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The United Nations and the Promotion of Peace

Bombing one of the poorest countries on earth certainly helped lead to the destruction of an appalling regime, but those replacing it included groups with a record on human rights that was every bit as bad and, in the process, many thousands of people were killed, including over 3,000 civilians. In the ‘war on terrorism’, there was a persistent concentration on the presumed perpetrators of the atrocities, but little or no attempt to recognise the depth of their support in the Middle East and South West Asia, nor its connection with western military forces in the Persian Gulf.

More generally, and especially in the case of the Bush administration, there has been a wider tendency to pursue individualistic rather than global policies. This has included the refusal to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, opposition to the strengthening of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, and criticisms of the anti-personnel land mine treaty and aspects of the UN’s proposals on the control of light arms. There has been a reluctance to co-operate on many other issues, not least the proposed International Criminal Court, conventions on terrorism and, most notably, the Kyoto accords.

In some areas, European governments have adopted a more progressive stance, especially on Kyoto and on regional issues relating to East Asia and the Middle East. There has also been a greater concern with debt relief and a few aspects of trade reform. In other areas, it is the western attitude as a whole that is problematic rather than that of the US alone. Thus, there is very little willingness in Europe to entertain the major issues of North- South trade reform or questions of intellectual property rights. Only a few countries are seeking to improve their official development assistance programmes, and even support for the Kyoto protocols rarely recognises that these are no more than a beginning.

At the same time, there is a concern that the response to 11 September 2001 is essentially military while being politically superficial, with a private acceptance among a number of European governments that a failure to address the root causes of these problems is against long-term common security interests. Furthermore, there is evidence of much public concern with the wider global problems that are in process of development. Arguments for debt relief have come primarily from citizen groups, issues of environmental constraints retain a strong public profile and there is a developing recognition that the global wealth-poverty divide is both ethically unacceptable and a potential source of deep instability.

Moreover, it is also becoming apparent that the views on global security that are peculiar to western states are not those of the majority world. Analysts in the South see the world in an entirely different way, most commonly arguing that it is dominated by a largely western-orientated elite that is producing greater and greater divisions. Such analysts are slowly getting a voice in the west, and they add powerfully to those in western states that are working for a more just and peaceful world.

A Role for the United Nations
In such circumstances, and recognising that there is a potential coalition between campaigners, non-government organisations and elements of government, how significant is the potential role of the United Nations? Can it play a major part in the transformation of global systems, or is it largely the prisoner of a few of the more powerful states?

One of the most notable features of the process of responding positively to the problems facing the global community is that the UN and a number of its agencies have frequently been at the forefront of analysis and proposals for action. Even though there are formidable problems of bureaucracy and inefficiency, the examples are legion. On the matter of CFC pollution and ozone depletion, UNEP did much to help establish an international regime to bring the problem under control. On health issues, the World Health Organization has been instrumental in key areas of disease control and
public health.

On the wider issues of poverty and the rich-poor gap, the UN Development Programme has recently been particularly effective in providing evidence for current trends. Over a much longer term, and especially in the 1960s and 1970s, the UN Conference on Trade and Development was persistent in its attempt to focus attention on the fundamental linkage between the nature of the world trading system and problems of underdevelopment. The UN’s concern with human rights has frequently resulted in criticism of some of its work, yet the UN Commission on Human Rights has persistently tried to point to the problems of human rights abuses, doing so in a way that involves valid criticisms of member states.

The UN has also been active in significant areas of arms control and disarmament, whether this be in relation to weapons of mass destruction or to problems of light arms transfers. In the areas of conflict prevention, peacekeeping and post-conflict peace-building, there is a considerable body of experience that has accumulated, especially in the past decade. For all its problems, the UN endeavours to put that experience to effective use, in spite of the problems of trying to work with diverse governments, each with their own particular interests and concerns.

Perhaps the real significance of the current global predicament is that it involves diverse sets of problems that are progressively interacting. The core elements are the socio-economic divide, environmental constraints and weapons proliferation, and they require responses that are both broadly based and global. As such, there is little alternative to promoting and making more effective the work of the UN. In a very real sense, the next thirty years may require us to rely much more on the UN than we have done in the past fifty years. If this is the case then it is in everyone’s interest to make it as effective a global body as is possible.

