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Geopolitics

Does The UN Suddenly Matter Again?

The United Nations' proactive response in the Ivory Coast and Libya has rejuvenated its image worldwide, though some question the motives of Ban Ki-Moon's prompt intervention.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon at the center of things on Libya
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon at the center of things on Libya
Luis Lema

NEW YORK – France may have led the way during the operations in Libya and the Ivory Coast, but UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was not to be outdone.

One week ago, the South Korean-born diplomat authorized an attack against soldiers loyal to Laurent Gbagbo. With his last line of defense destroyed, today he is under lock and key, and his rival Alassane Ouattara has taken his place. The United Nations may not have resolved the situation but with its helicopters, piloted by Ukrainian peacekeepers in their blue helmets, it at least contributed to the reversal of the course of events in the Ivory Coast.

As in Libya, the reasons put forward for intervention by the United Nations were above all else humanitarian. Ban Ki-moon said repeatedly that it was a question of defending the civilian population, as well as UN staff who were under threaten from the heavy artillery fire in Abidjan.

However, no one is fooled. In both cases, the organization -- and the international community behind it -- has taken a previously unknown path, moving with unprecedented alacrity to intervene in order to change the regime of one of its member States.

Of course, Bosnia and Iraq set precedents. But whereas in the past the sovereignty of the states was consistently upheld, today the UN has shifted its priorities away from this concept, toward one never used by the Security Council until its recent resolution 1973 on Libya: the responsibility to protect civilians.

"We are living in a very important moment," confirms General Assembly president Joseph Deiss, who, as "number two" at the United Nations, is experiencing that "moment" close-up. "It is still too early to know if this shift in priorities will become effectively irreversible. But for now, the image of the United Nations is emerging strengthened."

Ironically, the United Nations will have taken what might be described as a giant stride forward under the leadership of Ban Ki-moon, who has been strongly criticized up until now for his "halfhearted" leadership.

In dealing with Burma or China, the Secretary General seemed to take an extremely cautious approach toward international relations. This time, the South Korean declared with great force that Colonel Gaddafi "has lost all legitimacy," and that he saw no other solution except his departure. "We are living an opportunity that only presents itself once in a generation," he explained during an interview about the entire Arab Spring.

In fact, these words are practically the same ones pronounced by U.S. President Barack Obama on the same subject. For the United Nation's rehabilitation is also a reflection of a more general transformation. "We are living in an era of immediacy," French President Nicolas Sarkozy remarked on this issue. Alongside the United States, France played an essential role in bringing these questions without delay in front of the UN Security Council. Before the Iraq invasion by the George Bush-led United States, Paris and other capitals were using the Council as a last resort. Now, Obama and Sarkozy, who seem to be split sharing duties for this goal, have used the Council as a springboard to propel forward the notion of protecting civilian populations. Neither China nor Russia have considered it opportune to stop them, probably because doing so would make them appear as accomplices of the Gaddafi regime.

In reality, no one knows if the United States' new approach signals a permanent change in the paradigm. The "Obama doctrine" gives the impression of being a work-in-progress. The fact remains that resolution 1973, adopted by the Security Council at the drop of a hat, did not just allow the legitimate use of "all means' to stop Colonel Gaddafi's troops. It also authorized the International Criminal Court to investigate possible war crimes committed in Libya. This type of support by the United States is without precedent. The country originally campaigned against the creation of tribunal based in The Hague, and is not even a member of it.

Will the events in Libya and the Ivory Coast be used to establish a new kind of "jurisprudence?" Those most critical of Ban Ki-moon, who is seeking reelection, say he was afraid of alienating his most important future supporters, and thus did not act out of principle but rather to woo Paris and Washington. In addition, the most skeptical of them draw attention to the actions of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, the bloodily repressed protests in Syria, and the free reign given to the Yemenite president as the ultimate proof of a "double standard" that continues to reign in the game of international relations.

One thing is clear: the shine on this new-look United Nations and its Secretary General will depend on the outcomes of the operations in Libya and the Ivory Coast. Should the situations deteriorate and become messy, Ban Ki-moon might regret his newfound activism. In the immediate future, however, the new approach has many dreaming. Already in the hallways of the United Nations, one can hear the Arab countries suggesting that a no-fly zone be established over Gaza. Does this mean the United Nations is going to send helicopters to protect Palestinians civilians?

Read the original article in French.

Photo - Greek Foreign Ministry

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