Magazine article The Spectator

A Peacekeeping Body at War with Itself

Magazine article The Spectator

A Peacekeeping Body at War with Itself

Article excerpt


A Life in War and Peace by Ko Annan Allen Lane, £25, pp. 384, ISBN 9781846142970 It takes less than an hour to fly from Washington DC to New York City. But, if you are a diplomat, you might as well be travelling to a distant planet, such is the gulf in diplomatic culture between America's capital and the United Nations' headquarters. Whenever I went to see my opposite number at the UN, Jeremy Greenstock, I felt that I was entering a hermetically sealed universe, where ambassadors marched to an arcane beat governed by the mysteries of multilateral diplomacy. During my time in Washington, a new French ambassador arrived, who had been transferred directly from the UN. He confessed to me that, of all his postings, he had the greatest difficulty getting used to Washington, only 200 miles or so down the road from Manhattan.

There is more than a whiff of an unreal world in Kofi Annan's memoir of his lifetime inside the United Nations. 'Stepping into a UN hall', he says, 'often felt like entering a time machine.' It is hardly surprising. In its central mission - to keep, and sometimes make, the peace in violent areas around the world - the UN has largely failed since its creation. Vast amounts of time are spent in the negotiation of documents and declarations. Meanwhile, in the real, Hobbesian world of Darfur, Central Africa or the Middle East, people are slaughtered in murderous conflicts. In the UN's parallel universe diplomacy has become for the most part a form of air-conditioned displacement activity. 'I draft, therefore I am', a young British diplomat at our UN mission once said to me.

Of course, peacekeeping is not all the UN does. It implements huge programmes of variable quality in areas like health, food, and children's welfare. But this is marginal to the organisation's founding rationale.

The UN is supposed to have learnt the lessons of the abject failure of the League of Nations to stop wars in the 1930s. In some ways it has. Unlike the League, it has universal membership (193 sovereign states, bar the Vatican) and a 15-member Security Council to decide on matters of war and peace, including the imposition of economic sanctions on recalcitrant governments.

The curious feature of this otherwise sensible arrangement is that the five permanent members of the Security Council, that is those who have a right of veto, are the selfsame as at its first meeting in 1946 in London - America, Russia, China, France and Britain, the victors of the second world war.

No one can agree who might replace them or be added to their number.

Yet the UN, for all the improvements over its precursor, suffers from the same San Andreas fault: it can be no more effective than its member states allow it to be.

When there is public criticism of the UN's impotence, as in the case of today's Syrian civil war, the target of reproach should really be the nations on the Security Council, who cannot agree what to do. As a Nobel Peace Prize winner and former UN secretary general, it must have been galling in the extreme for Annan to have to admit defeat and resign in August as the UN's mediator in Syria. But, as he put it, 'when the Syrian people desperately need action, there continues to be finger-pointing and name-calling in the Security Council'.

Throughout his memoir, Annan kicks against the restraints that sovereign nations placed on his freedom of action. …

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