Strategic Insignificance: The UN & Civilian Lives in Geopolitics

Updated: Sep 27, 2020

A few days ago marked the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. US Acting Deputy Representative to the UN, Cherith Norman Chalet said, "The United Nations has for too long been resistant to meaningful reform, too often lacking in transparency, and too vulnerable to the agenda of autocratic regimes and dictatorships” (as cited in Al Jazeera 2020). She is absolutely correct but appears to have ignored the US’s role in vetoing resolution after resolution to permit UN operations in what I’ll be referring to as “strategically significant” regions. The US and the other permanent, veto-wielding, members on the Security Council are the very reason the organization is so resistant to ‘meaningful’ reform. Nonetheless, I don’t want to discuss the endlessly infuriating rhetoric surrounding this organization. Rather I will provide an analysis of how the decision-making, internal politics, and limitations of an organization with enormous potential for comprehensive multilateral action so often leads operations marred in controversy. But first a brief history.

‘Global’ Governance

Franklin D. Roosevelt, the organization’s “progenitor” viewed the permanent five (P5) and remaining six Security Council (SC) members as the long-term guarantors of international security (Traub 2007, 20). Unsurprisingly, the P5 is comprised of the colonial powers of the time (the US, USSR, France, and the UK) and arguably the most prominent neo-colonial power of today in China. Heeding the immense failure of the preceding League of Nations to stop the development of a global conflict so soon after coming into existence--in the aftermath of the First World War--FDR ensured that the SC would not require a consensus to act. The P5 were each given a veto over any of the enforcement powers of the council, however. The theory was that this power would be saved for only the most extreme circumstances; to the dismay of FDR and perhaps long-term detriment of the new organization, this was not how it was to be applied in practice. A number of other structures were created to encourage the new “institutionalized form of the wartime alliance” to be more active on the world stage including the professional secretariat tasked with administering internal affairs (Traub 2007, 21).

In addition to this, the secretary-general--head of the secretariat--is within their mandate, as outlined in Article 99 of the Charter, to “bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security” (UN 1945 as cited from Traub 2007, 21). The lack of clarity in these words may have been intended to give the SG leeway to raise a wide array of potential dangers to the international system; however, the vagueness also means it is unclear what dangers to international peace require the SC to listen. Further complicating the role of the UN in maintaining peace at the time of its inception were the newly emerged political poles. The devastating nature of WWII meant that leaders could agree that avoiding war was necessary but how to go about this cause has remained a contentious issue throughout its history. The divide between the West and the rest was immediate and has persisted through a number of iterations in political thought, SGs, regime changes and now a new century.

The UN is a Western creation. Consider the Charter’s implicit preference for states with Western-style liberal-democratic governance models. While the SC was designed as an autocratic institution headed by the world’s most significant powers (at its inception), the General Assembly (GA) is still heavily premised on democratic decision-making and as a result, many of the resolutions it passes run contrary to the wishes or interests of the P5. That being said, the GA has no enforcement powers so the resolutions it passes merely amount to statements or guidelines for legislation that are completely optional for states to adopt. The powers of the SC are broad and widely applicable to a variety of potential situations. From economic sanctions to military intervention, the SC has a broad mandate to coerce states into cooperating with its demands and the UN Charter. I will be drawing heavily from the decisionmaking behind and subsequent outcomes of the genocide in Rwanda, Iraq war and nation-building experiment in East Timur to illustrate that while the UN is adept at exporting rhetoric to corroborate its charter, the composition, competing national interests and rights of the P5 conflict with the organization’s ability to influence global affairs. Each section will begin with a brief history of the events before transitioning into an analysis of what the campaigns reveal about the strengths and limitations to the UN’s participation in international politics.

