United Nations Organisation and Global Disputes (Part-2)


(a) The UN has been more successful

There are some important differences which have tended to make the UN a more successful body than the League.

  • The UN spends much more time and resources on economic and social matters and its scope is much wider than that of the League. All the specialized agencies, with the exception of the International Labour Organization (founded in 1919), were set up in 1945 or later.
  • The UN is committed to safeguarding individual human rights, which the League did not get involved in.
  • Changes in the procedures of the General Assembly and the Security Council (especially the ‘Uniting for Peace’ resolution), and the increased power and prestige of the Secretary-General, have enabled the UN, on occasion, to take more decisive action than the League ever achieved.
  • The UN has a much wider membership and is therefore more of a genuine world organization than the League, with all the extra prestige that this entails. Both the USA and the USSR were founder-members of the UN, whereas the USA never joined the League. Between 1963 and 1968 no fewer than 43 new members joined the UN, mainly the emerging states of Africa and Asia, and by 1985 membership had reached 159; the League never had more than 50 members. Later, many of the former member states of the USSR joined, and by 1993 the total had reached 183. In 2002, East Timar, which had at last gained its independence from Indonesia with UN help, became the 191st member. Montenegro joined in 2006 and in July 2011 the newly independent Republic of South Sudan became the 193rd member.

(b) Some of the weaknesses of the League remain

Any one of the five permanent members of the Security Council can use its power of veto to prevent decisive action being taken. Like the League, the UN has no permanent army of its own and has to use forces belonging to its member states


Although it has had mixed success, it is probably fair to say that the UN has been more successful than the League in its peacekeeping efforts, especially in crises which did not directly involve the interests of the great powers, such as the civil war in the Congo (1960-4) and the dispute between the Netherlands and Indonesia over West New Guinea. On the other hand, it has often been just as ineffective as the League in situations – such as the Hungarian rising of 1956 and the 1968 Czech crisis – where the interests of one of the great powers – in this case the USSR – seemed to be threatened, and where the great power decided to ignore or defy the UN.

With an increasing Third World presence and the failure of UN mediation in conflicts in the Middle East, Vietnam, and Kashmir, the UN increasingly shifted its attention to its ostensibly secondary goals of economic development and cultural exchange. By the 1970s, the UN budget for social and economic development was far greater than its peacekeeping budget.

The best way to illustrate the UN’s varying degrees of success is to examine some of the major disputes in which it has been involved.

(a) West New Guinea (1946)

In 1946 the UN helped to arrange independence from Holland for the Dutch East Indies, which became Indonesia. However, no agreement was reached about the future of West New Guinea (West Irian), which was claimed by both countries. In 1961 fighting broke out; after U Thant (Secretary General of UN) had appealed to both sides to reopen negotiations, it was agreed (1962) that the territory should become part of Indonesia. The transfer was organized and policed by a UN force. In this case the UN played a vital role in getting negotiations off the ground, though it did not itself make the decision about West Irian’s future.

(b) Palestine (1947)

The dispute between Jews and Arabs in Palestine was brought before the UN in 1947. After an investigation, the UN decided to divide Palestine, setting up the Jewish state of Israel. This was one of the UN’s most controversial decisions, and it was not accepted by the majority of Arabs. The UN was unable to prevent a series of wars between Israel and various Arab states (1948-9, 1967 and 1973), though it did useful work arranging ceasefires and providing supervisory forces, while the UN Relief and Works Agency cared for the Arab refugees.

(c) The Korean War (1950-3)

This was the only occasion on which the UN was able to take decisive action in a crisis directly involving the interests of one of the superpowers. When South Korea was invaded by communist North Korea in June 1950, the Security Council immediately passed a resolution condemning North Korea, and called on member states to send help to the South. However, this was possible only because of the temporary absence of the Russian delegates, who would have vetoed the resolution if they had not been boycotting Security Council meetings (since January of that year) in protest at the failure to allow communist China to join the UN. Although the Russian delegates returned smartly, it was too late for them to prevent action going ahead. Troops of 16 countries were able to repel the invasion and preserve the frontier between the two Koreas along the 38th parallel. Though this was claimed by the West as a great UN success, it was in fact very much an American operation – the vast majority of troops and the Commander-in-Chief, Genera] MacArthur, were American, and the US government had already decided to intervene with force the day before the Security Council decision was taken. Only the absence of the Russians enabled the USA to turn it into a UN operation. This was a situation not likely to be repeated, since the USSR would take good care to be present at all future Council sessions.

