UN not joined up but still being asked to do difficult things

Noah Pollak’s National Review article, posted on Michael Totten’s blog today, reminds me of our internal debates during the Lebanon war last summer (when I was working for the UN) about peacekeeping options for south Lebanon.

Pollak’s article, subtitled “The UN organisation is ineffective as it is unaccountable” is a standard piece of UN-bashing. Pollak argues that unlike the Israeli government, which is being thrashed by the Winograd Commission and its fallout, the UN has “quite remarkably escaped any opprobrium for its own important contribution to the outbreak of war last summer”.

Pollak recalls that since 1978, when UNIFIL was established, “a concatenation of nearly identical UNIFIL-related resolutions has been issued by the Security Council, always with one thing in common: Events on the ground are never permitted to affect UNIFIL’s mandate. Through a combination of diplomatic foolishness and bureaucratic inertia, UNIFIL has remained impervious to any evaluation of its actual utility in bringing peace and security to southern Lebanon.” Pollak recounts a “long history of terrorist provocation in southern Lebanon”, from the PLO to Hezbollah, throughout which “the world’s diplomatic corps has maintained the self-congratulatory fantasy that more extensions of UNIFIL’s mandate will help the region”.

Last summer, while Israel bombed Beirut and southern Lebanon, and Hezbollah’s katyushas rained down on northern Israel, the “world’s diplomatic corps” was debating options for establishing a reinforced peacekeeping operation in Lebanon. Most of us understood very well that disarming Hezbollah would be profoundly difficult: the IDF wasn’t having much success doing it their way. Most of us also understood the inherent weaknesses of UN peace operations, which have to be cobbled together using troops volunteered by UN member states. These troops have not usually been trained together, do not have the same equipment. Many are from developing countries, so the quality of the forces varies considerably. Wouldn’t it be better, asked some members of the “world’s diplomatic corps”, to establish a NATO peace operation to disarm Hezbollah after the war?

Militarily, of course, NATO would have been stronger. Politically, though, a NATO force in south Lebanon is hardly feasible. It would have appeared to many in the region to be a “western” occupation of Lebanon, adding to what is still regarded the US occupation of Iraq, and the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the Golan. NATO troops would have immediately been added to the list of available “western” targets who are currently standing at checkpoints and or manning watchtowers in other parts of the Middle East.

So the world’s diplomatic corps turned again to the UN. Its then Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, invested a great deal of time and energy persuading European member states to donate troops to UNIFIL II, to work alongside those already offered by Malaysia, Indonesia and others with whom Israel was far from comfortable. As a result of these efforts, UNIFIL II is now over 13,000-strong, and includes troops from Belgium, China, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Guatemala, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Republic of Korea, Luxemburg, Malaysia, Nepal, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Tanzania and Turkey: a good mix of Europeans and non-Europeans, Muslims and non-Muslims. UNIFIL II has by no means eliminated the threat to Israel from Hezbollah. It has probably taken some steps in that direction, but its progress will depend on other developments in that highly volatile region.

Whether or not UN peacekeepers are equipped to take on the kind of mandates assigned to them, we don’t currently have many alternatives to sending in blue helmets. We certainly didn’t have many options left in August 2006, as both Israeli and Lebanese governments recognised when they accepted Security Council resolution 1701. Until we do have more peacekeeping alternatives, we’ll keep calling on the UN – so we’d better keep trying to make the Organisation work more effectively.

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About Elizabeth Sellwood

Elizabeth Sellwood is non-resident fellow at the Center on International Cooperation. She is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has worked for several years in the Middle East region. She was Special Assistant to the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process from 2005-07, and prior to this she worked for the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the occupied Palestinian territory. Between 2001-03 Elizabeth was an adviser to the Foreign Affairs Committee in the UK House of Commons. She also worked for Oxfam in the Balkans in the aftermath of the Kosovo war, and in 1995-99 held research positions at Chatham House and Cambridge University.