westendorp, the UN High Representative, described how the need to consult elected Bosnian representatives was removed in the following terms: ‘You do not have power handed to you on a platter. You just seize it. If you use this power well, no one will contest it. I have already achieved this’. [54]

When asked why he thought none of the elected representatives supported the Federation as proposed by the UN, this is how Hans Schumacher, Senior Deputy High Representative, replied:

I don’t care! I am simply not interested in who does not want the Federation: this is a concept which we will implement, despite the resistance in the field, which undoubtedly exists ... We dictate what will be done! Therefore, this is a concept that will be implemented jointly and we simply do not pay attention to those who obstruct! [55]

All the key positions are held by foreign appointees: the chief of the central bank is a New Zealander; the deputy chief of police comes from the discredited Los Angeles Police Department.

The US strategy in Bosnia has provided a model which it has since followed in Kosovo. It bypassed the Security Council in order to avoid the Russian and Chinese vetoes. A multinational NATO force, in reality dominated by US, was used to provide overwhelming firepower in order to impose the US’s will on the ground. Once the US had imposed its preferred solution, the UN was used to provide legitimacy to the settlement.

The UN: the balance sheet

For most of its history the UN has been locked into passivity as a result of the standoff between the US and Russia. But what has emerged after the collapse of the old Stalinist command economies has not been some bright new organisation dedicated to the peace and humanitarian values of the charter. In Iraq the UN was used as a fig leaf for the greatest slaughter since the Second World War. In Somalia and Bosnia, where UN troops were sent in to ‘keep the peace’, its forces have in one case been responsible for mass slaughter, and in the other for the entrenchment of ethnic division in a partitioned state. In Rwanda UN-backed forces at first simply stood back whilst the slaughter took place, and then acted to protect the perpetrators of the genocide. In every case intervention has been portrayed as ‘humanitarian’, ‘ethical’ or ‘benign’, but in every case the policies of the Great Powers have been dictated by imperial design, not human rights or international law. The balance sheet destroys the arguments of liberal imperialists like Kaldor that intervention by the enlightened forces of the West can bring peace and human rights. Kaldor is merely rehashing Kipling’s ‘white man’s burden’ in a new guise. [56]

I am sure that Ken would agree with the bulk of my criticisms of the UN. His argument is not that the UN has been a success story, but that it can be reformed. However, there seem to be as many proposals for UN reform as there are commentators. It has been argued that Britain and France should give up their seats in favour of a single European Union representative. Others have argued that any one of a number of states deserve the status of permanent membership, including Japan, Germany, Indonesia, Brazil, Nigeria and India. [57] The Commission on Global Governance called for the expansion of the Security Council, the phasing out of the veto, and an increase in power for the General Assembly. [58]

Ken’s suggestion that we can move towards Kant’s vision of a peaceful world by vesting control of military forces in the Security Council is a variant of proposals put forward in different forms both by Boutros Boutros-Ghali in his Agenda for Peace and by the Commission on Global Governance. Both called for peace enforcement units to be permanently available to be deployed by the Security Council. [59] It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that such a force could be established. But why should we have any illusions that an armed force controlled by the gangsters of the Security Council would behave any differently to armed forces controlled by its most powerful members? Armed forces exist, not to uphold human rights, but to suppress them in defence of the interests of state. Supranational armed forces are unlikely to behave any differently. The contradiction between the rhetorical commitments of the Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Charter’s commitment to peace through the respect of sovereignty is a real one.

But practically, whatever reform of the UN is proposed, it comes up against the brick wall of the veto. The US and the other countries on the Council are not going to allow reform unless their predominance is protected. Even if we could reduce the role of the Great Powers, who would we replace them with? We cannot point to any country in the world that will do anything other than represent its national interests, or more accurately the interests of its ruling class:

… each member of the UN tries to use its membership to further its own interests. States have not joined out of respect for the ‘UN idea’, or with a view to creating a stronger organisation by transferring some of their powers to it. Rather they are in the UN for what they can get out of it. Of course, some states may see it as in their interests to increase the deference which is paid to the opinions of the UN – as expressed, particularly, in the resolutions of the General Assembly. This is likely to be much more true of the weaker than of the stronger members ... But even weaker states show little sign of wanting to endow the UN with any general authority. [60]