The Korean War had important results for the future of the UN: one was the passing of the ‘Uniting for Peace‘ resolution, which would permit a Security Council veto to be bypassed by a General Assembly vote. Another was the launching of a bitter attack by the Russians on Secretary-General Trygve Lie for what they considered to be his biased role in the crisis. His position soon became impossible and he eventually agreed to retire early, to be replaced by Dag Hammarskjold.

(d) The Suez Crisis (1956)

This arguably showed the UN at its best. When President Nasser of Egypt suddenly nationalized the Suez Canal, many of whose shares were owned by the British and French, both these powers protested strongly and sent troops ‘to protect their interests’. At the same time the Israelis invaded Egypt from the east; the real aim of all three states was to bring down President Nasser. A Security Council resolution condemning force was vetoed by Britain and France, whereupon the General Assembly, by a majority of 64 votes to 5, condemned the invasions and called for a withdrawal of troops. In view of the weight of opinion against them, the aggressors agreed to withdraw, provided the UN ensured a reasonable settlement over the canal and kept the Arabs and Israelis from slaughtering each other. A UN force of 5000, made up of troops from ten different countries, moved in, while the British, French and Israelis went home. The prestige of the UN and of Dag Hammarskjold, who handled the operation with considerable skill, was greatly enhanced, though American and Russian pressure was also important in bringing about a ceasefire. However, the UN was not so successful in the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict.

(e) The Hungarian Rising (1956)

This took place at the same time as the Suez Crisis, and showed the UN at its most ineffective. When the Hungarians tried to exert their independence from Russian control, Soviet troops entered Hungary to crush the revolt. The Hungarian government appealed to the UN, but the Russians vetoed a Security Council resolution calling for a withdrawal of their forces. The General Assembly passed the same resolution and set up a committee to investigate the problem; but the Russians refused to co-operate with the committee and no progress could be made. The contrast with Suez was striking: there, Britain and France were willing to bow to international pressure; the Russians simply ignored the UN, and nothing could be done.

(f) Civil war in the Congo (1960-4)

Here the UN mounted its most complex operation to date, except for Korea. When the Congo (known as Zaire since 1971) dissolved into chaos immediately after gaining independence, a UN force numbering over 20 000 at its largest managed to restore some sort of precarious order. A special UN Congo Fund was set up to help with the recovery and development of the ravaged country. But the financial cost was so high that the UN was brought close to bankruptcy, especially when the USSR, France and Belgium refused to pay their contributions towards the cost of the operations, because they disapproved of the way the UN had handled the situation. The war also cost the life of Dag Hammarskjold, who was killed in a plane crash in the Congo.

(g) Cyprus

Cyprus has kept the UN busy since 1964. A British colony since 1878, the island was granted independence in 1960. In 1963 civil war broke out between the Greeks, who made up about 80 per cent of the population, and the Turks. A UN peacekeeping force arrived in March 1964; an uneasy peace was restored, but it needed 3000 UN troops permanently stationed in Cyprus to prevent Greeks and Turks tearing each other apart. That was not the end of the trouble, though: in 1974 the Greek Cypriots tried to unite the island with Greece. This prompted the Turkish Cypriots, helped by invading Turkish army troops, to seize the north of the island for their own territory. They went on to expel all Greeks who were unfortunate enough to be living in that area. The UN condemned the invasion but was unable to remove the Turks. UN forces did at least achieve a ceasefire and are still policing the frontier between Greeks and Turks. However, the UN has still not been successful in finding an acceptable constitution or any other compromise. The most recent attempt – the Annan Plan of 2004 – was accepted by the Turks but rejected by the Greeks.

(h) Kashmir 

In Kashmir the UN found itself in a similar situation to the one in Cyprus. After 1947, this large province, lying between India and Pakistan was claimed by both states. Already in 1948 the UN had negotiated a ceasefire after fighting broke out. At this point the Indians were (legally) ruling occupying the southern part of Kashmir, the Pakistanis were occupying the northern part, and for the next 16 years the UN policed the ceasefire line between the two zones. When Pakistani troops invaded the Indian zone in 1965, a short war developed, but once again the UN successfully intervened and hostilities ceased. The original dispute still remained, however, and in 1999 there were violent clashes as Pakistanis again unsuccessfully invaded the Indian zone. There seemed little prospect of the UN or any other agency finding a permanent solution.

