Post-Cold-War optimism on UN collapsed

UN’s ambitious upgrading of its role including to state-building has backfired
Justin Frewen

Cars burn 19 August 2003 outside the United Nations headquarters at the Canal Hotel Baghdad after a truck bomb left 17 people including the UN cheif in Iraq, Sergio Vieria de Mello, dead
Cars burn 19 August 2003 outside the United Nations headquarters at the Canal Hotel Baghdad after a truck bomb left 17 people including the UN cheif in Iraq, Sergio Vieria de Mello, dead

The first decade of the 21st century has not been a good one for the United Nations: the past ten years have seen the UN’s credibility take a serious battering. The international furore created by the Volker report on the UN administration of the Iraq sanctions prior to the 2003 invasion, accusations of corruption against the son of the previous UN Secretary General (UNSG) Kofi Annan and allegations of financial impropriety on the part of the head of the Iraqi Oil-for-food programme were all a source of significant embarrassment to the UN. Moreover, UN peacekeepers, that had been sent to help maintain peace and ensure the safety of civilian populations in war-torn areas, were accused of having engaged in rape and the forced prostitution of women and young girls in countries such as the Congo. Since their arrival in Haiti in 2004, UN peacekeepers have also been accused of not only failing to protect ordinary Haitians from the death squads and colluding with extremist forces threatening the Lavalas Party and Aristide supporters, but also of having been involved in a range of atrocities, including murder and rape.


To add to its woes, the failure of the UN satisfactorily to resolve the dispute among members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) regarding the invasion of Iraq dealt a substantial blow to the international legal order. The UN has become widely regarded as a non-neutral organisation by many outside the North (Northern Hemisphere). Many in the South (Southern Hemisphere) argue that international law has now become an instrument of neo-colonialist policy, with the UN; at best, a toothless body, powerless to prevent this development or, at worst, a willing collaborator in this process. This change in perception has led to a situation where the UN and its personnel have to engage in substantially-upgraded security measures and precautions, upon deployment to post-conflict regions. While in the past it is true that UN peacekeepers monitoring truces and maintaining regional security had frequently been targeted – Ireland alone has suffered 86 peacekeeping fatalities in these missions – UN personnel had in general been free from such incidents.

The attack on the UN office in Baghdad in 2003 eliminated any lingering doubt the organisation might have had regarding the relative immunity of its personnel. As the decade drew to a close, the co-ordinated assault on a UN guesthouse in Kabul on October 28th 2009, which resulted in 12 deaths, confirmed that the organisation was now vulnerable to being regarded as a legitimate target. Furthermore, the propaganda value of such operations, in terms of the media coverage they received, cannot have been lost on other groups contemplating similar action. The targeting of UN personnel has raised questions about the continuing viability of the organisation’s operations in conflict areas. How can the UN ensure the personal security of its personnel while still expecting them to implement and oversee its operations? This dilemma became ever more evident after the Kabul attack when the United Nations’ UNSG, Ban-Ki Moon was obliged to announce the temporary evacuation of 50% of the UN personnel in Afghanistan. And yet a mere two decades ago, as the enmities of the Cold War had started to slowly fade away, political leaders around the world had expressed their desire to create and foster a new international framework based on mutual co-operation.

Optimism soared ever higher when the military action launched by the US-led forces, acting under UN Security Resolution 678, to expel Iraqi soldiers from Kuwait saw an unprecedented unanimity and coherence of action on the part of the global community. For many commentators the divisive political rivalries of the cold war were now a historical curiosity. The international community together with the UN would now be free to work together to establish a better and more secure world for all. As George Bush senior remarked in a speech to congress in September 1990:

“…a new world order — can emerge: a new era — freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice, and more secure in the quest for peace. An era in which the nations of the world, East and West, North and South, can prosper and live in harmony…. A world where the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle. A world in which nations recognize the shared responsibility for freedom and justice. A world where the strong respect the rights of the weak.”

Today with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the optimism shared by so many political leaders and citizens of different states worldwide was but a Chimera. At the time, however, the end of the Cold War and bi-polar global political structure was seen as providing the opportunity to reassess many of the standard practices and traditional norms of international relations. In this respect the UN was no exception and the organisation engaged in an intensive internal and external review of its policies, structures and programmes. The UN also began to call into question hitherto sacrosanct international legal principles such as state sovereignty, non-intervention in the domestic affairs of sovereign states and the prohibition on the use of force in peace-keeping missions. Implicit in these developments was the expanded role that the UN would potentially play in the future not only in maintaining peace, as had predominantly been the case in the past, but also in directly engaging in state-building activities in ‘failed states’.

