Early in her speech at Harris Hall last Thursday evening, Gillian Sorensen enthused that “the U.N. today… is the embodiment of hope, and the experience of idealism and realism meeting.” As a senior advisor of the United Nations Foundation, an organization started by Ted Turner to promote the United Nations in America, Sorensen is a natural advocate for improved U.S.-U.N. relations. Arguably the best attempt at adding authority to the anarchic international system, the U.N. deserves a fair amount of support that Sorensen has offered. While it does have its notable misadventures, the United Nations has also had its share of successes. No program exhibits this conflict better than the U.N. peacekeepers, currently deployed in 16 countries. These forces, in addition to the frequently poor relationship between the United States and the United Nations, were the main topics of Sorensen’s talk.
After beginning with the lamentable statement that “many, if not most, Americans know only a bit about the United Nations,” she delved into the extensive list of operations that the U.N. pursues. These include disarmament, alleviation of refugee crises, the feeding of a 100 million people a year, and the support of global health. Many of the programs outlined focus on development, a noble cause which the United Nations has championed. Although she admitted that many of their battles were more “rhetorical than real,” the U.N. has still had their measurable achievements. Sorensen then brought up the peacekeeping forces, the most “significant visible presence” of the U.N. to prove her point. The peacekeepers, often in blue helmets and berets, have been able to positively leave their mark, especially in Mozambique and El Salvador during the early 1990’s. However, there have been just as many, if not arguably more, times that peacekeeping operations have either failed or brought a unique affliction to battlefields around the globe. One of these particular tragedies occurred in Rwanda, which Sorensen admitted was a time “the U.N. failed.” It has not been the only example, unfortunately.
It’s a little telling of how the U.N. utilizes peacekeepers that, among their other tasks she outlined, she stated that they “give support to the next team that follows, which we call the peacebuilders.” There have been numerous instances, from Somalia to Yugoslavia to Sudan, in which peacekeepers have been sent into areas where there was no existing peace to keep. This has led to substantial casualties and failed missions abound. In addition, there have been too many unsavory accounts concerning peacekeepers in the field. In Haiti, the legitimacy of the peacekeeping forces was seriously diminished when they became the prime suspects in a cholera outbreak which inevitably killed just under 8,000 people in 2010. Blue Berets have also had a rather poor record in terms of human rights violations, with accusations of sexual violence, extortion and murder being so common that a report was commissioned and chaired by the esteemed Lakhdar Brahimi, the current U.N. envoy to Syria. It is a deeply regrettable truth that these crimes have tarnished the peacekeeping forces, but it is one that the U.N. has had to contend with.
This is a possible cause, but by no means the sole one, for the second subject of Sorensen’s speech: why the U.S. government and people have recurrently held a critical eye towards the United Nations. Although she described this relationship as a “hot and cold romance,” it has centered a little more on the antipathy in the past decade. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have found their own reasons to noticeably disagree with the General Assembly; the former had the Iraq War and the Kyoto Protocol, and the latter had the recognition of Palestine. The apex of this resistance was likely the recess appointment of John Bolton by Pres. Bush in 2005 as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. An active neoconservative, Bolton openly despised the U.N. and sought to create reform by playing hardball with the majority of other diplomats. This had varying levels of success, but was a key indicator of how the U.S. in general felt about the United Nations: poorly, if at all.
Even with this resentment, Sorensen still has hope for improved relations between the U.N. and the U.S., where they are headquartered. She mentioned the approval that numerous American politicians have towards peacekeeping operations, which accomplish what they want at “one-eighth the cost.” In addition, with the triumph of the responsibility to protect doctrine during the recent Libyan Civil War, there has been a renewed interest in multilateral engagements. The near future will probably include campaigns involving strategic cooperation among numerous partners, an armed force incorporating drones and planes from various nations, and, hopefully, a specific attainable goal. Such was the case in Libya, and it appears more and more likely that a similar operation will be pursued in Mali, where Sorensen remarked that “terrorism has traveled.” Such an encounter will also likely include peacekeepers at the termination of active conflict. Whether they can be held to the right standard is yet to be seen, but Sorensen believes that while they “may not be perfect, they do succeed.” This statement is becoming closer to accurate, but consistent proficiency free of scandals remains to be seen.