1. Rogers P. Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century. London:
Pluto Press, 2000.

2. UN Commission on Trade and Development. Trade and Development
Report 1997. Geneva: UNCTAD, 1997.

3. Rogers P, Elworthy S. The United States, Europe and the Majority
World after 11 September. Oxford: Oxford Research Group (51
Plantation Road, Oxford OX2 6JE), 2001.

4. Meadows DH, Meadows DL, Randers J, Behrens III WW. Limits to
Growth. London: Earth Island, 1972.

5. Brooks E. The implications of ecological limits to growth in terms of
expectations and aspirations in developed and less developed countries.

In: Vann A, Rogers P, eds. Human Ecology and Development. London:
Plenum, 1973: 125-39.
6. Woolsey J. Testimony to Senate Hearings. Washington DC, February

7. Krauthammer C. The Bush doctrine: ABM, Kyoto and the new
American unilateralism. The Weekly Standard, Washington DC, 4 June

(Delivered 12 June 2001)



Following the termination of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan at the end of 2001, the Bush administration widened the ‘war on terror’ to include an ‘axis of evil’ of three countries, Iran, Iraq and North Korea, and also embarked on a global campaign to track down and detain or kill the leadership of al-Qaida and its affiliates. During the course of 2002, more than a thousand people were detained without trial, many of them at Camp X-Ray at the Guantanamo US base in Cuba.

There were early expectations of progress towards stability in Afghanistan, although UN and other officials pointed repeatedly to the need for substantial civil aid backed up by a peace-keeping and stabilisation force of up to 30,000 troops. The Bush administration also anticipated success in its war against al-Qaida, expecting to detain or kill Osama bin Laden and the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar.

In practice, there were many further operations by al-Qaida and its affiliates during 2002 and 2003, including major attacks in Indonesia, Kenya, Turkey, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, culminating in a devastating series of attacks in Madrid early in 2004. Furthermore, progress in Afghanistan was extraordinarily slow, with rampant insecurity, the re-emergence of warlords and a massive increase in opium poppy cultivation. There was also a resurgence of Taliban activity that, by mid-2004, was tying down a force of some 20,000 US troops.

In spite of these developments, the Bush administration had determined to start the process of defeating the ‘axis of evil’, and the regime of Saddam Hussein was terminated in a brief but intense conflict in March/April 2003, leading on to a protracted insurgency that, even 15 months later, was involving around 140,000 US troops and over 20,000 from other countries including Britain.

By mid-2004, over 11,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed and more than 20,000 seriously injured. While most of the casualties were caused in the first three weeks of the war, the developing insurgency is, at the time of writing (August 2004), exacting a continuing toll. Although the United States is no longer the formal occupying power, it is operating through a client regime, expects to maintain current troop levels for several years and is embarking on the building of a number of permanent bases. Against the expectations of the Bush administration, a long-term insurgency in Iraq
looks highly probable.

At a more global level, clear divisions have developed between the United States and some Western European countries, and, across the world, there has been an upsurge in anti-Americanism. Much of this is unrecognised within the United States, but there is still an acceptance that problems are developing with the achieving the goal of a New American Century.

Key issues addressed in the lecture, including global socio-economic divisions and environmental constraints, have only partially been marginalised by the ‘war on terror’. Moreover, the very problems being experienced by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan make it increasingly likely that creative and less military alternatives to current approaches may be considered.

In this context, the United Nations was largely sidelined in the run-up to the war in Iraq, but wise counsel emanating from within the organisation is now being considered to an extent that seemed unlikely a year ago. It is also the case that issues such as climate change and socio-economic divisions are become more prominent in the agenda of international affairs, even if still largely discounted in Washington.

It follows that there is a considerable opportunity for framing the international agenda in a progressive manner, not just in terms of responding to political violence but especially in addressing the longer-term issues. In this context the role of the United Nations will be greatly significant, and the more that current militaristic responses to political violence are shown to be unworkable, the more the role of the United Nations should come to the fore.

(22 August 2004)