U.S. won't soon forgive the UN

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Last month, NATO got a new top military commander: American general Brantz Craddock, who formerly ran the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, where terror detainees have been stripped of their most basic human rights.

So Canadian troops, serving as part of the NATO mission in Afghanistan, will ultimately be under the command of a U.S. general who ran a notorious political prison in defiance of international law.

This underlines how far Canada has moved in recent years, abandoning its former role as a leading contributor to UN peacekeeping missions and embracing a new role as a prop for the U.S. in its “war on terror.”

A key goal of the Bush administration, with which the Harper government has co-operated, has been to downplay the significance of the United Nations, where U.S. power is sometimes challenged, and expand the role of NATO, the Western military alliance long dominated by Washington.

To justify this move, there's been a concerted effort on the part of the Bush administration and right-wing commentators to undermine the legitimacy of the United Nations.

This campaign has involved portraying the UN as hopelessly ineffective, pointing to its inability, for instance, to stop the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

But the UN is only as effective as its members allow it to be. The tiny UN force in Rwanda, led by Canadian general Roméo Dallaire, called out desperately for additional troops and the right to intervene to protect civilians, but the UN Security Council declined to act on the requests.

Overall, however, the United Nations may be more effective than acknowledged. According to the Human Security Report 2005, produced by the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia, there has been a significant, but largely unreported, decline in the number of wars, genocides and international crises over the last decade or so — a decline which the report attributes to increased international activism through the UN, as well as through NGOs.

The right's hostility to the UN springs not from its ineffectiveness, as they claim, but rather from the UN's role as a potential restraint on U.S. power.

In fact, Washington has often managed to get the UN to do its dirty work. In Haiti, for instance, a UN force (including Canadians) helped prop up a brutal right-wing regime after Washington overthrew the democratically elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

But Washington has indeed been frustrated by the UN at times, most dramatically in March 2003, when members of the Security Council indicated they wouldn't support U.S. plans to invade Iraq.

This didn't stop the U.S. invasion, but it denied Washington the international legitimacy it craved, and instead championed the principles of international law. Secretary-General Kofi Annan later described the U.S. invasion as illegal.

The UN's willingness to resist pressure from Washington over Iraq ranks as one of its finest hours. It's also one that powerful people in Washington won't soon forgive.

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