UN: More harm than good?: Overview

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The Independent Online
WHAT price world peace? Can it be bought and, if so, is it worth the cost? If the inhabitants of former Yugoslavia choose to slaughter one another on the basis of obscure medieval schisms that only they understand, how much blood and money are we prepared to spend in an effort to stop them? Do we try to stop them because we abhor violence per se or because their local wars pose a potential threat to our own wider interests? Does our moral outrage at the massacre of innocents in Bosnia, or in even more obscure parts of the world, justify a penny on income tax or the death of one of our soldiers?

These questions have only recently pushed themselves to the fore. In the four decades of Cold War that preceded the collapse of Soviet Communism, it was convenient to see regional conflicts as the sorry but inevitable by-product of superpower rivalry. They tended, in any case, to be confined to the Third World. The doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction meant that, while the superpowers had an interest in keeping such conflicts simmering, they had an even greater interest in not allowing them to boil over into world war.

If the West supported one side, then the East would support the other. Some managed to play one power off against the other. Somalia, to take a current example, was a country invariably described as Soviet-backed until the day its president changed sides, after which it was invariably described as American-backed. But the last year has shown that the Somalis are quite capable of killing each other without the encouragement of superpower patrons.

The number and scale of regional conflicts has grown rather than shrunk as a result of the ending of the Cold War. But does this matter, given that none is now likely to lead to thermonuclear holocaust?

Is there an overriding moral imperative to stop wars in the name of our common humanity? If so, who is able or willing to take on the task? At the moment the only imperfect forum for such an effort is the United Nations. But the United Nations is made up of governments that, in the nature of things, represent national interests rather than international will. How many of these governments are prepared to surrender their national interest to the common good?

The United Nations was the name coined by President Franklin D Roosevelt and adopted by the 26 states that by 1942 had joined the international alliance to defeat Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. It emerged three years later as a club of victors, which others, including the vanquished, were subsequently invited to join.

There were those who saw the UN as the potential forum from which world government would emerge. But its more pragmatic purpose when the charter was drawn up at San Francisco in 1945 was - with Nazi Germany and imperial Japan in mind - to deter large and aggressive powers from invading weaker neighbours.

The United Nations was never designed as a global firefighter, least of all to quench the flames of civil war. Like the Pope, it has no divisions of its own. At the moment, however, it is the nearest thing to a fire brigade that the world has got.