Lebanon: Can the UN bring peace?

Only international working class can end conflicts

After much wrangling, a United Nations (UN) force has been assembled to act as a ’buffer’ in the 20-mile corridor between the Israel-Lebanon border and the Litani River. Most people will probably breathe a sigh of relief that the carnage which has been inflicted in Lebanon seems to have ended. The hope is that now the prospect of war between Israel and Lebanon will be banished, and the catastrophe of a wider Middle East war avoided.

However, the Lebanese people, in their ’greeting’ to UN secretary general Kofi Annan, do not appear to share these illusions. He was met with protests by the angry residents of Beirut’s devastated southern suburbs, who were frustrated at the “UN’s seeming passivity in the face of the destruction wreaked by the 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah", according to the London-based Guardian.

A UN force (UNIFIL) existed before the war but did nothing to prevent the Israeli murder machine.

In one notorious incident, 18 Lebanese were killed in a southern Lebanese village by an Israeli air strike. The victims had demanded sanctuary in a UN base but this was refused by the UN commander, worried that there would be a repeat of the 1996 incident when 100 people were killed who had taken refuge in a UN base, during Israel’s offensive against Hezbollah of that year.

A resident of West Beirut summed up the general attitude towards the UN: “They are not good. We do not trust them. They did not help the civilians in the south. They are like an instrument in the hands of the Americans.”

However, illusions still exist in Britain and elsewhere, particularly among idealistic workers and youth who look towards the UN and its agencies as an ’international’ solution to the problems of war and conflict, of poverty and environmental disaster. But the term ’United Nations’, like that of ’international community’, is a misnomer.

In reality, the UN brings together capitalist nations, in particular, the most powerful, who are ’disunited’, especially when their fundamental interests are at stake. Therefore, the idea that the UN can be ’democratised’, is a bit like asking for the bosses’ organisation, the CBI, to be democratised to allow workers a voice in running it.


The origins and history of the UN, as with its forerunner the ’League of Nations’ prior to the Second World War, demonstrates this. The League of Nations, Trotsky wrote, “is not an organisation of ’peace’, but an organisation of the violence of the imperialist minority over the overwhelming majority of mankind”. In 1928, the Kellogg-Briand Pact also purported to outlaw war, yet it was signed by every major belligerent in the Second World War.

The UN occupied a similar role during the ’Cold War’, a conflict, in the main, between US imperialism and its allies, on the one side, representing capitalism, and the Stalinist regimes of Russia and Eastern Europe, (bureaucratically planned economies but with authoritarian one-party regimes), on the other side. When it was convenient, the US would conduct imperialist wars under the flag of the UN, such as in Korea.

On other occasions, it proclaimed its ’unilateral’ right to militarily intervene, as in the case of the Vietnam War. At best, the UN was a forum for the settlement of secondary issues.

But, with the advent of the George W Bush regime and its neo-conservative cabal in the ascendancy, the world’s only superpower resorted to a ’pre-emptive’ and unilateralist policy. This naked assertion of US interests, combined with the pushing aside and ignoring capitalist ’international institutions’, brought it into collision with European capitalism. When it did not get the necessary support for the predetermined decision to attack Iraq, the US did not hesitate to go outside the UN, organising the so-called ’coalition of the willing’, now the ’reluctant’.

With the disaster of Lebanon superimposed on the catastrophe of Iraq, not to say the greatest domestic natural disaster in US history, Hurricane Katrina, Bush has been forced to back-pedal. He now takes a ’pragmatic’ position towards the UN, pushing Annan and sections of European capitalism to intervene and rescue him from this quagmire.

However, even the unseemly clash over precisely how many troops each nation would send to Lebanon – France promising big forces but only coming up with 200 troops initially – has shown how capitalist national interests take precedence over any other considerations.

France has been reluctant to take the lead of the UN force in Lebanon because it previously clashed with Syria and Hezbollah which, according to France, were implicated in the murder of the previous Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri.

Romano Prodi, the new Italian prime minister, on the other hand, has been positively enthusiastic about Italian troops ’taking the lead’ in Lebanon.

This provides a convenient ’peacekeeping’ diversion from the opposition of the Left to the presence of Italian troops in Afghanistan and for the precarious overall position of Prodi’s government; ’the love of the distant’.

Tony Blair is so discredited by his poodle-like support of Bush, that he was not even consulted over possible answers to the Lebanese imbroglio.

Lebanon 1982

However, engraved on the memories of the Lebanese is the brutal experience of the past UN presence, which has not prevented the bloody resumption of war. In 1982, after the last full-scale Israeli invasion, a ’multinational force’ was despatched to Lebanon. A few months later, their barracks were blown up, killing 241 Americans and 58 French servicemen. Hence, the nervousness of the French, this time, towards supplying troops.

US troops are completely unacceptable to the Lebanese, given their role in backing Israel. The latter has stipulated that no ’Muslim troops’ should serve in the ’peacekeeping’ force, a further assertion of the national interests of the Israeli ruling class over any ’peaceful’ intentions.

But it is not just in the Middle East that the ineffectiveness of the UN has been ultimately demonstrated when determined armed combatants are set on war.