Although today, some 20 years on and given what has transpired since, these issues might not appear that momentous, they were in fact quite revolutionary in scope and intention at the time. Moreover, they signified how far the UN had evolved from the original intentions of its founders. At its creation, the UN founding charter had made no reference to peace-keeping, let alone state-building. However, in 1948, three years after its establishment, the idea of peacekeeping was introduced in order to help promote collective security during the Cold War. In 1956, the first deployment of UN peacekeepers, the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF 1), was despatched to oversee the Israel/Egypt ceasefire following the Suez Canal crisis. In the early years, the UN adhered closely to the traditional idea of peacekeeping, which primarily consisted of monitoring truces and helping to stabilise the situation on the ground.

Now, with the Cold War over, the UN began to expand its role in post-conflict environments, as the act of merely despatching peacekeepers under the UN flag to monitor truces was regarded as insufficient to ensure lasting and sustainable peace. To prevent the possibility of failed states relapsing into conflict, greater support was required in the development of improved governance structures and legal systems as well as substantial capacity building support. Consequently, the UN began to extend its range of support functions to include an active involvement – if not leadership – in state-building programmes. Between 1989 and 1993, there were eight such missions established in post-conflict countries, namely: Namibia, Nicaragua, Angola, Cambodia, El Salvador, Mozambique, Liberia and Rwanda. In a relatively short space of time, state-building had become the UN’s primary security activity.

This growing involvement of the UN in state-building was also influenced by a number of other factors in the early 1990s. Although, the end of the Cold War had reinforced peace and stability in the North, a number of states in the South remained in need of state-building assistance. Moreover, despite a drop in a number of internal state conflicts countries due to their successful resolution these states now required state-building support. UN State-building initiatives generally arise in two situations. Firstly, they are provided in the case of ‘failed states’ that is countries where: “state apparatuses are unable to exercise full control over their respective territories, are unable to fulfill domestic and international development and legal obligations, lack effective national judicial systems to ensure the ‘rule of law,’ do not demonstrate the requisites of liberal democracy, and are unable to prevent their territories from being used in the perpetration of economic and other crimes”. (Guttal 2005: 40)

The second case for state-building support is for those countries that are emerging from a period of domestic conflict. As the World Bank reported in 2006, some 20 million people worldwide lost their lives through civil wars with another 67 million being displaced. Moreover, 16 of the 20 poorest countries globally had endured a major armed domestic conflict. According to the World Bank these countries had become trapped in a vicious cycle where poverty was provoking conflict and conflict in turn was provoking poverty. However, after two decades of involvement in state-building, there still remains a high level of uncertainty as to how the UN might successfully make the leap from peacekeeping to its expanded role in state-building, which includes a combination of peace-building, “consolidation”, new governance and administrative-support measures.

A major issue concerns the determination of where the mandate for such an operation lies. While it is clear that with respect to global-security issues, such as the more traditional operations of peacekeeping, authority lies with the UN Security Council, state-building involves a far wider range of programmes and activities. These include potentially humanitarian assistance – at the initial stage – and development support which would theoretically come under the purview of the UN’s Economic and Social Council. To resolve this lack of clarity, efforts have been made to focus on ‘governance’, through which it might be possible to amalgamate the traditional functions of peacekeeping with the required socio-economic and political assistance to ‘consolidate’ peace. Generally, this would entail the incorporation of significant capacity-building programmes which emphasise ‘good governance’ and the improvement of public-sector capabilities through the provision of the required technical assistance.

