The UN tells it like it is (Part II)

It continues to be Brutal Honesty Month from the UN. Since I noted here that Ban Ki-moon and his team had started to tell harsh truths about the dangers of peacekeeping in Somalia and Darfur, the Secretary-General has been to Lebanon to warn that the country could reach “the brink of the abyss” if political parties fail to elect a new president by the first week of December.

The possibility that political deadlock could lead to violence – even a new civil war – has been making UN officials nervous for a while, not least because they have over 13,000 peacekeepers in south Lebanon who might very well find themselves in the line of fire. Unlike the unfortunate troops bound for Darfur, the forces in Lebanon are primarily European and have artillery to shoot back with. But precisely because they’re European, there are widespread doubts about whether they’re ready to take significant casualties. It’s not hard to imagine them choosing to retreat to the sea.

And if that wouldn’t be damaging enough for the UN and Europeans, Ban is all too aware that December could bring another peacekeeping crisis in Kosovo. If talks on the UN-run province’s future – set to end on 10 December – end without a deal, there’s a real chance of things turning ugly there too (as some thug reminds the BBC here).

Happily, many serious Kosovo-watchers think that this can be avoided, or at least delayed. In-depth polling for UNDP earlier in the year shows that the time isn’t really ripe for revolution in the province: only 3% of respondents would take up arms for independence. In public, senior UN figures are balancing their “faith” in the current negotiation process with calls for “clarity” on what comes next. But on the ground, international officials admit that the situation is basically unpredictable: a few well-targeted provocations could spark major violence, even if the majority don’t want it.

And that, as I was grumbling elsewhere at the start of this year, could combine with trouble in Lebanon to create a “multi-center crisis” that would leave the UN in disarray (even without its African problems). Ban wants the focus this December to be on the UN climate change negotiations in Bali, and his biggest success as Secretary-General to date has been building momentum towards those talks. But he and his team may end up spending the month in full-scale crisis mode. I’m not sure how many shopping days there are until Christmas, but let’s hope UN staffers decided to get their presents early this year…