Tuesday 24 October 2017

The UN has preserved the peace of the Big Five - but not much else in the world

The world needs a strong peacekeeping body — but under the guidance of the decent but uninspiring Ban Ki-Moon the UN is toothless and arrogant

UN peacekeeping forces patrol during elections in the Central African Republic. Photo: ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images
UN peacekeeping forces patrol during elections in the Central African Republic. Photo: ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images

Fergal Keane

Thousands of Irishmen and women have served under the flag. Some have been killed. They died because this small nation believed it must play a role in preventing world conflict.

Eamon de Valera was a champion of Irish participation in the League of Nations and its successor the United Nations. Although much maligned these days as the architect of a claustrophobic isolationist state, Dev was at heart an internationalist. His support for anti-colonial movements worldwide was heartfelt and much appreciated in places like Algeria and India. He was not afraid to challenge the big powers, earning the opprobrium of the Americans for Ireland's support of the entry of Communist China to the UN. Anglo-American suspicion of Dev and a Soviet veto helped to keep Ireland out of the UN until the mid-1950s.

But once admitted, we were enthusiastic and well-regarded members. From the Congo to Cyprus to Lebanon, and many more places, Irish forces have served with distinction. I am usually suspicious of that old trope that argues that our experience of colonialism gives the Irish a special understanding of the world's downtrodden. For sure we know the price of conquest and subjugation at the hands of foreigners. But our place in international affairs over centuries, and the role of many of our ancestors in the creation and maintenance of the British empire, demands a more complex reading of the past.

What I have seen the soldiers and diplomats of modern Ireland bring to the UN is tact, discretion and humility. In other words everything that is lacking in our political class. As an Irish person, I was brought up to regard the UN as a force for good. I believed the sacrifices made under the blue flag had a purpose that was higher than national self interest.

Then I went to the wars myself. I saw brave peacekeepers in action. I have an Irish army colonel to thank for extracting my team from a dangerous ambush in South Lebanon. I think of a man like Mike McDonagh from Co Clare who spent years of his life helping refugees and the victims of natural disaster, and who helped me navigate the dangerous terrain of Darfur in an age of ethnic massacre. Some of the best people I know work for the organisation. They work on the world's margins in conditions of danger.

My heart is still with the United Nations. But for a long time now my head has been troubled by its failures. It appears beset by bureaucratic inertia. Important decisions are endlessly deferred. Money is squandered.

There seems to be an institutional arrogance which serves to protect the incompetent and the dishonest. This is before we even get to the colossal failures in peacekeeping over the last 25 years: Somalia, Bosnia and, most appalling of all, the failure to stop genocide in Rwanda.

In recent years UN forces have been accused of widespread sexual abuse in the Central African Republic and, most recently, standing idly by while South Sudanese troops killed and raped aid workers and locals in Juba.

Presiding over all of this is a man chosen because he was the least offensive option to big powers on the Security Council. Mr Ban Ki-Moon is a patently decent person, but he has failed to articulate a vision for the UN in these perilous times, much less confront the institutional crisis outlined above. He has been neither a reformist nor visionary, rather a dull middle-manager who has managed well the difficult feat of not offending the members of the Permanent Five.

Could anybody have done better? No UN head can end the pernicious system of veto which allows the big powers to block action, or even criticism, that might curb the transgressions of themselves or their allies. Syria is but the latest and one of the most tragic examples of where the malign power of veto takes us. Nor could Ban Ki-Moon have forced the Security Council to take more effective action in Burundi or recently in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where sustained and costly UN engagement has failed to secure political stability. Countries bear their own responsibilities for which the Secretary General should not be made a scapegoat.

But a UN Secretary General can re-shape the organisation for these perilous times. He or she can start to root out the corrupt and useless in its bureaucracy. The evasions and hypocrisies of the Security Council can be forced more directly into the open. The problem is that Ban Ki-Moon is simply not taken seriously by either the Permanent Five or the General Assembly. His predecessor Kofi Annan was a flawed leader. But he had the gift of compelling articulacy. He did not stop genocide in Rwanda but he did push UN engagement to end "Africa's world war" in the DRC and helped make a compelling public case for the Millennium Development Goals. Not since the worst days of the Cold War have we more needed a strong United Nations led by a confident and articulate Secretary General. Yet when Ban Ki-Moon's term ends next year the likelihood is more of the same: decent and uninspiring, if we are lucky. That is the way the big powers like it.


The wind has been blowing all night. This tin cottage feels every gust. Bits creak in the dead of night. I look out at the big sycamore and worry that it may lose its moorings one night and tumble sideways. The rain goes rat-a-tat on the roof. I fall asleep to this comforting metronome. I am thankful for the bleak weather. I hate leaving Ardmore in the sunshine. It pulls so much at my heart.

Every happy moment I have had here - and they are too numerous to count - comes rushing back as I drive up the Dungarvan road, navigating the hairpin bends before looking back on the village over the bay. To see it with the sun sparkling on the water is too much to bear as I head back to London.

Leaving Ardmore marks the beginning of my working year, not the January New Year of the calendar. In a few days I travel from peace and tranquillity to God knows which benighted zone of human foolishness.

So goodbye Goat Island, Whiting Bay, the Curragh. Goodbye to John and Paula and Nicky and Dervla, to Tony with thanks for the two fine lobsters, to all my friends who make this place what it is, to the land where peace is possible.

Fergal Keane is a BBC Special Correspondent

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