On 17 January 1946 the security council held its first meeting at Church House, Westminster. The five permanent members were the UK, USSR, China, France and the US – an American bid to include Brazil was vetoed, while Germany was a defeated nation. The key task was restoring order to a shattered postwar world. “There was this tremendous enthusiasm for thinking that war had come to an end and it was exciting to think that these countries could work together,” says Professor Roger Owen, whose father, civil servant Sir David Owen, was there at the start. Diplomats flew in on converted Lancaster bombers and Owen put out the chairs. “The FO was very cliquey, it didn’t like academics, but this project had to be truly international, 53 countries had signed up. Europe was full of refugees, the UN was filling up with bureaucrats and there was this great rush to get out of colonies. It is no wonder there are problems, but if the UN has been even 20% successful it was worth it.” The first secretary general was a Norwegian – seen as fairly neutral – but Trygve Lie proved stubborn and unsuccessful.
Cold war, 1947-1991
The UN security council faced paralysis with the Russians and the Americans at missiles drawn. It did push through what is seen as a successful intervention in the Korean war while the USSR was away from the table. “It got worse before it got better in 1990 when the security council suddenly sprang into life, that tension that had been built into the system with that kind of caste system, the gap with the permanent five members at the table and the other countries on the outside,” said Lord Hannay, former British ambassador to the UN and chair of the UN all-party parliamentary group. During the cold war the UN also oversaw one of its most complex operations, in Cambodia, which Hannay describes as being the “Syria of the 1980s”. “We were sitting around wringing our hands while a wretched number of people were being murdered and because of disagreement between the great powers nothing was being done about it. But it was our biggest ever peacekeeping operation and the security council did in the end do the job it should have done at the beginning.”
The partition plan for Palestine was one of the UN general assembly’s first acts in 1947. Since then the security council has adopted 79 resolutions on the conflict, including one in 2002 calling for a two-state solution. “It’s a very difficult issue, because anything we do requires getting over the US veto. American constraints are the constraint that we are living with,” says Matthew Rycroft, current British ambassador at the UN. But his predecessor Sir Jeremy Greenstock adds: “Obama is the most pro-UN, pro-multilateralism president I can remember … the failure of the UN’s initiatives hasn’t been from lack of effort but from a lack of the stars being aligned as far as vetoes are concerned.” And more enforcement might be better than more rules: “We don’t need more resolutions on protecting civilians, we need to actually start protecting civilians.”
The Balkans, 1991-today
Ethnic conflicts raged across the former Yugoslavia from 1991 to 2001, the security council’s arms embargo was largely ignored, and peacekeepers failed to prevent the massacre of Bosnians at Srebrenica. Kofi Annan, UN secretary general from 1997 to 2006, described this as the worst crime in Europe since 1945, saying that, while blame lay “foremost with those who planned and carried out the massacre”, the UN had “made serious errors of judgment rooted in a philosophy of impartiality”, and Srebrenica would haunt the history of the UN forever.
Sir Kieran Prendergast, UN under-secretary-general from 1997 to 2005, said Kosovo, whose declaration of independence split the security council, was an example of the UN being curtailed: “The security council has a large ‘too difficult’ tray, it’s good at responding to crises when they erupt but rather bad at nipping them in the bud. In Kosovo Kofi wanted to go in and make an assessment early but he was warned off as the Brits did not want that. As Kofi always used to say, it seems easier to find money to pay for a coffin than it is to find money for a doctor.”
“The security council has achieved much, but it did some bad things too,” says Lord Hannay, who was one of those on the security council who did not initially want the 1994 Rwandan conflict to be labelled genocide, something that delayed an international response as between half a million and a million people were being murdered. “Rwanda was a huge collective failure of the international community. We had this tiny peacekeeping force that couldn’t cope and most of the membership unwilling to get into a shooting war because of the trauma of what had happened the previous year in Somalia where the peacekeeping operation had collapsed and bodies of American soldiers were dragged through the streets.” He said lessons learned may well mean the UN doing better today at peacekeeping in South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Mali.
Having been blocked from condemning the Soviet intervention in the country in the 1980s by the Russian veto, the security council’s main concern over the intensifying conflict in was the humanitarian situation and the growing terrorist activities.
It imposed sanctions on Taliban finances in 1999. At the same time UN agencies were feeding 1.3 million Afghans. America, demanding that the Taliban hand over Osama bin Laden, began the longest war in its history in 2001, supported by the UK. Troops under UN mandate were deployed the same year in Kabul and Nato joined in 2003. Elections were judged to be a success, and UN-backed peace talks have since taken place between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
In May 2014, the US said its combat operations were ending, and in October that year the British left Helmand, which has since been largely retaken by Taliban-loyal forces. The war has killed tens of thousands – more than 4,000 UN soldiers and civilian contractors, more than 15,000 Afghan national security forces members, and 20,000 civilians.
Former United Nations diplomat Professor Mukesh Kapila says: “The UN is the only legitimate global force we have, but it’s a mixed picture. Britain was in a noble position when it started the UN security council, but what has gone is that moral leadership, as the early giants of the UN have been replaced by Whitehall warriors and civil servants, while self-serving tactics undermine the UN.
“When you are on the 38th floor of the UN building in New York you look down on First Avenue and the people look like insects, and for all the glorified policy and intellectualising the people involved still appear as insects.”
The US-led invasion of in 2003 went ahead without a security council resolution. Kofi Annan declared it “illegal” and Colin Powell later said he “regretted” the tub-thumping speech he made to the security council demanding intervention, during which he held up a vial of anthrax. The disastrous conflict was a low point for all concerned. Sir Jeremy Greenstock says it was clear at the UN that both America and the UK knew Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction as early as 1998 and, although the UN operation in Kuwait had been successful, there was massive international unease at toppling the dictator in the fevered post-9/11 world.
Dr Francesc Vendrell, a Catalan former special envoy to the UN, says the UK undermined its independence by “its willingness to subordinate its views to the US”, which had “always trimmed the UK’s wings” .
Lord Hannay says that the conflict damaged the UK’s reputation abroad “quite a bit”, but adds: “There is nobody who believes we would do anything like that again.”