Too little attention has been paid to this important book since its publication, despite strong recommendations from those in international politics. The book is an all too accurate view of the United Nations and is particularly notable for the new information which it contains. Facts rather than explanations or interpreta- tions give the story its weight and force. The book is sober and careful.
The Ultimdte Crime is a history of the United Nations’ tumultuous first fifty years, and contains a series of analytical snapshots of major UN events starting with the founding conference in San Francisco in 1945. The conference, as Melvern recounts, was a glittering show staged by the Americans. But the huge enthusiasm the United Nations evoked from a war-weary world did not last.
In 1945, there were crates of letters from applicants who wanted to work for the new organization, and for these new recruits the creation of the United Nations was a defining moment. The first part of this book is largely devoted to them. They joined the UN, reeling from the war, with hope and enthusiasm. What they discovered was an organization thrown together and in some disarray. The reality of working for the UN was not necessarily the creation of a better world but cut-backs in funding and staff dismissals. The book should be required reading for all those who worked and still work for international organizations. This is their history.
Some people put the UN’s early problems down to teething troubles; others said that international cooperation was for a greater good and it would take time. But it was not easy to work for the United Nations especially after 1948 when the United Nations first attracted the attention of Senator Pat McCarran, Democrat from Nevada. McCarran, one of the most powerful politicians of the age, was Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and he concluded that the United Nations was an extension of the welfare state and he determined to kick the UN out of America. Soon the United Nations was popularly portrayed as an organization which was guzzling US dollars and funding spies - and the image stuck. The Congressional war against the United Nations began with McCarran, not Senator Joe lVicCarthy. McCarran liked to tell his electorate that the worst mistake of his life was to vote in the Senate for the Charter. He had tolerated it at first because it was a popular idea which one did not easily oppose.
It is particularly tragic to learn how easily the first and disastrous Secretary-General, the Norwegian Trygve Lie, betrayed the trust of his employees. In Lie’s treatment of his staff and his cooperation with the FBI during the McCarthyite red-baiting, Lie breached both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Charter. These events, crucial to UN history, form the background to the UN’s financial crisis which so threatens the organization today. In the New York Secretariat hours have been spent trying to juggle the funds in order to keep the UN doors open.
’Seldom have so many important people argued so heatedly about so little money’, the author says of the Congressional reluctance to appropriate funding for UN dues. By 1986, so severe was the UN’s lack of cash, that emergency fund to fight drug abuse was raided to pay salaries. Indeed, on the 38th floor of the Secretariat building in New York, plans were drawn up to close the General
Assembly and move the Security Council to Geneva.
Later on, with the end of the Cold War there was hope for UN renewal. One of the saddest chapters, ’New Thinking’, describes how Mikhail Gorbachev, after the tragedy of the nuclear accident in Chernobyl, discovered how internationalism really did have its uses. Gorbachev came to realize the UN’s many possibilities for helping the Soviets get out of costly and strategic nightmares and in 1988
he made a speech to the General Assembly which was a milestone in the ending of the Cold War.
Students who are trying to understand international affairs should pay particular attention to this section of the book.
The disaster at Chernobyl had led the Soviet Union to the International Atomic Energy Authority in Vienna for help in recouping some of the early damage caused by delay in reporting the melt-down. Similarly, in Afghanistan the Soviets came to rely on the United Nations for crucial help during the withdrawal of 100,000 Soviet forces, an operation which would have been inconceivable had the UN not played a role shaping the conditions and providing a team of observers following negotiations. For these reasons, the Soviets cooperated fully in the UN plans for Namibia. It was a tragedy that the peace dividend could not extend elsewhere.
’Everyone praises the peacekeepers’, said the Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar in 1989, ’but when I present the bill there is no response’. This was the year the Iron Curtain was lifted in Europe, a year for triumphalism. The Foreign Ministers met with Perez de Cuellar and issued a statement that this was a time of change and that the United Nations had an important role to play. But Perez de Cuellar, an astute Secretary-General, knew better by then. An expansion of the UN’s role, he said, ’has taxed the capabilities of this organization to conceive, plan, direct and execute peacekeeping operations’.
Another important issue raised in the book is how badly the press has treated the organization. The author describes how a fog of misinformation envelops the United Nations. U Thant, so the book recounts, was outspoken about how the press suppressed or ignored facts about the organization, particularly when discussing what the UN could and could not do.
The founders of the United Nations believed that the key to success would be enlightened public opinion; the better informed the people about UN realities, the more likely the organization to succeed. Melvern proves how often the press has distorted UN reality.
The book highlights the lack of public scrutiny of UN policy in Britain which has helped successive governments to create confusion about Britain’s role in the Security Council. The British people are not allowed to know, for instance, which candidate the government favours as Secretary-General.
There is credit given in the book for UN successes and note is taken of how peacekeeping was a useful buffer in 35 missions; the author comments that this is no mean achievement. One chapter is given over entirely to the success in 1989 of the UN’s role in the independence of Namibia, and how the civilian component of this mission worked hard in difficult and dangerous conditions; of the high calibre and dedication of this multiracial staff, she notes, there was no doubt. But the book makes clear that in Namibia and in Cambodia success was due to the presence of a political settlement, to an exhaustion with war and a willingness for peace. These missions taught that even for limited UN success, large scale field operations needed advance planning, clear mandates, trained peacekeepers,
assured financing, an effective, integrated UN command and logistical support, and they have to be sustained by a united and purposeful Security Council. Without any of these prerequisites, peacekeeping missions are doomed to failure.
It is hard to read this account and remain indifferent particularly when it comes to the genocide in 1994 in Rwanda and the experiences of the force commander of UNAMIR (UN Assistance Mission to Rwanda) Major General Romeo Dallaire, a Canadian. To read the book is to realise an underlying truth - the world needs the United Nations. The New World Order was premature and illusory and the book reveals this deception.
The author clearly believes that the future of the United Nations is one of the most serious issues which governments face but that until there is a change in the way UN members - particularly the big five - abuse the organization, there is little hope of fulfilling the Charter promise. The founders of the UN set out to create the most ambitious system of collective security ever attempted. The Charter provided a magnificent blueprint for the safe-guarding of post-war international peace. It is the story of what happened to this experiment which is told in this book.
The final and shocking chapter describes the catastrophic failures of Security Council decision-making over Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda. The book exposes how far governments must mature if the United Nations is ever to be used to full effect. The peacekeeping missions created by the Council for these three tragic countries were ill-conceived and short-sighted. ’The commanders of the blue helmets’, writes the author, ’wondered how diplomats, who clearly did not understand the basic rules of peacekeeping, were qualified to produce this haystack of orders in the Council leading to danger and death on the ground’.
Towards the end of the book Melvern writes: ’If the UN story proves nothing else it is that while professing a public UN policy, governments maintain a secret agenda... the frequent demands for reform of the UN system usually mask inadequate support for international cooperation. The UN is used as a last-ditch resort and the US finds it difficult to contribute one-half of one percent of its defence budget to pay for UN peacekeeping’. In this and with many other issues this book sets the record straight. The author undoubtedly believes that the Charter - one of the great documents of history - has been reduced by world leaders to an exercise in public relations. And if the prospects for international cooperation continue to diminish, we will be giving up hope that the future can be any better than the past.
Granville Fletcher - International Relations 1997