Leading article: The UN may be the only hope for peace in Kashmir

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THE CONFLICT in Kashmir is being fomented by the United States, according to a spokesman for the Bharatiya Janata Party, which runs a caretaker government in India. The US wants to control the Himalayas so that "from those heights they can keep an eye on" India, Pakistan and surrounding countries. What is more, the spokesman told an incredulous John Humphrys on the Today programme, "that would be a nice place for rest and recreation for American soldiers".

That anyone close to the seat of power in Delhi believes this nonsense is alarming, although it is no more deluded than the anti-American arguments of many opponents of the war in Yugoslavia, who see the Nato action as a mere front for American imperialism. The idea that President Clinton, who can barely persuade Congress to vote the funds to pay his telephone bill, can afford to run an expensive policy of military conquest is - to say the least - improbable.

This kind of delusion illustrates the difficulty any rich Western country faces in trying to play a constructive role in conflict resolution anywhere in the globe. Motives are bound to be misinterpreted, and values are bound to clash. Robin Cook found this out the hard way when his offer to "mediate" in the dispute over Kashmir was angrily rejected by an Indian government which saw it as an arrogant attempt to intervene by a former colonial power. The cynic might observe that any genuine process of mediation would also be bound to diminish India's control over the most important bits of Kashmir, which it effectively annexed in 1947. Whatever the real reason, British mediation is not the answer to this particular conflict.

The stock response to any outbreak of hostilities between sovereign states is to call in the United Nations. That is the purpose for which the UN and its predecessor, the League of Nations, were set up: the peaceful resolution of territorial disputes. It was corrupted by the grinding imperatives of the Cold War: the system of allowing any member of the Security Council a veto meant that the UN was ineffective unless the superpowers wanted to use it as a convenient means to compromise without losing face. The UN got its logo on the hats of American and British soldiers in Korea only because the Russians were boycotting the Security Council that week.

What is surprising is that idealists on the left retained such a starry- eyed vision of the UN's possible role throughout the Cold War years. Tony Benn's principal objection to Nato's action in Kosovo seems to be that it has not been sanctioned by the UN, as if that would somehow magically mean that missiles would not go off target, that civilians would not suffer and that terror and torture would instantly cease. None of that was noticeably true about the Gulf war in 1990, which was endorsed by the UN.

Of course, the point about Utopian UN advocates is that if the existing UN does anything, they still dismiss it as an American plot. So the Gulf war was an anti-Arab offensive to secure oil supplies for capitalism. And the UN tribunal's indictment of Slobodan Milosevic for war crimes was simply a propaganda initiative to prop up weakening support for Nato's war. This does not prevent them from calling for a kind of Platonic ideal of the United Nations to intervene in all circumstances.

Meanwhile, the present-day UN is moving unsteadily and imperfectly in the right direction. Although it was set up to deal with disputes between sovereign states, it has developed a pragmatic doctrine that allows it to intervene in the so-called internal affairs of countries in limited cases. The UN approved the "safe haven" for the Kurds in Iraq. By charging Milosevic with crimes against humanity, it is reinforcing its support for the ends of the Nato action, if not the means. And this is a doctrine that could also be applied to the Kashmir conflict, which was never a simple border dispute between two UN member states, or even an argument about to which of them a province belonged. The state of Jammu and Kashmir has a fair claim to independence, which would probably be the wish of most of its inhabitants. The UN has some standing in Kashmir, too, as the guarantor of the referendum once promised by the Indian government.

The situation in Kashmir does not invite optimism, however. Tony Blair's doctrine of pragmatic and piecemeal intervention does not work here. Neither the UN nor any regional grouping has the power to compel either of the subcontinent's nuclear-armed mini-superpowers to do anything. But that should not stop the UN trying. It is possible that if both sides manage to scare each other sufficiently, they may be prepared to accept some measure of UN authority.

In the case of Kosovo, Mr Blair is quite right to argue that if the UN wills the end but is unable, because of the Russian or the Chinese veto, to will the means, it is up to other groups of nations to work together to do the right thing. In the case of Kashmir, however, the UN is probably the only hope of peaceful resolution. That is the pattern of the modern world. We should not apologise for the practical inconsistencies, provided that the moral compass is unswerving.