MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 7

International Socialist Review, Spring 1999

Bridget Broderick

Can the UN bring peace?

From International Socialist Review, Issue 7, Spring 1999.
Downloaded with thanks as a PDF from the ISR Archive.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

Many have criticized the NATO bombing in Serbia and Kosovo on the grounds that any “peace” initiative in Kosovo should go through the United Nations (UN). Through the UN, they hope to see peaceful negotiations and a settlement, not bloodshed and continued ethnic cleansing.

The notion that the UN would act as a peacemaker in the former Yugoslavia is an illusion based on the myths of UN ideals, not its actual record. There is a simple reason why this is so: The UN was never established to attain peace, least of all for countries outside of the Security Council. From the outset, the UN, despite its internationalist rhetoric, has served as a convenient instrument of national foreign policy for the world’s major imperialist powers – a fig leaf for intervention under the auspices of humanitarian concerns or for imposing the will of the “international community” on “rogue nations.” When the UN is inconvenient, as in the case of Kosovo – where a Russian or Chinese veto on the Security Council would have blocked action – the major powers, particularly the U.S., simply ignore it.

What is the United Nations?

The UN founding charter proclaimed it was “... determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war ... to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, ... in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.” [1] The sentiments are certainly high-minded. Unfortunately, there is an immense gap between these proclaimed ideals and the UN’s actual structure and activity. This becomes quite clear if you analyze how the organization is set up in two main bodies: the General Assembly, today led by Secretary General, Kofi Annan; and the Security Council, led by five “permanent” members. In the General Assembly, all member states have a vote, and can take up any question within the scope of the UN Charter. However, the General Assembly has no power to compel action by any government or to enforce any decision. Its non-binding recommendations carry “the weight of world opinion” only – that is, no weight at all. [2]

The UN Security Council is the organ to which the UN Charter gives primary power and responsibility for maintaining peace and security. It can mediate peaceful settlements, try to secure a cease-fire or create a peacekeeping mission to “troubled areas” to reduce tension and prevent further conflicts. It has the power to enforce its decisions by imposing economic sanctions and by ordering collective military action, a power the General Assembly does not possess. The Security Council is composed of member states, five of whom are permanent members: the U.S., the Russian Federation, Great Britain, France and China. The Council’s decisions can be enforced if all permanent members agree. However, any of the five major powers can singly veto any resolution by the Security Council.

It is this veto power which has enabled the five permanent members to effectively block any action any of them oppose, and to use UN power as an international sanction for any military action they agree upon. Despite lofty internationalist phrases about “the weight of world opinion,” Security Council members vote on how to use the UN as a tool for their respective national foreign policy interests.

The UN does have legitimate agencies and bodies which try to send material aid to those in need, such as the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); or which investigate income inequality and “the human condition” in very real figures, like the Human Development Program of the UN. But their work is subordinated to the designs of the Security Council, which often runs counter to everything these agencies claim to represent.

It is no accident that UN humanitarian agencies are constrained by Security Council veto power. The UN was not constituted to end all war and protect human rights. It was established by the victors of the Second World War to carve up the world for their economic and military benefit.

The Birth of the UN

The UN’s precursor was the League of Nations. Established in 1919 after the First World War, the League was set up to enforce the postwar peace on the terms of the victorious allies. Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin called the League a “thieves’ kitchen.” When major powers agreed on the fate of a smaller country, the League sanctioned action. When the thieves disagreed, international cooperation was flagrantly ignored. In any case, the U.S. refused to join the League. The League of Nations died in the Second World War. [3]

As that war drew to an end, the U.S. emerged as the world’s largest economic and military power. Conferences in Moscow, Tehran and Dumbarton Oaks in 1943 and 1944 laid the political foundations for a new international organization. In 1945, after Yalta, the San Francisco conference was convened to establish the UN.

Like its predecessor, the UN aimed to forge a new world order under the tutelage of the winning powers. Secretary of State Cordell Hull and President Roosevelt had formulated postwar economic objectives long before the war was over. Hull regarded the organization of a “united nations” as an ancillary political instrument to his more central economic objectives. The UN was not conceived so much as a forum for international peace or as a mediating team, but as a body entrusted with preventing any postwar moves by other nations that might close markets to the U.S. Hull opposed any notion of spheres of influence, alliances or blocs in British or Russian postwar diplomacy that might hinder U.S. access to world markets. [4]

President Roosevelt was less idealistic. He conceived of the UN as an international organization run by its top body, “The Four Policemen” (the three major allies – U.S., UK and USSR, plus China) who oversaw their respective regional blocs. The four world cops would enforce the Second World War peace agreements by military intervention in any country if necessary. To do this, all four nations were to have access to military bases around the world. Roosevelt approved Hull’s internationalist rhetoric to justify the aggressive U.S. strategy to carve up the world. [5]

The notion of a noble, international body for world cooperation is ridiculous when one considers that at the founding convention delegates bickered for two days over which country would chair the meetings. Although they bickered over petty details, all the major Allied powers agreed with Roosevelt: the UN’s aim was to police the postwar peace settlement, not cater to some abstract idea of peace dished out for public consumption.

