The UN remains weak because the Great Powers keep it that way The big powers do not dare to give the UN the strength it needs to let the UN

If we want to reinvent it as something more than a theatre, the Security Council's grip must be smashed

Neal Ascherson
Saturday 21 October 1995 23:02 BST

TEN years ago, when the United Nations reached its 40th birthday, there was an "omen". Marcela Perez de Cuellar, wife of the Secretary-General, launched a white dove at the height of the celebrations. It soared towards the clouds for a moment - then fell dead at her feet.

This anecdote comes from Linda Melvern's The Ultimate Crime, a long and highly critical history published as the UN now reaches its half-century. As Melvern reveals, the incident was half-mythical. It did happen, but not during the celebrations and not at a strictly UN occasion: the dove fell dead during a Unicef ceremony attended by children. But "the omen" became part of the folklore of UN staff. The dead dove - that was how they wanted to see themselves.

This melodramatic gloom had some good grounds. In 1985, the debts were soaring and the Reagan administration sneered monotonously at the UN, occasionally even threatening American withdrawal. Jeane Kirkpatrick, Reagan's ambassador to the UN, accused the organisation of advancing a "Marxist ideology" that world poverty was in some way the fault of the rich. She complained that the UN was in the grip of an "iron triangle" of Third World radicals, UN bureaucrats and Western do-gooders.

Even during the McCarthyite purges of the 1950s, when the Secretary-General, the servile Norwegian giant Trygve Lie, had allowed the FBI to rampage through the UN staff and drive some to suicide, things had not been so bad. The anniversary committee just managed - after long squabbles - to compromise on the wording for a celebration neon sign on the building: "UN 40", it said timidly. But the text of an Anniversary Declaration was beyond their capacities to agree.

And this was not the end of the woes of 1985. Influenced by the campaigning of the right-wing Heritage Foundation, the Americans had walked out of Unesco and dragged the compliant British with them. Then Washington informed the UN that it would no longer accept the judgments of the International Court of Justice (Nicaragua was suing the US for supporting the Contras and mining its harbours). And, after the celebrations were over, the US announced a further cut in its contributions to the UN budget.

This was enough to knock any dove out of the sky. But worse was to come. The truth about Kurt Waldheim's past began to emerge. The previous Secretary- General of the United Nations, the world's supreme civil servant, had lied about his connections to the Nazi regime, about his war service in occupied Europe, perhaps about his knowledge of the Holocaust. It was easy for the UN's enemies to say that it was not only physically but morally bankrupt. As Melvern writes, the staff came to believe the organisation was doomed. "The headquarters building deteriorated around them, the secretariat was grimy with unwashed windows and empty offices had broken-down equipment piled in the corners. Officials came to believe that the organisation would grind to a halt and then eventually the salaries would cease."

Now we are at the 50th anniversary. Could things be worse than they were 10 years ago? Judging by the Western media, they are far worse. Failure in Africa, in the Balkans - nothing is too rude to write about Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the first secretary-general from the African continent. And yet there is something wrong here. The dove keeps falling out of the sky, but refuses to perish. I am reminded of the phrase that the late Konrad Adenauer used to repeat until he finally made himself ridiculous: "The situation was never so grave as it is today".

To read Melvern's book, with its shocking catalogue of incompetence and inadequacy, is also to realise an underlying truth about the UN. The world needs it. Even the Great Powers need it. It may be that the world wants to maintain the UN in a condition of chronic weakness and crisis. But it still wants it to exist rather than to perish. Doom always appears imminent, but never arrives. This is because the UN performs hidden functions, as well as the official functions for the failures and weaknesses of which it is constantly abused. What are they?

One of the few people who have found an answer to that question is Dr Conor Cruise O'Brien. He served the organisation in several capacities: as Ireland's ambassador, but also as a commander - under Dag Hammarskjold - of UN forces in the Congo during the nightmarish events of 1960-61. The guidelines for his mission there were nearly as vague and frustrating as those governing Unprofor in Bosnia 35 years later. Could his men storm a barricade held by the Katangese gendarmerie, or should they restrict themselves to self-defence even when surrounded? It was neverclear. Afterwards, O'Brien wrote a highly original book about the United Nations, which he described as a "sacred drama".

By this he meant that the UN was a sort of theatre - not so much the kind to be found near by on Broadway, but more like ancient Delphi. There the play was not just an entertainment or a tale enacted, but also a rite which purged and absolved and justified those who took part as well as those who watched. At the UN, a state could tear its robes, howl and enact a grievance before the eyes of the whole world. Collectively, the UN members could pass resolutions as vast and sonorous as the Decalogue. The literal outcome, in both cases, might be zero. The angry state would not resort to war; the noble resolution would never be enforced. But everyone involved felt better for the speech and for the resolution. The nation or nations had testified to their own high aspirations. Armed with renewed self-respect, they felt more magnanimous, less paranoid, about their neighbours.

The "sacred drama" was strictly a Cold War production. The UN was dominated and largely financed by the United States, while its actions were limited by the veto power of the Soviet Union, and using the UN as a theatre was a substitute for using the world as a nuclear battlefield. After 1989, people expected the UN to come into its own, the centrepiece of a New World Order. Instead, they watched with disbelieving horror as UN intervention in Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia proved unable to stop bloodshed or even to explain its intentions coherently.

This is not just because world crises have a new shape. Before, UN forces kept the peace between states which had fought wars against one another. Only the Congo was a foretaste of the UN's task in the post-Cold War world: intervention in "failed states" which had imploded. That was difficult enough. But the real problem lies deeper.

We assume that the UN has a life of its own. But the sacred drama was a puppet theatre. Though the UN agencies do have wills of their own, the moving force at the centre, on the 38th floor of the glass tower where the Secretary-General works, is the will of the Great Powers - the Permanent Members of the Security Council.

When the hand is withdrawn from the glove, it is absurd to blame the puppet for weakness. If we want to reinvent the UN as something more than a theatre, the grip of the Security Council must be smashed first. The UN would need a secure income, a full-blown Military Committee, a licence to act on its own in urgent matters. But would the Permanent Members - the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China - ever consent to play Frankenstein; to give life and freedom to the giant effigy they made 50 years ago? Pigs will fly across the East River first.

A better world, Review, page 6

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