U.N. Serves as Perfect Alibi for Big Power Inaction in Unfixable Crises.
By Richard Gowan, April 20, 2015
The United Nations is an organization that is willing to learn from failure. This is fortunate, because it fails quite a lot. The U.N. has absorbed the lessons of previous catastrophes, such as the Balkan wars and the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s, and now deploys peacekeepers far more professionally than in that nightmarish era. In the near future, it will face a reckoning over more recent failures, as its efforts to bring peace to countries destabilized by the Arab revolutions—most notably in Syria but also in Libya, Yemen and Mali—have veered off course, costing thousands of lives in the process.
Last week, U.N. officials had a good deal of bad news to report from the Middle East and North Africa. On Wednesday, nine U.N. peacekeepers were wounded in a suicide bombing in Mali, part of a pattern of guerrilla attacks on the U.N. by Islamist extremists there. Later that day, the organization’s envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, indicated his wish to resign after four years on the job. Initially credited with ensuring that the fall of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011 did not lead to all-out civil war, Benomar has since struggled to keep Yemen’s multitudinous factions from tearing the country apart. There are reports that Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, having launched a military intervention in Yemen last month, insisted that the U.N.’s man quit.
There was marginally better news on the Syrian front. The U.N. has announced that it will try to restart formal negotiations between the Syrian government and its moderate opponents, which have been on ice for over a year. The chances of success are low, and the U.N.’s critics claim that it has grown increasingly—and dangerously—close to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a desperate effort to find peace. Perhaps more hopefully, the U.N. envoy to Libya announced negotiators in Switzerland may be close to a deal to stop the country from falling apart.
Even if the U.N. makes some progress over Syria or Libya, the organization’s peacemaking and peacekeeping apparatus has clearly been stretched to the breaking point by the fallout from the Arab revolutions. In the early days of the uprisings in 2011 and 2012, the Security Council repeatedly tasked the U.N. with resolving problems nobody else wanted to answer. In 2011, it backed Benomar in Yemen and U.N. efforts to rebuild Libya. In 2012, the Security Council put aside its differences over Syria to authorize a U.N. mediation process there, led at first by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan. When the spillover of violence from Libya forced France to intervene in Mali in early 2013, Paris turned to the U.N. for peacekeepers.
In retrospect, it’s clear that the U.N. was being set up for potential failure in each case. The Security Council placed excessive faith in the ability of the organization’s mediators and troops to navigate fiercely complex crises. Yet for a time, the U.N. seemed equal to the task. It eased Saleh’s departure in Yemen and oversaw successful postwar elections in Libya and Mali in 2012 and 2013 respectively. For brief but illusory periods in 2012 and 2013, it even seemed that Annan and his successor, Lakhdar Brahimi, might be capable of cobbling together peace in Syria. It was possible to hope the U.N. would just get lucky and muddle through these crises respectably.
In reality, the U.N.’s luck was ultimately bound to run out across North Africa and the Middle East. Local and regional political divisions undermined its peacemaking efforts. The upsurge of transnational Islamist terrorism across the region added even greater political and security obstacles. U.N. missions are increasingly falling victim to “bunkerization,” unable to send their personnel far beyond their bases. Nobody, however experienced in war zones, can function effectively in these conditions for long.
Such technical considerations should not conceal the political reasons for the U.N.’s failures. The Security Council’s members did not ask the U.N. to tackle the problems left by the Arab revolutions because they felt it would succeed. They did so because they needed an excuse for avoiding more politically and financially costly alternatives.
The U.S. and Russia have used the U.N.’s much-abused diplomatic role in Syria as an excuse to avoid an all-out confrontation over the future of the Assad regime. The mere fact that the U.N. took charge of political processes in Libya and Yemen has allowed the big powers to pay less attention to those countries. The deployment of a U.N. force to Mali offered a cheap stabilization option that has let France reduce its presence there without asking NATO or the European Union for large-scale reinforcements.
The Mali mission has now turned into a particularly brutal test for the U.N., as terrorist attacks have inflicted scores of casualties and some of the peacekeepers have lost their self-control. Last month, the U.N. admitted that Rwandan troops used “unauthorized and excessive force” when they fired into a crowd protesting in northern Mali in January, killing three.
The U.N. has come through similar challenges or worse in other theaters in the past. But as turmoil continues to ebb and flow across the Arab world, there’s a high chance that the Security Council will scapegoat the U.N. for failing to halt the chaos.
On paper, it’s easy enough to see how the U.N. could handle future situations like Mali and Syria better. If its peacekeepers were more robustly equipped and its mediators enjoyed more sustained political support from the Security Council, they might be able to work wonders. The U.N. secretariat and a number of external advisory groups are studying these questions earnestly. But they may miss an important strategic point. Major powers need the U.N. to handle those crises where failure is almost inevitable. If the U.N. cannot fix them, it is at least a useful alibi for inaction.
Richard Gowan is research director at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. His weekly column for World Politics Review, Diplomatic Fallout, appears every Monday.