Should the UN go into battle?

By Jonathan Power

This year the UN Security Council authorised the deployment of troops to the eastern Congo, armed with tanks and helicopter gun ships to defeat the one remaining dissident militia in the Congo. Two weeks ago UN officials declared that war in the Congo, which on and off has consumed the nation for over 50 years, seemed to be over. The UN, instead of using its blue helmets to keep the peace, used its soldiers to blast the enemy.

Rarely talked about is Article 42 of the UN Charter which says,“The Security Council ….may take such action by air, sea or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security.”

In 1947, the UN’s Military Staff Committee prepared a proposal, which the Big Five powers agreed to, on the strength and size of a UN force. There was to be an air force with 700 bombers and 500 fighters. A naval force with 3 battleships, 6 aircraft carriers and 14 submarines. The army would have 450,000 men.

The British delegation drew up a list of possible areas for deployment that, with the exception of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, would not look out of place in the last 25 years:

a) The Balkans: Yugoslavia and Albania.
b) The Middle East: Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
c) South-east Asia: Burma,Thailand, Malaya, Vietnam and East Timor.

We can ponder what the world would have looked like if the the Cold War had not intervened and this forward thinking had not been rapidly shelved. Would there have been a Suez Crisis? The Vietnam War? Numerous Middle Eastern wars? The Falklands War? The Yugoslav wars? Genocide in Rwanda? Civil wars in Nigeria, Central America, Sudan and Syria?

The question now is will the UN membership continue to support the use of force for the purpose of imposing peace in areas of conflict? It can be American-led, as in was in Korea in 1950, Iraq in 1991, Somalia in 1992/93 or, on a smaller scale, Australian-led as in was in East Timor in 1998 or British-led as it was in Sierra Leone in 2001 or Italian-led as in the Lebanon in 2006/7 or British and French-led in Libya in 2011. In all these cases the Security Council authorised a particular lead country. But in the Congo, for the first time, it authorised itself with its troops made up of South Africans, Tanzanians and Ugandans.

A more robust UN has its dangers- it will inevitably devalue the old time peacekeeping, a tool fashioned out of necessity when more ambitious plans were frozen by the imperatives of the Cold War. Brian Urquhart, who for many years was head of UN peacekeeping and for a brief period ran the now mythical campaign in the Congo in the early 1960s, wrote in his autobiography of the many tensions implicit in that quite terrifying peacekeeping operation that left Urquhart himself beaten unconscious and Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold killed in a still unexplained air crash as they sought to mediate. Many of the soldiers, Urquhart recounts, from Swedes to Indians to Ethiopians wanted to use force.

Urquhart and his boss, the American, Ralph Bunche, gradually persuaded them of the virtue of restraint. “They simply did not want to understand either the principle involved or the bottomless morass into which they would sink if they descended from the high ground of a non-violent international peacekeeping force. The moment the UN starts killing people it becomes part of the conflict it is supposed to be controlling and therefore part of the problem. It loses the one quality that distinguishes it from and sets it above the people it is dealing with”.

Bold words and with a sizeable element of truth, as Bunche, Urquhart and their successors demonstrated in a large number of successful and largely forgotten peacekeeping interventions- in the Lebanon, in Cyprus, in Sinai and Namibia, in El Salvador, Iran/Iraq, in Cambodia and Macedonia and, more recently, in Liberia and the Congo once again (before the UN fighters arrived).

After the success in the eastern Congo, Security Council members may well in the future be more open to using military force under the flag of the UN. But, as I argue in my new book, “Conundrums of Humanity-The Big Foreign Policy Questions Of Our Day”, there are many alternatives before it comes to that. We have to be cleverer in anticipating situations of violence and abuse and move to head them off by a clever mixture of non-violent intervention, astute diplomacy, political and economic pressure and the deployment of peacekeeping troops. The use of force must be the last thing considered. Fingers on the trigger are not needed in 98% of the situations.

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