Most people who identify as left wing would agree that systems of governance that enable exploitation by the world’s most powerful corporations, governments and individuals should be changed. Most would also agree that militarism and military solutions are best avoided.
Why then do so many people on the left support UN missions that claim to be about “peacekeeping” but often serve as little more than fig leafs to cover up imperialism?
Unfortunately, from the Cold War era on, there is a substantial record of nominally left-wing organizations effectively supporting imperialism by failing to look closely at what particular UN missions actually do. Simple cheerleading of “peacekeeping” has become a way to align with Ottawa’s “good Canadian” mythology and evade confronting military power, usually employed to shape the world in the interests of the richest 0.1 per cent.
For example, in a recent email to its 25,000-person list Ceasefire.ca outlined “key steps towards building sustainable peace and common security.” Its first demand is a motherhood statement about “giving top priority to war prevention, peaceful conflict resolution and building the United Nations envisaged by the UN Charter.” The second point is a call for “greater participation in UN peacekeeping missions and international peacekeeping training.”
Ceasefire.ca’s position aligns with the Justin Trudeau government’s plan to dispatch 600 peacekeepers to Africa. As I’ve written elsewhere, Ceasefire.ca’s parent organization, the Rideau Institute, promotes the views of commentators who’ve backed violent, anti-democratic UN peacekeeping missions. In February the Rideau Institute and Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives co-published Unprepared for Peace?: The decline of Canadian peacekeeping training (and what to do about it) by Institute board member Walter Dorn. The Royal Military College of Canada professor worked with and publicly lauded the UN mission in Haiti.
An outgrowth of U.S., France and Canada’s overthrow of Haiti’s elected government in 2004, the UN mission has undermined Haitian sovereignty and been directly responsible for many abuses. The UN’s disregard for Haitian life caused a major cholera outbreak, which has left nearly 10,000 Haitians dead and 800,000 ill. But, don’t expect the Canadians blindly calling for more peacekeeping to apologize to Haitians for the cholera epidemic.
And Haiti is only one example of supposedly left-wing organizations disguising their support for Canadian imperialism with the UN flag.
The Canadian Labour Congress backed Canada’s role in the 1962 UN mission responsible for the assassination of Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba. According to its 1962 Executive Council Report, CLC President Claude Jodoin sent a telegram to External Affairs “in which he expressed support of the Secretary General of the United Nations, then under attack because of the Congo crisis.”
At Washington’s behest Dag Hammarskjold worked to undermine the Congolese independence leader. When President Joseph Kasavubu dismissed Lumumba as prime minister — a move of debatable legality and opposed by the vast majority of the country’s parliament — the UN Secretary General publicly endorsed the dismissal of a politician who a short time earlier had received the most votes in the country’s election. To get a sense of Hammarskjold’s antipathy towards the Congolese leader, he privately told officials in Washington Lumumba needed to be “broken.”
In its 1962 convention report the CLC’s executive committee noted:
“We support the United Nations in the belief that only through a world organization of this kind, through the common discussion of problems, through the establishment of a strong supra-national organization, can world order be established and maintained. For all the difficulties encountered by the United Nations in the Congo, we feel nonetheless that the very fact of UN intervention has been a major step forward in the development of such a supranational force. We are proud that Canadians are playing a part in this affair.”
While alluding to “difficulties,” the labour federation’s executive seems to have believed Lumumba’s assassination was worth the “development of such a supra-national force.” In other words, Congolese aspirations could be sacrificed in the name of the UN.
Echoing this thinking, left nationalist magazine Canadian Forum and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (the NDP’s predecessor) backed the 1950–53 UN “police action” in Korea in which 27,000 Canadian troops fought.
Canadian Forum said UN actions in Korea “revived hopes that the international body would serve as a deterrent to war.” But, millions died in the fighting after U.S. troops intervened in Korea and then Washington moved to have the UN support their action.
As UN forces unleashed horrific violence in Korea, the CCF announced its “complete support for the principle of collective security through the United Nations” and party leader M.J. Coldwell called for a permanent UN force to respond to future aggression.
In discussing Coldwell’s request and support for the Korean War, Robert Teigrob writes in Warming up to the Cold War:
“In sum, if it was important to Canadian national identity and autonomy that the nation’s foreign policy be determined by an international collective and not a single hegemon, it was vital to downplay the undeniable U.S. control over the current [Korean] operation, or to present it as a provisional state of affairs.”
But was this really a principled stand in support of an international police force and a world government that could ultimately end all war?
History suggests that the principle of supporting the UN over narrow national sovereignty only extended as far as the UN taking positions supported by the Canadian elite. For example, in 1975, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution (72 votes to 35 with 32 abstentions) calling Zionism a form of racism. In response, CLC President Joe Morris stated, “By this act, it can justifiably be argued the UN has ‘legitimized’ anti-Semitism and pogroms against Jews. Canadian labour will fight all moves to implement such a resolution and will exercise its influence to prevent further extensions of the resolution.” For similar reasons, the NDP effectively backed Canada’s withdrawal from the UN’s 2009 World Conference Against Racism (Durban II).
Unions, our social democratic party and other moderate left organizations are capable of disagreeing with particular UN activities. By what criteria should left organizations judge whether or not to support a particular UN policy or mission?
I would suggest the criteria should include such principles as international solidarity, the building of a more equal world, anti-militarism, and the UN’s own Declaration of Human Rights.
Cheerleading for Canada and capitalism may make sense as criteria for supporters of the existing economic order, but the left is supposed to want something better.
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