(i) The Czechoslovak crisis (1968)

This was almost a repeat performance of the Hungarian rising 12 years earlier. When the Czechs showed what Moscow considered to be too much independence, Russian and other Warsaw Pact troops were sent in to enforce obedience to the USSR. The Security Council tried to pass a motion condemning this action, but the Russians vetoed it, claiming that the Czech government had asked for their intervention. Although the Czechs denied this, there was nothing the UN could do in view of the USSR’s refusal to co-operate.

(j) The Lebanon

While civil war was raging in the Lebanon (1975-87) matters were further complicated by a frontier dispute in the south of the country between Lebanese Christians (aided by the Israelis) and Palestinians. In March 1978 the Israelis invaded South Lebanon in order to destroy Palestinian guerrilla bases from which attacks were being made on northern Israel. In June 1978 the Israelis agreed to withdraw, provided the UN assumed responsibility for policing the frontier area. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), consisting of about 7000 troops, was sent to South Lebanon. It supervised the Israeli withdrawal and had some success in maintaining relative peace in the area; but it was a constant struggle against frontier violations, assassinations, terrorism and the seizing of hostages.

During the early 1990’s a new enemy began to harass Israel from bases in South Lebanon: this was the Muslim Shi’ite group known as Hezbollah, which, according to the Israeli government, was backed by Iran and Syria. In retaliation the Israelis launched a major attack on South Lebanon (April 1996) and occupied most of the region until 1999. Once again UNIFIL helped to supervise an Israeli withdrawal and the force was increased to around 8000.

In 2002, as the region seemed calmer than for many years, UNIFIL was reduced to some 3000. UNIFIL worked hard to strengthen the Lebanese army, providing training and equipment. Eventually the two forces were able to work together to maintain stability, though a permanent solution still seemed far off. In July 2006 Hezbollah ambushed an Israeli patrol; eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two taken prisoner. The Israelis responded immediately: demanding the return of the captured soldiers, they blockaded Lebanon from the sea, bombed Beirut and destroyed Hezbollah’ s headquarters. Hezbollah retaliated by firing rockets into Israel. It was mid-August before the UN succeeded in arranging a ceasefire. UNIFIL was increased to 12 000 and there was relative calm for the next four years. Early in 2011 violent incidents began again. The Israelis were still refusing to move out of a small area around the village of Gharjah, north of the withdrawal line agreed in 2006. There were several exchanges of fire between the Lebanese army and the Israeli Defence Force, terrorist attacks on UNIFIL itself and the firing of rockets into Israel.

(k) The Iran-Iraq War (1980-8)

The UN was successful in bringing an end to the long-drawn-out war between Iran and Iraq. After years of attempting to mediate, the UN at last negotiated a ceasefire, though admittedly they were helped by the fact that both sides were close to exhaustion.


The end of the Cold War unfortunately did not mean the end of potential conflict: there were a number of disputes still rolling on, which had originated many years earlier; the Middle East continued to be volatile, and there were more problems in south-east Asia and Africa.

After the Cold War, the UN saw a radical expansion in its peacekeeping duties, taking on more missions in ten years than it had in the previous four decades. Between 1988 and 2000, the number of adopted Security Council resolutions more than doubled, and the peacekeeping budget increased more than tenfold.

Between 1990 and 2003 the UN undertook well over 30 peacekeeping operations; at the peak of their involvement, in the mid-1990’s, there were over 80 000 troops on active service, from 77 countries. A few examples illustrate the growing complexity of the problems facing the UN and the increasing obstacles making success more difficult.

In the late 1990s and 2000s, international interventions authorized by the UN took a wider variety of forms. The UN mission in the Sierra Leone Civil War of 1991–2002 was supplemented by British Royal Marines, and the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was overseen by NATO.

(a) The 1991 Gulf War

UN action during the Gulf War of 1991 was impressive. When Saddam Hussein of Iraq sent his troops to invade and capture the tiny, but extremely rich, neighbouring state of Kuwait (August 1990), the UN Security Council warned him to withdraw or face the consequences. When he refused, a large UN force was sent to Saudi Arabia. In a short and decisive campaign, Iraqi troops were driven out, suffering heavy losses, and Kuwait was liberated.

However, critics of the UN complained that Kuwait had received help only because the West needed her oil supplies; other small nations, which had no value to the West, had received no help when they were invaded by larger neighbours (for example East Timor, taken over by Indonesia in 1975).