Witness the catastrophic ethnic conflict in the Balkans. UN forces were deployed to ’hold the ring’ only after a period of exhaustion and terrible bloodletting, yet the ethnic and national divisions remain.

Moreover, the UN force has subsequently become mired in corruption, as well as notorious cases of sexual harassment, mirroring the social diseases of the ’civilised countries’ which deployed them in the first place.

East Timor also exemplifies the total ineffectiveness of the UN when confronted with serious conflicts. A minimum of 1,500 murders were carried out by Indonesian soldiers and pro-Jakarta militias during August 1999 when a vote for independence was taken by the East Timorese. Despite UN prosecutors identifying Indonesian generals, they have not been brought to book.

In June, this year, East Timor fractured once more, with the army and police splitting and disintegrating, with machete-swinging ethnic gangs burning down homes, looting, etc. All of this went on as ’peacekeepers’ patrolled the streets.

A leading East Timor human rights activist commented: "I’m sure some of the people who [have been] looting and burning houses are thinking, ’if nothing can be done about the crimes of 1999, what can they do against me?’"

These facts could be met with the argument that yes, the “UN is imperfect” but it can be improved to serve all the peoples of the world. But the indisputable fact is that the UN is ultimately in the grip of the US: "They [the US] built the UN because, for all its inevitable flaws it serves American interests" (Philip Stevens, Financial Times, 16/6/06). The US financially underpins the UN and withdraws funds when this body does not do its bidding.

This is shown over the unseemly scramble for the ten elected seats on the UN Security Council. An investigation by Harvard economists has shown the "important benefit to Security Council membership: American money" (Financial Times, 31/8/06). Aid to countries in the neo-colonial world from the US increases by 59% when they get a seat, "because their votes are worth something"!

Iranian crisis

Given the colossal shift in hostility towards the US worldwide, Bush and American imperialism now need the cover of the UN. This, however, does not alter its character. The hypocrisy of the US, Britain and its allies is shown over the conflict with Iran concerning nuclear weapons.

We oppose the acquisition of nuclear power and weapons by Iran or any other country. But Iran is surrounded by countries armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons: Israel, which threatens Iran repeatedly, has 100 nuclear arms. Moreover, the US gives its support and blessing to Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons and is ruled by the dictator Musharraf. The US imperialist power also particularly backs India, another nuclear power.

The Iranian president, a populist politician, but still no friend of the working class of Iran or elsewhere, was nevertheless correct when he recently stated: "In the [UN] Security Council, which is supposed to achieve peace and security in the world, Britain and the United Stated have special rights and concessions. If another nation is involved in a conflict with them or is oppressed by them, there is no recourse for it. International relations has reached a point where the Americans and the British are imposing their will on more than 180 nations around the world." (Guardian, 30 August).

As with all the other institutions of world capitalism, the UN is a weapon in the hands of the rich, both in the US and worldwide. Moreover, there is no “international community”, in the sense that Bush and Blair argue, but a ’community’ of the ruling classes of the world: in each capitalist ’community’ there are ’two nations’, rich and poor.

Working people would not look to their bosses or the capitalists as a whole, their governments or their parties, for solutions to their problems on a national scale. Then why should this approach be abandoned on the international plane?

Double book-keeping is adopted by even some who are socialists and who stand on the left, and yet enthusiastically support the UN. But hard-headed capitalist commentators, like former Tory foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, recognise that the shine is coming off their cherished institution: "The UN possesses less magic than 50 years ago" (The Independent).

It is necessary for the labour movement to put an end to the charade of the UN as an instrument of ’progress’, a means of avoiding war and famine. There are many well-meaning, dedicated people who work for the UN, and its agencies, to help the poor, to abolish disease and to rid the planet of the prospect of war. But their efforts, no matter how well-meaning, are like taking a thimble to empty an ocean.

The growing army of the poor, an expression of naked neo-liberal capitalism, attests to this. Conflicts, some of them of the most brutal kind, as the recent carnage in Lebanon and Israel demonstrates, multiply, as do UN troops on ’peacekeeping missions’. In fact, with increased demands for these troops – Darfur is the latest – not just the US but the UN faces military ’overstretch’.


Only one force is capable of ending this nightmare: the international working class and its organisations. It is potentially the most powerful ’superpower’ on the planet, stronger than any army or government.

The only ’buffer’ which can provide a lasting solution to the problems of the Middle East is the working class, in the first instance in Lebanon and Israel.

All foreign troops – whether in blue helmets or not – should get out of Lebanon. Let the Lebanese people decide their own fate in collaboration with the Israeli workers and those in the Middle East, as a whole.

Why should a ’buffer’ be established only on conquered Lebanese territory? Why not on Israeli territory? And why is their no ’international’ buffer between Israel and Gaza? The simple answer, of course, is that in the latter case it serves the Israeli ruling class to be given a free hand to continue to terrorise and imprison the Palestinians of Gaza.

If, however, the independent movement of the working class of Israel linked up with the Lebanese workers, and joined together with the potentially powerful working class of the Middle East, the prospects for another conflagration in the area would be banished, once and for all.

It is working-class and socialist internationalism which is the answer to the problems of the peoples of the Middle East and the world, and not the increasingly discredited United Nations.

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, England and Wales)

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September 2006