Inaction in Rwanda

Frequently cited as one of the most egregious failures of the UN, the slaughter of 800,000 people in 100 days occurred almost immediately after the horrors in Bosnia. By Annan’s own admission, the failure to stop the Serbs was multifaceted: the UN was reluctant to use force; the troop contributors neither sent enough forces nor allow them to be put harm’s way; the commanders on the ground did not supply adequate information to the higher ups who did not further investigate the reports they had “lots of questions” about (Annan n.d. as cited from Traub 2007, 69-70). The Rwandan Genocide offered an opportunity for some form of redemption.

After receiving news from Canadian general, Romeo Dallaire, that Tutsis being registered in Kigali were likely being marked for execution, a response--signed by Kofi Annan, a high-ranking member of the secretariat and future secretary general--was sent to the UN’s civilian head informing them to do nothing until further notice. Iqbal Riza, the author of the response, was then told that the potential ethnic cleansing presented by Dallaire would become a reality in 24 to 48 hours. He ordered the UN forces not to seize the Hutu weapons for it would “violate the Security Council mandate on Rwanda, which did not include protecting civilians” (Traub 2007, 72). The ultimate decision not to act was the result of a number of confounding circumstances and unfortunate timing.

Among the most significant of these was the ongoing Somali Civil War which was drawing significant resources and perhaps, the bulk of the P5’s attention considering the geopolitical importance of Somalia’s proximity to the oil exporting Arab Gulf states. The same emphasis was not placed on the small, landlocked, strategically insignificant central African state. Perhaps Somalia was the appropriate priority for the Security Council considering its own existence is predicated on maintaining international stability and in our oil hungry world, any disruption to these vital routes would likely lead to issues around the globe. That being said, Traub’s account of the decision-making process sounds like bureaucratic dodgeball. Each department tossed the responsibility of taking action to the next one until it was too late. Annan was preoccupied with the possibility that any harm to the troops would lead the contributing nations to recall them, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) “felt it wasn’t their decision to make,” and finally, the SC was kept apprised of the situation but apparently elevating the threat to a level requiring a mandate change to allow force would have made action even less likely (Traub 2007, 72-74). Even SG Boutros-Ghali admits he was not informed on the situation that was unfolding in Rwanda (Traub 2007, 75).

Gathering information to make an appropriate decision to stop the Rwandan Genocide was not an issue. Dallaire’s report was ignored as his superiors believed the general was exaggerating the situation on the ground. Even when reassured of the report’s accuracy, the administration was uninvested in the situation. The mandate that authorized the UN’s presence was too rigid to allow the DPKO to take initiatives to protect civilians. The nations contributing soldiers were too fickle to allow them to do their job. The Battle of Mogadishu had made interventions undesirable even in the most dire of situations. Politics, both domestic and international, led to a spectacular failure to act in Rwanda.

The international community was in no way uninformed about the Tutsis being killed. The US in particular had no interest in intervening in another conflict so soon after their losses and failure to achieve the strategic victories they sought in the Somali Civil War. What this inaction represented was a lack of commitment on the part of the international community, as well as the secretariat, to follow through on the values of the UN. It took little persuasion from the Hutu Rwandan delegate to convince a number of developing nations that Tutsi rebels were to blame for the conflict. The UN offered a paltry “force of 270 peacekeepers” and logistical support despite calls for 5,500 (Traub 2007, 78). Dallaire drew up a plan that had a strong possibility of ending the massacres but it was scrapped by the US for a half-hearted proposal to establish safe havens outside the country for refugees. Nancy Soderberg, a high-ranking official in Clinton’s National Security Council stated that the US did not feel a responsibility to protect foreigners from a genocidal conflict (Soderberg 1998 as cited from Traub 2007, 79). The Rwanda Report, an official UN assessment of their role--or lack thereof--in the genocide, concluded that even the 2,500 peacekeepers in the country when the killings began would have been up to the task of at least limiting the conflict if the chain of command acted with more urgency and conviction (Traub 2007, 142).

