As the US considers a unilateral strike on Iraq, Sean Coughlan talks to Oxfordacademic and former peacekeeper Sir Marrack Goulding about the future of the UN
One could imagine meeting Sir Marrack Goulding in a Graham Greene novel. This former ambassador who became a professional peacekeeper has spent his career in far-flung places, observing some of the most brutal conflicts of recent decades.
As United Nations under-secretary general in charge of peacekeeping operations, he travelled in the jet stream of international diplomacy, a top-table lifestyle balanced by visits to peacekeeping forces at the sharp end of war.
As a senior UN official, between 1986 and 1997, Sir Marrack was involved in peace initiatives in flashpoints such as Lebanon, Angola, Namibia, Bosnia and Iraq. His time in charge of peacekeeping operations, before becoming head of the UN's political department, is reported in his recent book Peacemonger .
Although Sir Marrack is now warden of St Antony's College, Oxford, the news is a constant reminder of his tenure at the UN. Iraq is again the focus of international tension, as it was following its war with Iran and, later, after the invasion of Kuwait.
Sir Marrack has seen at first hand the fear inspired by Saddam Hussein's regime. In Baghdad, he saw the Iraqi leader's son arriving outside a hotel. "(The bystanders) did not acknowledge his presence with respectful bows, as would happen in other Arab countries, but scattered from his path like a flock of pigeons fleeing a falcon. That really brought home to me the terror in that government and how people really were frightened of sudden violence from the regime."
He remains pessimistic about the current sabre-rattling Saddam regime, dismissing Tony Blair's recent dossier on the country as not saying anything new and being "mildly dishonest". He believes that the decision by the US and UK over whether to operate through the UN or unilaterally will be pivotal to the future of international peacemaking.
If the aim of tackling Iraq is to cut off support for international terrorism, he says, the US would do better to focus on rebuilding Afghanistan and helping to nurture democratic institutions.
"But nation-building isn't a favoured concept in Washington at the moment and that's a huge pity," he says.
If Saddam is unilaterally deposed by force, he believes the most likely outcome is ethnic division and chaos in Iraq, which could destabilise the whole region. But he is not a fan of sanctions. In the case of Iraq, he says, their application has allowed Saddam to present himself as the victim, but has done little to undermine his regime.
To lessen the prospect of international terrorism, Sir Marrack believes there has to be an effort to address the idea that the West is anti-Arab and anti-Islamic, perceptions that can be exploited by people such as Osama bin Laden. Feeding these perceptions is the "unresolved injustice" of Palestine, he says.
Describing himself as a friend of Israel and a friend of Palestine, he remains upbeat about the chances of an agreement because "the present situation is clearly intolerable for both sides".
Negotiators from Palestine and Israel have visited St Antony's College and, says Sir Marrack, "they will all tell you that the main ingredients of a settlement are there".
"East Jerusalem is going to become the capital of the Palestinian state. There won't be a blanket right of return for Palestinians. There will have to be arrangements on the ground so that Israel feels secure - and that means a huge international force for a long period of time. Financial compensation for those coming in from the refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan and an agreement on water will be needed. But 95 per cent of it is there. What has been lacking is the political will for the last 5 per cent."
And he forecasts that settlement will be reached in four or five years, "provided the Americans are willing to put their shoulder to the wheel".
Promoting peace has meant Sir Marrack has had to endure long exposure to war. And he says that as he gets older, he has become more hostile to the brutality of war.
"I find myself detesting war more and more. When I was a young adult, I got rather excited by war. When the first CNN footage came in of the attacks on Baghdad my wife was in tears, but I was rather excited about it.
"Now I've become much more conscious of the human suffering war entails and how so often it doesn't produce a solution. It can make things worse not better. What has also changed my mind is that more and more of the wars are these horrible ethnic civil wars."
Among the events that affected him most was visiting scenes of mass killing of civilians in Rwanda, where the skulls of victims had been piled high.
"I was tremendously moved and distressed by that, very emotional about it. And tremendously guilty. We had failed to get any western powers to put up any troops to go into Rwanda and bring the genocide under control."
After attending so many conflicts, from the Western Sahara to Central America, it wasn't the sight of death that struck him most, but an account told to him by a survivor of a massacre.
This survivor had managed to hide, and had observed armed men methodically shooting large numbers of people. Then he said the killers took a lunch break, before returning once again to shoot more people. "It was the break for lunch that somehow made it even more obscene."
Such internal wars have proved problematic for an organisation set up to work with the consent of sovereign states. But Sir Marrack is optimistic about the future of the UN. "Since the end of the cold war, there has been a remarkable development of techniques for the mediation of conflict."
And he says that the growing body of experience of peacekeeping and the academic study of peacemaking can help to create a more systematic approach to resolving disputes.
But he emphasises the importance of moves over Iraq and how much the status of the UN depends on it being used as the conduit for international pressure, rather than an optional extra for a superpower preparing to go it alone.
Peacemonger is published by John Murray, £25.00.