UN in the Wars

Michael Howard

  • The Evolution of UN Peacekeeping: Case Studies and Comparative Analysis edited by William Durch
    St Martin’s, 509 pp, £29.95, May 1993, ISBN 0 312 06600 7

‘Peacekeeping’ as such was almost unheard of when the United Nations was established in 1945. Certainly it found no place in the original UN Charter. Peace, it was then assumed, would be maintained by settling disputes peacefully, and for that the UN would provide good offices under Chapter VI. ‘Threats to peace’ would come from overt acts of aggression such as were fresh in the minds of all who assembled in San Francisco to draft the Charter in April 1945, and for these Chapter VII made provision. They would be dealt with either by economic and other ‘sanctions’ of the kind that had been unsuccessfully attempted against Italy during the Abyssinia crisis of 1935, or by joint military action such as the League of Nations had so disastrously failed to take in time against Nazi Germany. For that, the wartime Grand Alliance would be reactivated under the aegis of a Military Committee which would effectively be the wartime Combined Chiefs of Staff under another name.

If the events of the Thirties had simply repeated themselves, the world would have been well equipped to deal with them. Five years later, when North Korea invaded its southern neighbour, such a repeat seemed imminent, and in the temporary absence of a dissenting Soviet Union the machinery creaked into action. Nearly forty years later, Saddam Hussein did the international community a remarkable favour by providing a textbook case of aggression at one of those rare moments when the major powers had not only the capacity but the unanimous will to deal with it. But the years between presented the world with an entirely different set of problems for which the Charter gave little, if any guidance.

When the Charter was drafted, it was assumed that the world would continue to consist of stable and sovereign powers, some more law-abiding than others, but all in full control of their own destinies and so capable of creating, observing and enforcing a rule of law. But even in 1914 that stability had been in doubt. War had then broken out, not so much in consequence of textbook aggression, as because of fears that Austria-Hungary was on the verge of disintegration as a result of the turbulent and frustrated nationalism of the Balkan peninsula, which had already brought about the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In 1945 the disintegration of even greater empires was imminent, and as they fell apart they sparked off conflicts all over the world.

It was with these that the UN was initially called on to deal. In the Netherlands East Indies, in French Indochina, in the Indian subcontinent, above all in the former British mandate of Palestine, successor regimes fought the former colonial power or each other for international recognition and territorial control. When circumstances were propitious, they could be persuaded to acquiesce in temporary settlements made acceptable thanks to monitoring by small and unarmed UN observation teams. Such measures were reasonably effective so long as the parties concerned found it convenient for peace to be kept, and that was how ‘peacekeeping’ began.

The role of the UN then gradually expanded. In 1956 a United Nations force was introduced into Egypt to enable the British and French to make a graceful retreat from their last, disastrous imperial adventure, and to interpose between the belligerent Israelis and Egyptians: the forerunner of even less happy commitments on Israel’s northern frontiers. In 1963, in the wake of another post-imperial disintegration, a UN force was introduced into Cyprus to prevent Greeks and Turks from tearing each other apart, with the mandate not only to ‘use its best efforts to prevent recurrence of the fighting’, but ‘as necessary, to contribute to the maintenance and restoration of law and order and a return to normal conditions’. Allied pressure on the warring parties made this feasible, and a decade later the Turkish invasion further reduced the UN function to the kind of interposition familiar in the Middle East. But an almost simultaneous intervention, that in the Congo in 1962, had a less peaceful outcome. There the UN was saddled with a whole multiplicity of missions: first, to enable the Belgians to withdraw without leaving behind chaos; then to help the successor regime get onto its feet; and finally, when that regime collapsed, to take over the government of the country and prevent it from falling apart. And it had to do this with a Security Council divided among a hostile Soviet Union and France, a reluctant Britain, and a United States that viewed the entire enterprise through the spectacles of the Cold War.

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