All this in mind, the failure to act in Rwanda revealed many of the same limitations of Bosnia: the UN was reluctant to use force, the troop contributors neither sent enough forces nor allowed them to be put in harm’s way. While the commanders on the ground did supply adequate information to the higher ups, the chain of command did not listen. It was a press mission made to look like global governance.

“Counterterrorism” in Iraq

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the SC enacted resolution 1373 which was a broad ‘counter-terrorism’ policy calling for the suppression of financial assets, active tracking and capturing of known terrorists, as well as cooperation and intel sharing with other nations. It was generally welcomed by the GA, though if specific attention was paid to the desperate socio-economic conditions that lead to the creation of terrorist groups (Traub 2007, 201). Middle Eastern states were particularly keen to emphasize the war crimes being committed by the Israelis in their foreign occupation of Palestine (Traub 2007, 201-202). This “counterterrorism” document was largely a reactionary set of policies to crack down on groups that already existed rather than preventing new ones from forming. Though, some proactive strategies were raised: namely, Annan’s Nobel lecture stated that focusing on bettering the status of the poor was vital to the war on terror. Bush’s administration followed this speech with sizable financial commitments to “highly impoverished countries that had satisfied a series of good-government principles” (Traub 2007, 204). Regardless, the largest commitment to be made by the Americans would be an arduous war in Iraq.

When President Bush briefed the American people on Operation Iraqi Freedom, he stated that the coalition was formed “to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger” (Bush 2003). The claims of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) being controlled by Saddam Hussein were vital to the legitimization of the intervention. These claims went unsubstantiated as no WMD were ever found (Central Intelligence Agency 2005). The name of the operation and Bush’s address suggested a focus on the humanitarian situation in the conflict zone and subsequent nation-building efforts predicated on democratic principles. Between 183,249 - 205,785 civilian deaths were documented as a direct consequence of the conflict and the subsequent failure of the decade-long nation-building process that failed to stabilize the country politically, economically or socially (Iraq Body Count 2019; Jamail 2012). This number does not include deaths through disease, famine, or displacement caused by the conflict itself. The UN did not support this string of actions nor accusations but was powerless to do anything about it. Now Security General Annan was disappointed to witness the US acting unilaterally so soon after resolution 1373--which called for international cooperation--but was helpless to stop it (Traub 2007, 208). Russia was uncooperative with SC discussions to adopt more targeted sanctions to curb Saddam Hussein’s behaviour, going as far as threatening to veto any such resolution (Traub 2007, 204). Bush’s leaning towards a doctrine of unilateral pre-emption was met with a feeble outcry. “Choosing to follow or reject the multilateral path must not be a simple matter of political convenience,” said Annan (2002 as cited from Traub 2007, 207). Ultimately, it was politically convenient for the US to pursue their interests in the matter that they did; Annan was left to watch the most important SC member bypass the “unique legitimacy provided by the United Nations” that apparently had “no substitute” (Annan 2002 as cited from Traub 2007, 207). His only recourse was benign bemoaning.

The expansion of American economic interests is a recurring theme in American interventions (Hahn 2007, 146-149). At the time of the Iraq War, the US had already successfully convinced their Saudi allies to sell all Saudi Arabian oil in the USD through the US-Saudi Arabia Joint Economic Commission (Hahn 2007, 146-147). Saddam Hussein did not acquiesce to this demand by selling Iraqi oil for Euros after 2000 but this only lasted until his execution. After Operation Iraqi Freedom the oil was again traded in the American dollar (Hahn 2007, 147). The invasion of Iraq also resulted in the reopening of enormous reserves to Western oil companies that were previously blocked from operating in the country (Jamail 2012).

It was a similar story just a decade prior. The US’s response to the 1991 Somalia Civil War was framed as a “humanitarian military intervention” and was done in tandem with UN peacekeeping forces. They arrived in 1992 through “Operation Restore Hope.” The US however, seemed to be too preoccupied with securing their energy interests in the region to establish a stable central government. The lack of which allowed the US to authorize American oil companies to explore nearly 2/3s of Somali oil reserves (Hahn 2007). One such company, Conoco, had the protection of American military personnel and their main compound acted as the American embassy in Somalia (Hahn 2007).

