The General Assembly of the United Nations has now become an organising area against imperialism…
Before despairing of international relations as represented today in the United Nations, consider how far we have come since the foundation of its predecessor, the League of Nations, set up by the victorious powers as a consequence of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919/1920.
The League was intended to protect the British Empire in particular, and to share the spoils of the Ottoman and Hapsburg Empires. In its Covenant, its objectives were to prevent war through collective security, bring about disarmament and settle international disputes by negotiation and arbitration. In other words, it would disarm Germany, parcel up the German Empire and determine the borders of Eastern Europe.
The leading light in bringing about the League of Nations was Jan Smuts, the South African leader who wanted to create a Greater South Africa as a British Dominion by gobbling up German SW Africa, all the British territories, plus Tanganyika, southern parts of Angola and Mozambique.
Smuts was also the architect of Apartheid. For his work in developing the League of Nations, South Africa was given the mandate to govern German South West Africa (now Namibia). Britain was given Tanganyika and Belgium, whose forces had advanced from the Congo into Germany’s other territories of Rwanda and Burundi, was given the mandate to govern the newly formed Rwanda–Burundi. Britain and France shared the spoils of the Ottoman Empire, with Britain getting Palestine, Iraq and Transjordan.
These arrangements were supposed to be League of Nations trusts and mandates but were effectively colonial arrangements.
The USA declined to join, as it wanted to develop its own imperial goals, and did not want to get involved in protecting the British Empire. Britain did not want other countries meddling in its Empire but preferred a capitalist partnership with the USA.
|The chamber of the Security Council at the United Nations, New York.|
So the League of Nations was fraught with contradictions which were only resolved when it was agreed that the “Great Powers” must run the League, diminishing the role of smaller countries. It effectively collapsed after Nazi Germany withdrew from the organisation and it became obvious that it could not prevent German and Italian aggression and thwart their intentions to create a new imperial order.
During the course of World War Two, discussions were held about what form of international order would follow the victory of the Allies. The “Great Powers” – Britain, the USA and France – now had to accommodate the Soviet Union, whose Red Army was destroying the Nazi war machine. They wanted to control whatever followed the end of the war, as they had done with the League, but would have to deal with the Soviet Union as an equal.
The result was the United Nations. The “Great Powers” planned to protect the empires of Britain, France and now the USA, so they were happy to have a Security Council in which they would have permanent seats with the power of veto. They had no option but to agree that the USSR would have the same status, and included their Kuomintang Chinese allies in the same way.
At the founding conference of the UN in San Francisco in 1945, the Ecuadorian delegate proposed to allow a vote by two-thirds of the UN members to lead a colony to independence. This was quashed, as was a proposal from the Philippines that a commitment to independence be written into the Charter. The Charter was basically designed to ratify a division of the world into power spheres.
So the UN was to have a Security Council with five permanent members having a veto, a number of non-permanent members and a General Assembly that was to be powerless.
The Soviet Union knew at the time that on the one hand this would consolidate their victory against the forces of fascism and give them a chance to rebuild, while on the other hand this formula was unsustainable, because as they were aware the success of the colonial liberation movements would lead to new, often revolutionary members joining the UN and altering the balance of power with the imperialists.
The first one of these up was India’s Nehru. Once installed as Head of the Interim Government in 1946 in the run-up to independence, Nehru began to challenge the “Great Powers”. India’s foreign policy, he declared, would revolve around the ending of colonialism all over Asia, Africa and elsewhere, and ending the domination of one nation by another.
This marked the beginning of the battle for the soul of the UN. But Nehru was to put his money where his mouth was. In South Africa, still a British Dominion, the apartheid government was now moving against its Indian population with a law to take their land and eventually see them living in townships the same as the African population. Nehru raised this issue with the nascent UN, seeking intervention.
The British regarded this as a radical blow to the very concept of the Empire and Ernest Bevin, the Labour Foreign Secretary, warned that getting the UN involved would amount to “handing over the Empire of India to the Soviet Union”.
The Cold War effectively froze the Security Council. More and more colonies fought for their independence, joined the UN and set up the Decolonisation Committee. Many of these new nations started the Non Aligned Movement, to counter the weight of the “Great Powers”.
Soon, the UN became an area of struggle between those who wanted to protect imperialism and those who fought against it. The rightful admission of People’s China to the UN in 1971 and to the Security Council seat fraudulently occupied by the defeated Kuomintang was a landmark in the waning power of the imperial powers. But the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major setback to those opposed to imperialism in the UN, who had lost one of their allies with a veto on the Security Council.
Voting against war
But ordinary General Assembly members are also elected onto the Security Council. In 1990, non-permanent members Cuba and Yemen voted against the USA during a crucial Security Council debate on military action in the run up to the Gulf War. A US State Department official told the Yemeni Ambassador, “That was the most expensive No vote in history!” – the US proceded to slash aid to Yemen from $22 million to $3 million.
And there was the arm-twisting of non-permanent members by Blair and Bush in their unsuccessful attempt to get UN backing for their attack on Iraq. Only Bulgaria and Aznar’s Spain supported military action while the other seven plus France, Russia and China were opposed.
Cuba has now picked up the gauntlet to lead this battle. Having taken the defunct Non Aligned Movement by the scruff of the neck, it has turned it into a major force in the General Assembly, representing a majority of members, to prevent the UN from once again becoming the protectors of empire.
The General Assembly has now become an organising arena. The old Human Rights Committee of the UN, continuously used as a stick to beat nations such as Cuba, has been disbanded after the USA was voted off the Committee and replaced by Sudan. The new Human Rights Commission is leading the fight for Israel to be punished for its war crimes in Gaza.
The USA and Britain can no longer claim to be acting in the name of the “International Community”. Calls by the US and Britain to modernise the UN are attempts to claw back their power. And the call by former US Presidential candidate Al Gore to establish a “Union of Democracies”, still supported by many politicians and military in the US, is a call for a return to Empire.
The struggle continues!