As we approach the beginning of a new millennium, humanity can look back on the 20th century as one of almost unremitting wars and barbarism. In the 12 months to 1 August 1999 ten international wars and 25 civil wars were in progress, claiming 110,000 lives. [61] Given the scale of the slaughter it is not surprising that many cling to the hope that there is some institution which can stand above the conflicts and act to end them. For them, attacking the UN can seem to be the ultimate nihilism – if not the UN, then who will save us? Yet the 20th century also offers us the real alternative. In every decade of this century workers have made revolutions which have overturned their states and, even if only temporarily, held out the prospect of a world where humanity can live in peace without exploitation. It is only this tradition of working class self activity that can end the slaughter. This is not a call to passivity, a call to ignore the slaughter and wait for the glorious day of the revolution. It is vital that socialists today resolutely oppose every war led by our rulers, whether these wars are under the guise of their own nation states, NATO, the UN or any other institution.


My thanks go to Mike Haynes for his valuable comments on an earlier draft, and to Pete Waters and Carole Haines for their help in preparing this article.

1. R. Cook, The Guardian, 5 May 1999; J. Lloyd, New Statesman, 3 May 1999.

2. M. Haynes, Theses on the Balkan War, International Socialism 83 (Summer 1999), p. 88.

3. M. Kaldor, Disarmament: the Armament Process in Reverse, in E.P. Thompson (ed.), Protest and Survive (Harmondsworth 1980), p. 203.

4. New Statesman and Society, 30 January 1993. See also D. Blackie, The United Nations and the Politics of Imperialism, International Socialism 63 (Summer 1994), p. 49, for a depressing list of ex-leftists who joined the warmongers of the Gulf War and Bosnia.

5. M. Kaldor, If Peace Knows No Bounds, Why Should We?, The Observer, 18 July 1999.

6. Ibid..

7. Statement of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly (Prague/The Hague, 6 March 1999), available at

8. The Guardian, 25 March 1999.

9. Although it is outside the scope of this article, I have to disagree with Ken’s assertion that ‘Yugoslavia had established a form of market socialism with self management, which functioned adequately’, and his implication that this was the reason for US hostility to Milosevic’s regime. The idea that the former Yugoslav state had anything to do with socialism should be anathema to socialists. It was the spectacular failure of market socialism which led to the current era of wars and instability. See M. Haynes, The Nightmare of the Market, in L. German (ed.), The Balkans, Nationalism and Imperialism (London 1999), p. 1, and D. Blackie, Cauldron of Discontent, ibid., p. 20. It is not necessary to suggest any ideological motives for launching a war against the former Yugoslavia. The reasons were at once strategic (the desire to expand NATO influence through the Balkans) and economic (the need to protect the pipelines carrying oil from the huge deposits in the Caspian Sea). See J. Rees, NATO and the New Imperialism, ibid., p. 173.

10. Charter of the United Nations, Yearbook of the United Nations 1991 (Dordrecht 1992), quoted in A. Roberts and B. Kingsbury (eds.), United Nations, Divided World (Oxford 1993), p. 499.

11. G. Kolko, The Politics of War (New York 1990), p. 242.

12. It is against this background that the infamous meeting between Churchill and Stalin of October 1944 can be understood. See G. Kolko, op. cit., p. 144.

13. P. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (London 1989), p. 459.

14. US Secretary of State Cordell Hull was a key advocate of free trade alongside an international security organisation which could resolve conflicts. What was implicit but remained unstated in his vision was the economic and military dominance of the US, precisely the reason that Stalin and Churchill opposed him. See R. Väyrynen, The UN and the Resolution of International Conflicts, in R.A. Falk, S.S. Kim and S.H. Mendlovitz (eds.), The United Nations and a Just World Order (Boulder 1991), p. 222.

15. G. Kolko, op. cit., p. 479.

16. D. Horowitz, The Free World Colossus (London 1965), p. 71. Horowitz has since repudiated this book. I am grateful to Mike Haynes for this point.

17. Commission on Global Governance, Our Global Neighbourhood (Oxford 1995), p. 14.

18. The UN’s Role in International Society Since 1945, in A. Roberts and B. Kingsbury (eds.), op. cit., p. 6.

19. Ibid., p. 24.

20. R. Väyrynen, op. cit., p. 234.

21. M. Bertrand, The Historical Development of Efforts to Reform the UN, in A. Roberts and B. Kingsbury (eds.), op. cit., p. 420.