Whether or not acting in consort with the UN, the US’s national interests will supersede the objectives of the UN.

Nation-Building in East Timor

The “nightmare of East Timor” begins with a limitation of the UN’s reverence for sovereignty. Once vacated by the Portuguese, colonial control was transformed into the militarized killing of 180,000 people by Indonesian military and militia forces (Traub 2007, 130). The SC censured the invasion in resolutions that were blocked by the US in 1976. The US-friendly Indonesian regime responsible for the violence was allowed to continue due to its significance on the “Cold-War chessboard” (Traub 2007, 130). For over 20 years, the people of East Timor lobbied the UN to end the colonial dominion of the Indonesians (Terrel 2003, 79). Eventually the Timorese were granted independence but the new nation had no state apparatus as a function of the oppressive genocidal regime of the decades prior. Indonesia initially agreed to have a referendum in East Timor to determine whether or not it would become an independent country but as the UN organized ballot approached, the Indonesian Army, in concert with militia groups, attempted to forcefully bring about the result they wanted (Traub 2007, 130). When the obvious result of Timorese independence was announced, the militias--who accompanied the Indonesian military--began pillaging the soon-to-be independent proto-country. It took a number of months but Annan eventually managed to get a UN mission sent to the territory to end the violence. It was a relatively quick deployment compared to the recent historical trend of inaction or ineffective actions but the UN’s involvement in East Timor came decades after the beginning of the violent occupation so it was hardly a moment of heroics. It is similarly important to note that the territory in question was not of strategic relevance to the P5, rather their relationships with Indonesia are what stalled the mission in the first place (Traub 2007, 135). Although extremely belated, the UN was welcomed by the population to quite literally build a state.

East Timor had virtually none of the basic institutions nor vital occupations associated with statehood. There were “no army or police, no doctors, teachers, nurses, accountants, lawyers, and no buildings to put them in” (Traub 2007, 151). Much of the nation-building process would start from scratch. The United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) was tasked with finding the handful of Timorese lawyers and judges not complicit in the preceding regime and training every civil servant required to take over control of the country. There were miniscule populations of qualified Timorese still living in the country which made the UN’s administration very expensive to operate. The international staff were being paid 30 times more than the Timorese working for the UN (Terrel 2003, 75). The salaries accumulate quite quickly when considering that every position from doctors to port authorities had to come on international wages until the Timorese workforce could be trained and take over. Renamed Timor-Leste upon gaining sovereignty from the UN, the new nation saw a “boring” election that resulted in a peaceful transition of power (Traub 2007, 155).

The potential issues of implementing Western political institutions through a Western ‘benevolent colonial’ exercise staffed primarily by Westerners is a subject for another paper. As far as the UN sought to establish a functioning state before rescinding control to the local population, this experiment in Timor-Leste was a success. This achievement serves as a reminder of the UN’s capacity for high quality work on the world stage. Unfortunately, the extraordinary circumstances required for this success show an institution that is handicapped by its most important members.


Strategic importance is the primary factor behind the decisions the SC makes. American interests are of particular salience to the UN’s actions. Recent history shows that when the US and UN are misaligned on an issue of strategic importance to the US, the UN procedures will be bypassed in favour of an aggressive unilateral approach. When their interests are aligned, the US is more than capable of leading the charge to whatever end they seek. That being said, it is very possible that the legitimacy lent to joint operations will be taken advantage of by the US when presented with an option, in the moment, to pursue their own objectives.