However, this approach has attracted a fair amount of critical attention. What exactly will these governance and public sector management capacity building support mechanisms comprise, by whom will they be delivered, what will be the composition of such capacity-building programs, who will decide which programs should be financed and the priorities of the ‘needs’ and current governance capability ‘gaps’ identified? In an effort to provide an overall strategic approach and coherence to state-building the Peacebuilding Commission (PC) was established by world leaders attending the 2005 World Summit. A year later, in October 2006, the Peacebuilding Fund was launched to support the Commission’s operations. However, many observers have expressed their concerns regarding the neutrality of the PC, given the presence of all five of the Security Council’s permanent members as full-time members. In an interview with ISN Security Watch, Johan Galtung, Director of Transcend University in Romania, claims that, “…the commission will act in the interest of the great powers – particularly the US and the UK. In ways, they are generations behind in their thinking on peace – to them peacebuilding equals maintaining the status quo, which will not lead to any peace where there are global and societal inequalities and injustices”. (Roughneen, 2006)

Moreover, despite the identified need for state-building assistance, the actual finance provided for such programmes is less forthcoming. This funding shortfall places serious pressure on the UN’s state-building activities. The corollary of this is the leverage this situation provides wealthier, donor nations that possess the necessary resources to pay for such state-building efforts. In exchange for their support they are frequently in a position to exert considerable influence to ensure the UN’s state-building operations are devised and implemented in line with their own policy objectives. The obvious example, if also an extreme case, is the role the UN has played in Iraq subsequent to the 2003 invasion. Despite the offensive having been launched outside the ambit of the UN and without its backing, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1483 on May 22nd 2003, which recognised the US and UK as ‘occupying powers’. This resolution also opened the door for the UN to step in and assist in the building of new ‘democratic’ structures.

The UN acknowledgement of their status as ‘occupying powers’ brought significant benefits to the US and UK. Firstly, it helped them counter claims that they were acting solely or largely in their own interest in Iraq. Secondly, the involvement of the UN was of assistance in rallying greater international support for the ‘reconstruction’ of Iraq, not only in terms of the country’s infrastructure but also the political and legal structure. Finally, the presence of the UN allowed the ‘occupying powers’ to operate, in theory at least, at one remove from the Iraqi government and administrative structures, thus facilitating their claim that they were not merely puppets of the US. However, while the ‘occupying powers’ and the new Iraqi administration and its officials, might have profited from the UN’s participation in the ‘reconstruction’ of Iraq, this approach entailed considerable risks for the UN itself. By aligning itself with the ‘occupying powers’, the UN became a lightning rod for the discontent of their opponents. This danger became all too clear on 19 August 2003 when an attack on the UN office in Baghdad resulted in 23 fatalities.

Another controversial area in which the UN has become involved over the past couple of decades is its assumption of actual governmental powers in a number of states. Of particular note is the role the UN has played in so-called transitional administrations. Transitional administrations have traditionally been established either when the previous state institutions had collapsed due to conflict between various domestic factions as in Cambodia and Bosnia-Herzegovina or where such institutional structures did not exist at all as was the case in East Timor, Afghanistan and Namibia. The invasion of Iraq and the subsequent involvement of the UN gave rise to a third type of transitional administration, one where the state in question already had a substantial level of human, institutional and economic resources.

The involvement of the UN in transitional administrations has been criticised as, at best, a dubious application of the UN’s expertise. It has been argued that in order for the UN to successfully introduce new government structures and legal systems it has had to adopt an approach of ‘benevolent autocracy’, whereby the concerned state and its citizens find themselves obliged to submit to the UN’s dictates in these domains. For many, this is totally contrary to the original mandate of the UN where the sovereignty of states was deemed more or less inviolable. Moreover, why should an international organisation such as the UN be allowed to determine the future political, economic and legal structure of any state? This issue is one of particular concern for those in the South who decry the setting up of systems and structures of governance, which appear to be totally predicated on those of the North, irrespective of the relevant state’s political, economic, social and cultural heritage.

In summary, it is evident that the UN record in state-building operations over the past two decades has been at best a patchy one. A great deal of the UN’s problems lies in the failure of the global community, especially in the North, to allocate sufficient funds to support its programmes. At the same time, and arguably linked, the UN has tended to engage in a rote application of state-building programmes based on neo-liberal, ‘western’ democratic ideals. In order to regain the trust of states in the South, it is important that the UN when engaged in state-building activities gives more weight to indigenous and domestic political and socio-cultural practices and assists in the development of compatible government and administrative structures. Ultimately, though, one must remember that the UN is not an independent or autonomous organisation. Member states decide what it can and cannot do. Unfortunately, it would appear that in this respect the more powerful states – not least through the Security Council – have been able repeatedly to influence how the UN has engaged in peacekeeping and, more recently, state-building operations.