(b) Cambodia/Kampuchea

Problems in Cambodia (Kampuchea) dragged on/or nearly 20 years, but eventually the UN was able to arrange a solution. In 1975 the Khmer Rouge, a communist guerrilla force led by Pol Pot, seized power from the right-wing government of Prince Sihanouk. Over the next three years Pol Pot’s brutal regime slaughtered about a third of the population, until in 1978 a Vietnamese army invaded the country. They drove out the Khmer Rouge and set up a new government. At first the UN, prompted by the USA, condemned this action, although many people thought Vietnam had done the people of Cambodia a great service by getting rid of the cruel Pol Pot regime. But it was all part of the Cold War, which meant that any action by Vietnam, an ally of the USSR, would be condemned by the USA.

The end of the Cold War enabled the UN to organize and police a solution. Vietnamese forces were withdrawn (September 1989), and after a long period of negotiations and persuasion, elections were held (June 1993), won by Prince Sihanouk’s party. The result was widely accepted (though not by what was left of the Khmer Rouge, which refused to take part in the elections), and the country gradually began to settle down.

(c) Mozambique

Mozambique, which gained independence from Portugal in 1975, was torn by civil war for many years. By 1990 the country was in ruins and both sides were exhausted. Although a ceasefire agreement had been signed in Rome (October 1992) at a conference organized by the Roman Catholic Church and the Italian government, it was not holding. There were many violations of the ceasefire and there was no way that elections could be held in such an atmosphere. The UN now became fully involved, operating a programme of demobilizing and disarming the various armies, distributing humanitarian relief and preparing for elections, which took place successfully in October 1994.

(d) Somalia

Somalia disintegrated into civil war in 1991 when the dictator Siad Barre was overthrown. A power struggle developed between rival supporters of Generals Aidid and Ali Mohammed; the situation was chaotic as food supplies and communications broke down and thousands of refugees were fleeing into Kenya.

The Organization of African Unity (OAU) asked for UN help, and 37 000 UN troops, mainly American, arrived (December 1992) to safeguard the aid and to restore law and order by disarming the ‘warlords’. However, the warlords, especially Aidid, were not prepared to be disarmed, and UN troops began to suffer casualties. The Americans withdrew their troops (March 1994), and the remaining UN troops were withdrawn in March 1995, leaving the warlords to fight it out. It was a humiliating backdown; but in fact the UN had set itself an impossible task from the beginning – to forcibly disarm two extremely powerful armies which were determined to carry on fighting each other, and to combine this with a humanitarian relief programme.

At the same time the UN took no action in the civil war and genocide taking place in Rwanda in 1994. The United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda failed to intervene in the Rwandan Genocide amid indecision in the Security Council.

UN military interventions had most chance of success when, as in Korea in 1950-3 and the 1991 Gulf War, UN troops actively supported one side against the other.

(e) Bosnia

A similar situation developed in Bosnia. In the civil war between Bosnian Muslims and Serbs, the UN failed to send enough troops to impose law and order. This was partly because both the European Community and the USA were reluctant to get involved. There was further humiliation for the UN in July 1995 when they were unable to prevent Serb forces from capturing two towns – Srebrenica and Zepa – which the Security Council had designated as safe areas for Muslims. UN helplessness was underlined when the Serbs went on to murder around 8000 Muslim men in Srebrenica.

(f) Iraq – the overthrow of Saddam Hussein

In March 2003 the USA and Britain launched an invasion of Iraq, on the grounds that they intended to get rid of its weapons of mass destruction and to free the Iraqi people from the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein. UN weapons inspectors had already spent months in Iraq searching for weapons of mass destruction, but had found nothing of any significance. The attack went ahead even though the UN Security Council had not given its authorization. The USA and Britain had tried to push a resolution through the Council approving military action, but France, Russia, China and Germany wanted to allow Saddam more time to co-operate with the weapons inspectors. When it became clear that France and Russia were prepared to veto any such resolution, the USA and Britain resolved to go ahead unilaterally, without putting the resolution to a Security Council vote. They claimed that Saddam’s violations of earlier UN resolutions were a justification for war.

The US and British action was a serious blow to the prestige of the UN. Secretary General Kofi Annan, speaking at the opening of the annual session of the General Assembly in September 2003, said that their action had brought the UN to ‘a fork in the road’. Until then, all states needed the authorization of the Security Council if they intended to use force beyond the normal right of self-defence, as prescribed by Article 51 of the UN Charter. However, if states continued to act unilaterally and pre-emptively against a perceived threat, that would present a fundamental challenge to the entire principles of world peace and stability on which the UN was based, and which it had been striving to achieve, however imperfectly, for the last 58 years. This, he said, could only set precedents resulting in ‘a proliferation of the unilateral and lawless use of force’.

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