22. See D.J. Whittaker, United Nations in Action (London 1995), p. 28.

23. The contrast to Russia’s invasion of Hungary that year could not be more complete. America used the same procedure to obtain an Assembly resolution condemning the invasion, which Russia simply ignored. See M. Howard, op. cit., p. 66.

24. See, for instance, B. Boutros-Ghali, An Agenda for Peace, in A. Roberts and B. Kingsbury (eds.), op. cit., p. 470

25. J. Rees, op. cit., p. 173.

26. A. Yoder, The Evolution of the United Nations System (London 1993), p. 84.

27. For an insider’s view of UN Security Council attitudes to the second Gulf War see A. Parsons, From Cold War to Hot Peace (London 1995), p. 55

28. The Soviets because they had no desire to see Iran’s Islamic revolution cross the long border into the Soviet Empire. See A. James, The United Nations, in D. Armstrong and E. Goldstein (eds.), The End of the Cold War (London 1990), p. 182.

29. A. Parsons, op. cit., p. 50.

30. L. Humber, Left Wanting, Socialist Review, September 1990, p. 11; and D. Blackie, op. cit., p. 49.

31. A. Parsons, op. cit., p. 57.

32. The horror of the sanctions, and the contrast between the humanitarian mission statements of the UN and the reality on the ground, forced the UN Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid, Dennis Halliday, to resign, saying, ‘I did not join the UN to wage war on children.’ See S. Smith, Oil on Troubled Waters, Socialist Review 227, February 1999, p. 11; and J. Pilger, New Statesman, 3 May 1999, p. 35.

33. D. Blackie, op. cit., p. 57. A. de Waal, US War Crimes in Somalia, New Left Review 230 (1998), p. 131.

34. A. Parsons, op. cit., p. 198.

35. A. de Waal, op. cit., p. 132.

36. D. Blackie, op. cit., p. 60.

37. At times the desperation and stupidity of the US forces became farcical, for example when US Rangers ‘descended from helicopters through the roof of a building and seized eight members of the UN Development Programme’. A. Parsons, op. cit., p. 204.

38. A. de Waal, op. cit., p. 135.

39. Ibid., p. 131.

40. A. de Waal, Famine Crimes (London 1997), p. 179.

41. P. Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow we will be Killed with our Families (London 1999), p. 4.

42. C. Kimber, Coming to Terms with Barbarism in Rwanda and Burundi, International Socialism 73 (Winter 1996), p. 127. N. Davidson, The Trouble with Ethnicity, International Socialism 84 (Autumn 1999), p. 3.

43. C. Kimber, op. cit., p. 132.

44. A. Parsons, op. cit., p. 213.

45. P. Gourevitch, op. cit., p. 168.

46. Even that was too much for Albright, who wanted the forces reduced to zero. Ibid., p. 150.

47. Ibid., p. 152.

48. Ibid., p. 155.

49. Ibid., p. 160.

50. D. Blackie, The Road to Hell, in L. German (ed.), op. cit., p. 40; and M. Haynes, The Nightmare of the Market, ibid., p. 1.

51. The Independent, 22 November 1995, quoted in G. Jenkins, Peace by Partition, Socialist Review 192, December 1995, p. 9.

52. L. German, The Balkan War: Can There be Peace?, in L. German (ed.), op. cit., p. 99.

53. G. Jenkins, Bosnia: The Great Carve Up, Socialist Review 230, May 1999, p. 15. The process is outlined in greater detail in D. Chandler, Bosnia Faking Democracy after Dayton (London 1999).

54. Ibid., p. 65.

55. Ibid., p. 75.

56. Kipling’s poem was written in 1899, welcoming America’s emergence as an imperial power with the conquest of the Philippines and Puerto Rico. The fact that humanitarian imperialism is the return of the ‘white man’s burden’ in another guise is noted by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, who seems to welcome its return. See G. Wheatcroft, New Statesman, 5 July 1999.

57. M. Bertrand, op. cit., p. 431. A. Roberts and B. Kingsbury, op. cit., p. 39.

58. Our Global Neighbourhood, the report of the Commission on Global Governance, is one long argument for change to the UN system. The Commission was made up of the great and the good of parliamentarians, ex-government ministers and diplomats. Commission on Global Governance, op. cit., pp. 225, 344.

59. B. Boutros-Ghali, op. cit., p. 470. Commission on Global Governance, op. cit., p. 132.

60. A. James, op. cit., p. 187.

61. The Guardian, 22 October 1999.

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