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August 10, 2006

UN Debates While Lebanon Burns
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

Annanun The protracted debates underway at the UN over a ceasefire in Lebanon illustrate all that's best and worse about the UN.  Leading members of the Security Council have spent weeks debating the text of a resolution aimed to end the fighting and install an international peacekeeping force in Southern Lebanon. 

A few weeks back, the night before similar calls from Kofi Annan and Tony Blair, I wrote a piece suggesting that UN intervention would be the only way to quiet the conflict.  Events since then both underscore the UN's indispensability, and highlight its limitations. 

On the downside:

- As virtually always, progress at the UN is unbearably slow.  Today's thwarted terrorist attack finally dislodged horrifying photos of the devastation in Lebanon and Israel from the front pages for the first time in weeks, but if no deal is struck, the bloodshed and destruction will continue.

- The UN is only as good as its most powerful member states.  The reason the organization hasn't acted is very simple:  the US, France, Israel, Lebanon and Hezbollah have so far failed to agree on the terms of a cessation to hostilities.  In the face of continued discord on a ceasefire's terms, the UN is paralyzed.

- The UN's deployment capabilities are limited.  One of the key sticking points on the resolution is that while France and other countries need time to amass a peacekeeping force, Israel does not want to pull back until international troops are there to keep the peace.  If the UN had better rapid deployment capabilities, that gap would be easier to bridge.  This leads right back to my last point in that its the UN's leading member states who have historically blocked the formation of any standing UN peacekeeping capabilities.

But despite all that, the negotiations underway also illustrate the UN's central importance to the resolution of the conflict:

- Without the UN, its highly unlikely that such detailed negotiations on a potential ceasefire would be underway at all.  With all our difficulties in Iraq, Iran and elsewhere, and given President Bush's steadfast unwillingness to mire himself in the frontlines of Mideast diplomacy, its hard to imagine the US single-handedly brokering a deal.  Even if Washington were willing, its credibility problems in the region would likely render any such effort moribund.  For the same reasons it has rejected NATO involvement, the EU would also not take the lead.  The UN is once again playing its anointed role as conflict resolution vehicle of last resort, taking on a challenge that no other country or body would.  At some point, hopefully in the very near future, a resolution will be agreed, and the UN's convening power will be responsible for saving hundreds of lives or more.

- Without potential UN imprimatur, prospects for mobilizing an international force would be nil.  NATO wouldn't take on the job, and there's no other regional organization that could.  A purely Western force would be profoundly vulnerable.  France would never offer leadership or troops without the UN umbrella.

- At the same time as trying to broker a deal the UN is also the major humanitarian relief organization in Lebanon.  While negotiations drag on in the Security Council, UN personnel are in Lebanon helping victims of the conflict get medical care and basic humanitarian assistance.  UN officials have also been pushing the combatant parties to ensure safe passage for aid workers and supplies, and begging the rest of the world to up aid funds. 


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