The UN’s dreadful May: Cassandra reports back

by | May 11, 2008


Exactly how bad has the first half of this month been for the UN? Where does one start? You could choose Burma, where the international organization’s ability to deliver aid in a hostile climate has been hurled into doubt. Or Sudan, where Darfuri rebels sallied forth to attack Khartoum, demonstrating exactly what they think of the security offered by the struggling UN forces on their patch. But the worst news of all (from an institutional rather than humanitarian point of view, given the Burmese horror) may yet prove to be that from Lebanon.

The spread of fighting between the government’s backers and Hezbollah, apparently delayed rather than halted by an attempted deal on Saturday, has highlighted a challenge for the UN that I’ve muttered about here before. The 12,000+ mainly European UN troops in South Lebanon are mandated to (i) support the army and (ii) prevent the flow of arms to Hezbollah. But it has been an open secret that the peacekeepers have a variety of understandings with Hezbollah to avoid trouble. As I pointed out in two magazine articles (here and here) it has never been clear how they would balance these ideals and deals in a full-on crisis.

One can cry wolf too often: I also predicted that such a crisis might emerge in December, along with simultaneous military set-backs for European forces in Kosovo and Chad. And I scored 0 out of 3. Or rather, all three trouble-spots stayed quiet-ish up to the start of 2008. But in the ensuing four months, it has all come to pass pretty much as predicted. In February, Chad blew up as the EU tried to deploy troops – in March, the UN and NATO had to fight it out with Serb rioters in Kosovo.

Two out of three, in this case, ain’t good. And Lebanon?

In April, there were signs that the modus vivendi between the UN and Hezbollah was starting to erode: the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that peacekeepers attempting to inspect a suspicious truck for arms were driven off by gun-toting militants. The UN denied this, but there have long been rumors that European UN units had backed off on meeting Hezbollah patrols, or refused to patrol at night.

And now Lebanon looks close to civil war, and if this starts to be felt in the UN’s operational zone in the south of the country (not yet the site of fighting) it’s hard to believe that the Lebanese government, the Israelis and the U.S. won’t demand that the peacekeepers get tough. As Global Dashboard’s Peacekeeping Cassandra, I’m also on record as saying that I fear they’ll run away instead. Let’s see.

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