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Common Cents

Divide and Rule

Ralph Murphy

(12/2013) Shortly after graduating from college, I was six hours into an eight-hour exam at Langley, Va. for a position with the federal government. They wanted a writing sample, and the question to be discussed was "The role of the UN in today's world". At the time - Israel's breach of the South Lebanese border without a shot being fired by UN peacekeepers was very much on my mind. So were the realities of a bi-polar world with the west fighting communism and the limited role for even well-meaning, intermediaries such as the United Nations. I scoffed at the UNís potential as a peacemaker and it seems my criticism was well received because I got the job.

The world has changed dramatically since that day, with communism all but gone and the Far East making dramatic, economic progress. Also, democracy was somehow taking hold in Latin America. Many nations now looked to the United Nations to give them a voice in foreign and domestic affairs - a primary reason the UN was created back in 1945. From the beginning, it was charged with "promoting and facilitating cooperation in international law, international security, economic development, social progress, human rights, civil liberties, political freedoms, democracy, and achieving world peace". There were 51 founding members, Today this number has risen to 193. Many are new nations that appeared following decolonization in the Third World.

UN Organizations

The "International Court of Justice" is the UN's Hague-based, judicial arm, and a "Secretariat" exists to provide studies and information, along with an "Economic and Social Council". But, the New York City based "General Assembly" and especially the "Security Council" gets most of the press attention because they deal with such issues as international disarmament and peacekeeping.

The General Assembly includes all UN members and votes on matters such as resolving "non compulsory resolutions of (member) states, admission of new members, and budget" matters. However, only its budget decisions are actually binding. It also elects the 15 International Court of Justice judges for nine-year terms.

The Security Council includes 15 members - ten rotating and five permanent.

The latter includes the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, and France. Unlike most General Assembly resolutions - Security Council resolutions are legally binding on member nations.

UN Roles and Contributions

No standing UN army exists to enforce Security Council decrees. However, when deemed appropriate, member nations have been known to put together a "Blue Helmet" force to deploy and enforce Security Council decisions. Each of the five, permanent, nuclear-capable, member nations can veto a Security Council resolution. This effectively kills a proposed action unless it is saved by some back room negotiations.

The UN budget is based on a member nationís wealth with the United States contributing the most at 22%. Japan is next with slightly under 11%, followed by Germany at 7.1%. France contributes 5.5% and the UK and China about 5.1%. It is curious that Japan and Germany contribute more than other Security Council members. Also, China's GDP would certainly qualify it for a greater contribution, but for now, these are the facts of life. Russia, is in eleventh place overall and pitches in a mere 2.3% of the total UN budget. A figure that is well below that of cash strapped Spain (3.1%).

The UN as a Peacekeeper

The UN is quite useful in serving as a buffer between warring nations- usually after hostilities have ceased. According to a 2005 Rand Corporation report the "Blue Helmets" have been successful in about two thirds of their peacekeeping missions. They have, in the post WWII period, been the front for western action in campaigns in Korea, and the 1990 Gulf War. The body has also been criticized for its inaction in mass killings in Rwanda, the Congo, Yugoslavia's segmentation, and Darfur. Again, the UN is usually a "peacekeeper"- not a militarily, preemptive "peacemaker". Most of their campaigns have been in Africa and the Middle East to include "hot spots" such as Mali, South Sudan, and Darfur. They are also currently active in the Israeli-occupied, Golan Heights, Lebanon, and the Western Sahara. The UN has also been useful in controlling hostilities in the India-Pakistan area, Cyprus, and Kosovo.

Military Disarmament

Besides its international peacekeeping work, the UN is heavily involved in military disarmament- another founding goal in its 1945 charter. The body has proven very useful in finding and destroying chemical weapons in Syria, although it has not played a military role in ending the minority government's hostilities there. The resulting Syrian casualties and refugee problems are expected to worsen as the parties appear intractably at odds. The United Nations Refugee Agency, that is tasked with providing basic needs for all persons displaced by foreign and civil strife, predicts that a quarter of all Syrians will be described as refugees needing the intergovernmental agency's care. A daunting challenge for the world community attempting to help in that region.

The UN is as powerful and effective as the worldís military and economic powers allow it to be. It is routinely a convenient source for "low grade" conflict management. The UN can also be useful in providing legitimacy for reacting to one nationís aggressive acts against another. A good case in point would be the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Husseinís Iraqi Republican Guard in the Summer of 1990. This action was condemned by the UN Security Council (Resolution 660) and provided justification for Operation Desert Storm in early 1991.

On balance, the UN remains an important tool for international conflict resolution. It is badly needed in todayís multi-polar world of economic and military conflict. If it did not exist, we would probably be inclined to create something just like it.

Ralph Murphy is a former member of the CIA Headquarters Staff in Langley, VA.

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