For example, it was well known by all countries that the U.S. would take over Pacific bases after Japan was defeated, despite Naval Secretary Sumner Wells’ denial that U.S. policy was “the Pacific should be a lake under U.S. jurisdiction.” [6] Roosevelt stressed, however, that the creation of an international body would not mean real equality for every nation, and certainly not equal access to every nation’s markets. For example, the U.S. State Department insisted that the Monroe Doctrine be respected by the UN powers, thereby allowing the U.S. to continue its policy of intervening in Latin American affairs at will.

Before the UN had been constituted, the U.S. and the other Security Council members had seized the portion of the world they desired. Gabriel Kolko describes the consequences for world peace and stability:

No possibility of global unity and common action for peace via the UN mechanism ever existed, since the controlling power (United States) never intended it. The UN gave the partial division of the world into spheres of influence and competing blocs a formal legal structure, and thus the Great Powers both created and acknowledged reality.

At the same time,

the United States was well on its way to creating moral rhetoric in the UN that it used to set a standard of conduct for others, but which only obfuscated America’s own intentions and the purposes of the organization ... Thus the United Nations assumed the role of an American moral bludgeon against others, but in the name of the world community that the U.S. dominated at the level of UN representation. [7]

Each Security Council member was able to confirm its own spheres of influence (Britain had the Commonwealth, USSR eventually snared the satellite and France maintained its colonies). The power of the Security Council veto allowed each of the five members to act with impunity against rebellions or liberation movements in their respective spheres. To date, the UN is unable to act against great power aggression because any one member of the Council can veto a resolution for action or proposal for aid.

Almost immediately after the Second World War, the Cold War broke the unanimity among the wartime allies. Although the U.S.-USSR conflict paralyzed the Security Council, the U.S. had its way in the UN as a whole. It controlled three-quarters of the votes in the General Assembly and consistently held majorities on the Security Council. But the Russian veto meant that U.S. control over the UN was largely negative – it could veto any action or proposal it opposed.

The one exception during the Cold War – which proved the UN was a rubber-stamp for U.S. imperialism – was the Korean War in 1950, when the Russian-backed government in North Korea faced off against the U.S.-backed government in the South. Because Russia had walked out of the Security Council in protest against the UN’s refusal to admit China as a member-nation, the U.S. was able to push through a vote for a UN multinational force in Korea.

UN participation in the war was minimal. In reality, it was a U.S. operation all the way. But Washington could use the UN as a means to lend credibility to what was essentially a very bloody skirmish between the world’s biggest military powers.

The UN in the Post-Cold War Period

If the UN were some kind of neutral international body, presumably it would then intervene as an instrument of justice and peace everywhere injustices took place. This is clearly not the case. No big power, least of all the U.S., would tolerate such a body or allow it such a mandate. This is why the U.S. recently opposed a wider mandate for the International War Crimes Tribunal – for fear that the spotlight might be shone on U.S. atrocities in Iraq or elsewhere. If there is any doubt on this score, look at where UN intervention or peacekeeping has not taken place: when Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975, when apartheid-era South Africa invaded and occupied Namibia, for the past 50 years of Israeli occupation and repression of Palestinians. Because the U.S. can veto any resolution for action in the Security Council, the UN will never keep peace where U.S.-friendly dictators or watch-dog states daily violate human rights.

The case of Guatemala highlights this point well (or horribly). Guatemala suffered a brutal civil war for nearly 40 years. During this period, little mention was made in the UN General Assembly or the Security Council of the atrocities committed by the Guatemalan army. Yet, since the 1980s, independent human rights observers continually denounced the army’s policy of genocide toward the Mayan Indians. When the main guerrilla organization (URNG – Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca) agreed to a cease-fire with the Guatemalan army, the UN supervised the peace accords and set up an independent Historical Clarification commission to investigate the alleged abuses. [8] It found that the Guatemalan army was responsible for 90 percent of the human rights violations in which 200,000 Guatemalans were killed. The commission found that until the mid-1980s, the CIA supported illegal counterinsurgency operations in Guatemala. [9] Yet, while the UN investigation specifically denounced military intelligence and government policy as responsible for the massacres, the report cannot hold individuals accountable for murder, nor can it compensate the victims or guarantee their safety. What is most tragic, of course, is that the UN did nothing to stop the massacres because its most powerful member, the U.S., was an accomplice to the atrocities.

Nevertheless, the illusion that the UN might play such a role is maintained by the scores of resolutions passed by the General Assembly – toothless resolutions that are routinely ignored by the U.S. and other countries. This is because, since the 1960s, the balance of power in the General Assembly shifted away from U.S. control, as newly independent states in Africa and elsewhere tended to look to the non-aligned movement or to the USSR for leadership. As a result, the more recent history of the UN is full of resolutions condemning Zionism or calling for sanctions against apartheid in South Africa, to name two.

