The sorry UN history in the Middle East
SCMP August 25, 2003

The assassination of the UN envoy to Iraq, Sergio Viera de Mello, has been widely described as unprecedented. It is not. Indeed, the precedent is a reminder of the difficulties of UN missions when they are neither backed by real power, nor their objectives fully supported by the most powerful of their member states.

Next month, it will be 55 years since another Middle East UN peace envoy was assassinated. The victim then was the United Nations mediator between Jews and Arabs, the aristocratic Swedish diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte. He was gunned down in Jerusalem by Jewish terrorists who feared that a plan he had devised for peace between the two sides could deprive the new Israel of territory won in the war which followed its declaration of independence in May that year.

'Land for peace' was as much anathema to the Israeli expansionists then as it is now. The terrorist group responsible for the murder included one of Ariel Sharon's predecessors as head of the right-wing party Likud, and Yitzhak Shamir, who became prime minister of Israel.

But the failure of well-meaning international attempts to settle Middle East issues long pre-dates Count Bernadotte's fatal mission. It began with the UN's predecessor, the League of Nations, also in Iraq and Palestine. It was the league which, in the aftermath of the first world war, gave cover in the form of mandates to the imperial acquisitions of the then dominant powers, Britain and France, over most of the Arab territories taken from the defeated Ottoman Turkish empire. Under the guise of leading it to independence, Britain then installed the alien Hashemite Feisal as king of the newly created Iraq and his brother as king of Trans-Jordan. Feisal got the crown as a consolation prize after the French booted him out of his position of king of United Syria, which had been his reward from his fellow Arabs for his role in defeating the Turks.

Meanwhile, the British embarked, fitfully, on redeeming their promise, made in 1917 without reference to the actual inhabitants, to establish 'in Palestine a national home for the Jewish people'. Jews then constituted about 12 per cent of the population of Palestine, at that time around 800,000. From this colonial seed has grown the state of Israel with a population of six million, while controlling another two million in its occupied territories.

Fast-forward to 1948 and the league's successor, the UN, is in the thick of attempts to resolve the conflict between the Arabs, still the majority, and the mostly immigrant Jews desperate to create their own state. The British, under US pressure, tiring of their colonial role and so unwilling to impose a solution, dump the problem on the UN. With the United States now the leading world power, the UN General Assembly narrowly votes to ignore the Arab majority and proposes partition of Palestine. In the ensuing war, Israel acquires more territory than allotted under the partition plan, but the UN is powerless to intervene. History was to repeat itself in 1967. The UN Security Council resolution 242 required Israel to vacate conquered territories. It was never enforced, largely because the US was unwilling to pressure its ally. Settlement of Jews on former Arab lands has continued ever since.

Given this history, it is with a sinking feeling that one contemplates the well-intentioned efforts of the UN to play a role in rebuilding Iraq after Saddam Hussein. With the US having so recently treated the UN with contempt by declining to seek sanction for its invasion, there are many UN supporters who are happy to see President George W. Bush's discomfort at having to appeal for more international help in restoring order to the country. The sentiment is understandable, but unwise.

For sure, internationalising the occupation might improve the prospects of restoring order and some form of representative government. More neutral Iraqis would look on non-US, non-British troops as peacemakers rather than conquerors. But the dangers of the UN assuming responsibilities without power are, as the history of the region shows, immense. Goodwill alone is not enough. This is not to suggest that it is useless. In East Timor and Cambodia it played a vital role - but could do so because the countries were relatively small and the major powers and most neighbouring countries were supportive of its efforts.

In the case of Iraq, it is possible that the western powers and Russia will patch up their differences over Iraq, its oil and its contractor spoils. But that would still leave its neighbours, who all have some reason for being wary of the new Iraq acquiring its pro-western version of the Shah of Iran or the Hashemite kings of Iraq and Jordan. The Saudis are alert to America's post-September 11 intention to shift its Middle East oil and alliance focus from the jihadi-rich, Wahabite and increasingly unstable-looking Saudi Arabia, to oil-rich Iraq.

Meanwhile, jihadis of all kinds who were unwelcome in Mr Hussein's thuggish but secular state appear to be converging on Iraq as a place where they can simultaneously kill the infidel invaders and join hands with local Islamists to defeat secularism, be it of the fascist or liberal democrat variety.

Iran had better reason than anyone to hate Mr Hussein, but no longer viewed him as a threat in the way that a pro-US Iraq could be to both its domestic political interests and its position as an energy exporter. Turkey's primary interest is ensuring the Kurds are kept suppressed, which provides reason to intervene in Iraqi affairs.

None of this is to suggest that the UN should run away from a mission in Iraq, particularly of a humanitarian kind. But history provides plenty of warning of the dangers of taking on responsibilities which it cannot, through scant fault of its own, fulfil.




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