A flawed force for good

The Parliament of Man
November 9, 2006

The UN, despite its faults, improves the world, says Margaret Anstee.

The UN is easy game, often targeted by critics who have not bothered to study its history, structures or the constraints under which it operates. In talks at schools I have also found dismaying ignorance among the coming generation. Paul Kennedy's succinct and eminently readable account of its chequered history over the past 60 years is therefore most timely and should be required reading for students in sixth forms, as well as for those genuinely wanting to understand the organisation before passing judgment. He highlights successes usually overlooked by headline writers, while in no way excusing the failures. The record is mixed, he concedes, but argues that this is to be expected, given the nature of human beings, divergent national interests and the general state of the world.

The book is well structured, engagingly written and enlivened by quirky but apt phrases such as "grumpy P5 powers". The notes are excellent and the inclusion of the text of the UN Charter helpful, but I hope a second edition may include a bibliography and a list of the UN's mystifying acronyms.

Part one sets the historical context, from 1815-1945, in which the UN was created. Part two covers six themes: the Security Council; peacekeeping; economic programmes; social, environmental and cultural activities; human rights; and representation and the role of actors outside the member states. Part three looks to the future.

Kennedy traces the performance of the Security Council against the background of the concerns, very different from those of today, that guided the Great Powers in formulating the charter, establishing veto power for the five major victors of the Second World War and introducing the important caveat in Article 2, Paragraph 7, precluding intervention in matters "within the domestic jurisdiction of any state".

Use of the veto tailed away after the virtual stalemate of the Cold War, and there was an explosion of hope and of new peacekeeping operations.

Conflicts were more complex, mostly within, rather than between, states, and the UN became overextended. Successes in Namibia, Mozambique, Central America and, relatively, in Cambodia were overshadowed by disastrous failures in Somalia, Rwanda and, initially, Bosnia.

Kennedy also recalls the forgotten tragedy of the Angola mission, which I had the misfortune to lead in 1992-93, pointing out that it was underfunded and underpowered. I regret that he does not cite Angola, along with Rwanda, as another example of immense human suffering arising from the selective priorities of major members of the Security Council, who preferred to send more than 40,000 troops to Bosnia while refusing to assign a few thousand to two war-torn African countries.

Inadequate mandates figure among the reasons Kennedy gives for many failures, along with the UN's financial bankruptcy, due to member states' failure to pay their dues on time and the UN's lack of a standing army.

Once the Security Council authorises a mission, the Secretary-General has to beseech member countries to provide troops, resulting in long delays.

Furthermore, the growing reluctance of big powers to commit troops has led to reliance on forces from developing countries and regional organisations.

Operations under Chapter VII of the charter, involving use of force, are increasingly entrusted to multinational coalitions with the necessary fire power. As Kennedy reveals, the UN security system has been deliberately kept weak by its owners and thus is less effective in resolving conflict than a few robust nation-states.

As Kennedy says, mankind is far from achieving the charter's economic and social goals, but he underestimates the UN role in the advances that have been made, particularly in development, an area in which its impact, because intangible, is hard to evaluate, especially in technical assistance. To say that the UN Development Programme was created "to undertake ventures that the (World) Bank would decline on commercial grounds" is misleading. The UNDP was intended to provide grant aid in the form of technical assistance and preinvestment studies, while the bank offered repayable capital loans. The roles became blurred as the bank encroached on the UNDP's bailiwick and the programme's voluntary funding failed to keep pace with needs.

Kennedy correctly highlights the weakness of the Economic and Social Council and the anomalous position of the two Bretton Woods institutions, but it is not true that the International Monetary Fund "hardly considered the developing world until the late 1960s". I was present in 1959 at an altercation between the brilliant economist Raul Prebisch, then head of the Economic Commission for Latin America, and a hapless International Monetary Fund representative over monetary arrangements for the Latin American Free Trade Association - the ALALC - the proposed common market for the continent.

Kennedy's analysis of the UN's social, environmental and social agenda concludes that, while many demands remain unmet, the world would be a worse place without these programmes and institutions. In 1945, environmental issues were not even considered. He characterises human rights as an unfinished revolution but argues that the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights has had incalculable beneficial effects. One key area is barely mentioned: the UN's immense and expanding work in humanitarian relief, valiantly delivered in challenging and often life-threatening conditions.

The book repeatedly emphasises the constraints imposed by member states'

vacillating political will and failure to live up to treaty commitments, and the constant assertion of national sovereignty, despite its declining relevance in our rapidly globalising world. Such considerations lead Kennedy to be cautious about the future, opting for a middle course of incrementally practical changes in preference to root-and-branch reform. My own involvement with several major and eminently rational reform efforts that failed because of political obstacles to their implementation bears out this judgment. There is no dispute about what should be done. The conundrum is: how?

Kennedy proposes interesting changes but does not mention three that, in my view, are key: improved selection procedures for the posts of Secretary-General and heads of agencies; restriction of their appointments to a single, possibly longer, term; and a consolidated budget for the whole system.

I agree that the UN needs to improve intelligence on impending threats, but the function should be in the Secretary-General's office, not the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO). The odds against it are enormous, however. The 1987 reforms I headed recommended such a move, and we were accused by Washington of creating a KGB and by Moscow of establishing a CIA.

The importance of peacebuilding is another area of agreement, but the World Bank should not take the lead. Kennedy overlooks the role of the Department of Political Affairs (DPA), designated by the Secretary-General as focal point for peacebuilding, and also that of the UNDP. And he does not refer to the UN Plan of Action for Peacebuilding approved in 2000 (I was the author), which was designed to ensure a coherent response, under the Secretary-General, by the many UN bodies involved in peacebuilding, but which was never implemented owing to infighting within the system and lack of political leadership. Kennedy barely mentions the DPA at all, or the overlap with the DPKO. Given the integral nature of peacekeeping and peacebuilding, an amalgamation of these two departments of the secretariat is long overdue.

All this adds spice to the critical issues he raises. His message is not pessimistic; rather, it underlines the central importance of the UN and the crying need to repair its weaknesses and coax reluctant governments to accept change. We must not give up.

Dame Margaret Anstee is a former Under-Secretary General of the UN. Since retiring in 1993, she has continued to serve the UN on a voluntary basis, mostly in the fields of peacekeeping and peacebuilding.

The Parliament of Man: The United Nations and the Quest for World Government

Author - Paul Kennedy
Publisher - Allen Lane, Penguin
Pages - 361
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 7139 9375 8

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