The US has displayed inconsistent regard for the supposed humanitarian, pro-democracy agenda frequently espoused by the UN and by their own State Department. What can be gleaned from Somalia, Iraq and Rwanda is that the US’s involvement in global affairs is predicated on securing their own national interests. The Russian veto in Iraq shows that the Security Council decision-making and UN mandates mean very little to the US when they are not aligned with American interests. Somalia shows that their stated humanitarian objectives can merely be a cover for or fortunate side effect of such objectives. Rwanda shows that if geopolitical strategic interests and / or valuable resources are not present, the US will be reluctant to act.

The ineffectiveness of the UN when operating in opposition to even a single P5 member is a critical weakness of the organization. It begs the question of whether the very structure of the SC conflicts with its mission. In just the three conflicts detailed in this essay over 1 million civilian casualties were recorded. Tutsis paid the price of not living in a more geopolitically important country, the East Timorese paid the price of being colonized by a geopolitically important country and the Iraqi people saw one despot--in Sadam Hussein--replaced by another from across the world--in the American military industrial complex. It is incredibly difficult for the UN to hold the P5 accountable for their actions with anything more than disapproving words both because nearly all of the punitive powers of the organization are subject to the veto and due to the funding for the entire organization being contingent on the support of the P5. It is not only the US who presents barriers to the actions of the UN as none of the P5 are strangers to the veto. What FDR thought of as a last ditch when all-else failed has become an ever-present threat to decision-making within the SC on any contentious issue.

Rwanda provided a case where geopolitics could be set aside because it was clear a genocide was occurring and it would not have been particularly difficult to stop. The failure of the UN lies in the impartiality of its members. Countries did not want to donate troops to the peacekeeping effort and the ones that did were not willing to allow their soldiers be put in harm’s way for such a strategically trivial matter. Of course the hands of Annan and Dallaire were tied by the structure of their organization but if the UN could not tell its peacekeepers to keep the peace then it does make one wonder to what extent the blue helmets are just good press for the soldiers carrying out the interests of their home countries.

East Timor lends some credence to the expertise and statecraft the UN can provide when afforded the opportunity to shine but it cannot be forgotten that it was the US, Russia and China that made it so difficult to help in the first place. I primarily focused on the role of the US in this dynamic but the same essay could be written for the rest of the P5. It is a ridiculous system that was woefully out of touch with the issues plaguing the world of the 1950s and incapable of adjusting to the pace the world has moved at since.

There are many more recent examples I could have chosen for this essay: China’s concentration camps for the Uighurs, forced labour camps in Tibet, and rampant neo-colonial enterprising through the Belt and Road Initiative all come to mind; ss do the concentration camps along their southern border, mass voter suppression , and mass incarceration regime in the US; Russia’s occupation of Crimea and rampant legalized homophobia; the racism entrenched in the UK’s criminal-legal (not justice) system; France can’t even track it’s racism because its unconstitutional to collect racial census data. I opted for the examples I chose only because I knew the most about them. This essay could be written countless ways and come to the same conclusion. The UN is a tool of powerful states to legitimize their foreign policy pursuits when possible. If the UN cannot be a means to this end, then it will be bypassed. It cannot be reformed because for the P5, it is working as intended. Of course the organization has done lots of excellent acts in its 75 year history but it is incapable of policing its’ most problematic members.


Bush, George. 2003. “President Bush Addresses the Nation.” The White House Archives. March 19, 2003.

Central Intelligence Agency. 2005. Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq’s WMD, with Addendums (Duelfer Report). Featured Executive Branch Publications.

Hahn, Niels S. C. 2015. Neoliberal Imperialism and Pan-African Resistance. Journal of World-Systems Research 13 (2): 142-78.

Jamail, Dahr. 2012. “Western oil firms remain as US exits Iraq.” Al Jazeera. January 7, 2012.

Mahmoud, Sinan S. 2020. “Legacy of Iran-Iraq War still reverberates 40 years later.” Al Jazeera. September 22, 2020.

Terrall, Ben. 2003. "The UN in East Timor." Radical Society 30 (3-4): 79-84.

Traub, James. 2007. The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power. 1st Picador ed. New York: Picador.

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