United Nations: friend or foe?

Many well-intentioned people still see the United Nations as some kind of alternative to imperialism. Below we’re reprinting an article that first appeared in issue #2 of MidEast Solidarity (Autumn 2002), the Middle East bulletin of revolution magazine. The anti-imperialist arguments were contributed by Scott Hamilton of the Auckland-based Anti-Imperialist Coalition and Philip Ferguson of the Christchurch-based Middle East Information and Solidarity Collective.

The UN provided cover for the overthrow of the progressive regime in the Congo, led by Patrice Lumumba

Isn’t the United Nations a neutral body representing the international community? Can’t it work in an unbiased way?

The United Nations was established by the winning powers in World War 2. They redivided the world between them, with little concern for anyone else. The UN was created to give legitimacy to this new world order.

One of the first major activities of the UN was to create the state of Israel, thereby dispossessing the Palestinians. Shortly after this, the UN intervened mainly in Korea to back up the dictatorship in the South and preserve imperialist interests.

In the Congo in the early 1960s, the United Nations used its ‘neutral’ cover to play an important part in the overthrow of the radical regime of Patrice Lumumba. This resulted in years of dictatorship and the continued plunder of the wealth of the Congo by western interests.

Today, the United Nations is responsible for the sanctions on Iraq – sanctions which have killed hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi people.

The idea of the international community also needs to be challenged. Are ordinary workers anywhere in the world part of this ‘international community’? Or does the term merely refer to western governments and legitimise their continued interference in the affairs of Third World countries?

What about aid? Surely the UN is useful in providing humanitarian assistance?

In Afghanistan, western aid agencies begged for a break in the bombing campaign, but the US-led coalition simply refused. When the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance said it didn’t want UN forces in Afghanistan, British forces, operating under the banner of the UN, simply seized Bagram Airport outside Kabul and said it was needed in order to distribute aid.

In other words, even at best humanitarian aid delivered by the United Nations is subordinate to the military machinations of the western powers.

Moreover, aid itself is a political weapon wielded by the western powers, including when it comes in a UN package. It never goes to Third World countries without strings. It is used to get governments and peoples in the Third World to follow policy prescriptions laid down by the west.

Because it is a tool for advancing the interests of the western powers who control it, the United Nations has a terrible record on ‘humanitarian’ issues. Their sanctions on Iraq are the most glaring example. But you can also take examples such as Somalia. There, in 1992, the UN used fake pictures of famine to justify an invasion by 30,000 US troops who shot dead 5,000 Somalis and ended up causing real mass starvation.

But how can we provide aid to people who need it without doing so through the United Nations?

There are a number of alternatives. Some people favour demanding no-strings aid from the west: this means the west should just hand over aid to Third World countries. Although this would be fair enough, it’s very unlikely that any western governments would do this. They will always use whatever weapons are in their possession, including aid, to advance their own interests in such situations.

Moreover, if we could build a mass movement strong enough to make them do this, wouldn’t it be better for that mass movement to organise direct aid – where workers and concerned people in the west donate aid which is delivered directly to fellow organisations in the Third World, eg to trade unions and other bodies which represent ordinary people.

This is the most effective solidarity – grassroots solidarity. It is real solidarity and real internationalism, because it builds links between the peoples of the world, rather than between regimes and institutions which oppress us.

This kind of solidarity and internationalism is therefore linked to the fight for a better world as well, rather than applying a few band-aids while preserving the existing international order.

What about terrorism and also dictators in the Third World? Surely some kind of UN-sponsored international court is useful?

Firstly, if the US government wants to try the people who carried out the September 11 attacks, they can assemble evidence, find the party the evidence points to and seek their extradition. After all, they’re always banging on about the importance of the rule of law. The Taliban said that if the US presented them with a prima facie case in relation to Bin Laden, they’d hand him over. Bush bombed them and invaded Afghanistan anyway.

The main point, however, is that for those of us who are serious about a better world, it is pointless to get into the exercise of giving advice to the western powers on how to carry out their policies. Rather, we need to turn the argument around and ask questions like, “How can the oppressed of the world get the oppressors off our backs?” and “How can we establish good relations with the mass of people in the Third World and show them we are their allies, that the mass of people in the west are part of the solution and not part of the problem?”

As long as debate on the terrain laid out by the western governments and their flunkies, we will never get anywhere.

Just look at who the real war criminals are since World War 2? Look at what the Allied powers got away with even in World War 2, with Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the fire-bombing of Tokyo and also of German cities like Dresden and Hamburg. Look at what the US got away with in Vietnam. Look at Britain and France’s dirty records in their colonial wars in the twentieth century. Does anyone seriously imagine the members of Western governments responsible for all this are going to be brought before international courts.

International courts are instruments of western governments’ policy, masquerading as impartial, legal institutions. First comes the big propaganda campaign about some Third World tyrant, then comes the western bombs and invasion, then comes the trial to legitimise the propaganda, bombs and invasion.

But is there really any alternative to the United Nations?

Yes, certainly. It is the alternative of projects like Workers Aid to Afghanistan. This provided aid directly from workers in the west to secular workers’ organisations in Pakistan who channelled it into Afghanistan.

Not only does workers’ direct aid build up solidarity between the workers and oppressed of the whole world, it means there are no fat cat bureaucrats skimming off huge administrative fees or state officials in Third World countries grabbing the aid for themselves.

So even at the most basic level, it is more effective than United Nations’ aid. In the big picture scenario, it means undermining the use of aid as a political weapon by the western ruling classes and, instead, promoting the common interests of workers the world over.

This kind of solidarity used to be very common on the left. Unfortunately, as much of the left has become institutionalised over the years, it is now quite rare. Many on the left prefer now to help run capitalism, rather than struggle for its overthrow.

The kind of alternative aid which can be developed therefore asserts the political independence, too, of the oppressed from the institutions of our oppressors.

So we are advocating a working class, rank-and-file response which is both a realistic alternative to western interference and domination and a part of struggling for fundamental, global social change.


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