But in spite of these resolutions, the UN has proved powerless to prevent U.S. invasions of countries in Central America and elsewhere. The U.S. (as well as all other Security Council members) has consistently ignored the General Assembly’s denunciations of its invasions and its blatant use of violence throughout the world. The epitome of arrogant disregard was, of course, Ronald Reagan. After the UN General Assembly condemned the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada, Reagan commented, “One hundred nations have not agreed with us on just about everything that’s come before them where we’re involved, and it didn’t upset my breakfast at all.” So much for the “weight of world opinion.” [10]

The UN has not changed in its purpose since it was established. If anything, as “victor” of the Cold War, the U.S. has taken steps to dominate, strangle or manipulate the UN as it sees fit in the 1990s. Its first test of New World Order politics was using the UN as a fig leaf for the Gulf War in Iraq. If any illusions in UN “peacekeeping” or humanitarian missions survived, the invasion of Iraq should have killed them. Under the auspices of the UN, the U.S. bombed Iraq into what observers described as a pre-industrial state, killing tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians and soldiers. They then followed up with UN-organized sanctions that have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Here the real meaning of “UN” is clear – some nations, the most powerful – uniting against another that steps out of line.

More recently, U.S. imperialism and UN goals have never been more clearly bound together than when UN inspectors finally revealed they were using U.S. spy equipment to relay information to the Pentagon regarding Iraqi military targets. Iraq had constantly accused the UN weapons inspection teams of being covers for U.S. spying operations. No one was surprised except for Kofi Annan, who was “shocked.”

In the current crisis of the Balkans, whether NATO should have asked permission from the UN Security Council is, at this time, a moot point. Kofi Annan’s claim that the Security Council has primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security in this context simply evinces the impotence of the UN to prevent human rights abuses and military aggression by its own most powerful members. The U.S. has never considered the UN as the primary forum to decide collective global action. President Bush’s own Undersecretary of State for International Organizations, John Bolton, the State Department’s main connection to the UN, said this quite clearly and with characteristic Washington arrogance (and run-on sentences):

There is no United Nations. There is an international community that occasionally can be led by the only real power left in the world, and that is the United States, when it suits our interest, and when we can get others to go along ... The success of the United Nations during the Gulf War was not because the United Nations had suddenly become successful. It was because the United States, through President Bush, demonstrated what international leadership, international coalition building, international diplomacy is really all about ... When the United States leads, the United Nations will follow. When it suits our interest to do so, we will do so. When it does not suit our interests we will not. [11]

An examination of UN history consistently reflects its true purpose: an international organization in name only, dedicated to serving the interests of the world imperialist powers. Ambassadors to the UN do not simply turn off their national interests when they enter its hallowed halls to debate the fate of less powerful nations. UN forces will not be neutral and humanitarian in Kosovo when they were barbaric and racist in Somalia, Rwanda and Iraq. The Security Council’s imperialism is a permanent feature for which humanitarian concerns are strictly window dressing. It includes the Russian Federation, who repressed Chechnya liberation forces; China, the butcher of Tiananmen Square; France, which recently tested nuclear bombs in the Pacific; Britain, which has yet to leave Northern Ireland; and the U.S., which has shown itself capable of going to extraordinary lengths to put down any nation that tries to escape its economic or political control. These countries are the heart of the UN – no humanitarian agency can ever effectively contradict their foreign policy.

To believe that the UN can provide an alternative to U.S. or NATO intervention is to fall into the dangerous trap of supporting U.S. imperialism under the veneer of “global collective security” which the UN supposedly represents. The UN can never resolve or overcome the brutality of its imperialist members. Any settlement in the Balkans that the UN might negotiate would benefit the Security Council, not Kosovars and Serbs. A protectorate under UN peacekeepers might provide a breathing space for Western powers until the next crisis hits, but such a plan would do nothing to alleviate the suffering in the region.

As countless peace-keeping missions show (see box), UN troops do more to promote violence and instability than accomplish peace. Do we really want to put our hopes in an organization that promotes hawks like Madeleine Albright, or cynical bureaucrats like Kofi Annan? The UN is not the alternative to NATO – both are organizations controlled by the ruling classes of the world’s most brutal states. The alternative is to build an antiwar movement on the ground. We can demand an end to U.S.-NATO intervention, and demand they use planes to flood the region with food and medical aid rather than bomb Serbian factories, bridges and apartment houses. We can publicly demand the U.S. open its doors to Kosovar and Serb refugees, not dump them in squalid detention camps. At the same time, we must argue that the UN will neither stop the bombing nor bring peace anywhere in the world.

* * *


1. Phyllis Bennis, Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today’s UN (Olive Branch Press: Brooklyn 1996), p. 245.

2. Bennis, p. 248.

3. Duncan Blackie, The United Nations and the Politics of Imperialism, International Socialism 63, pp. 49–74.

4. Gabriel Kolko, The Politics of War: The World and United States Foreign Policy 1943–1945 (Pantheon Books: New York 1990), p. 266.

5. Kolko, p. 267–269.

6. Kolko, p. 276.

7. Kolko, p. 279.

8. UN Peacekeeping: Some Questions and Answers, United Nations Department of Public Information, Sept. 1998.

9. New York Times, February 26, 1999.

10. Quoted in Lance Selfa, Can The UN Bring Peace?, Socialist Worker, October 1990, p. 9.

11. Quoted in Bennis, p. xv.

Lance Selfa is a member of the ISR editorial board

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