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Can a new UN leader change the Middle East?

Whether the next leader is a man or a woman, the odds are slim that they will improve the UN's work in the Middle East

As the hour draws near for the changing of the UN guard - the selection of a new secretary general - many observers have signed up to the campaign for a female leader to take the organisation’s reins for the first time in its more than 70 year history.

There are several women among the current candidates to replace Ban Ki-moon whose 10-year term expires in December, although none has done particularly well in straw polls.

But while men should certainly not continue to dominate the international scene for the rest of eternity, there’s also the question of what any individual - regardless of gender - can bring to the UN in terms of organisational change.

In the Middle East, for one, the odds of charting a new course are slim to none.

Let’s inspect one Middle Eastern country whose experience with UN operations has spanned various decades and secretaries general: Lebanon, the host of UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon.

The supposed “interim” force has been in place since 1978, the year of Israel’s initial bloody invasion of Lebanon, which was followed by the even bloodier invasion of 1982 in which some 20,000 Lebanese and Palestinians were obliterated, the vast majority of them civilians.

After occupying and terrorising a substantial portion of south Lebanon until 2000, the Israeli military was forced by Hezbollah to withdraw, only to return in 2006 to once again wreak murderous havoc. Over a period of 34 days, Israel killed approximately 1,200 people - again primarily civilians.

In one of the war’s anti-highlights, an Israeli helicopter dispensed at close range with 23 out of 27 civilians on board a pickup truck that had departed the south Lebanese village of Marwahin in accordance with strict Israeli evacuation orders. Most of them were children. Prior to the helicopter attack, the truck’s human cargo had sought refuge with a Ghanaian UNIFIL contingent and had been turned away.

As British journalist Robert Fisk commented at the time: “The UN, it seems, can talk mightily of the need to protect the innocent… but will do precious little to shield them in southern Lebanon."

Perversion of values

While hitchhiking in south Lebanon earlier this year - a trip recounted in my travelogue Martyrs Never Die - I ended up on a remote hilltop encampment belonging to the same Ghanaian UNIFIL contingent of 2006 infamy.

A handful of troops described for me their current daily duties: recording any movements of Israeli or Lebanese armed formations in the area, driving around in gigantic vehicles seemingly designed for extraterrestrial use, and doing a lot of shopping.

Elsewhere in the south, I encountered other UNIFIL representatives actively justifying the force’s $500m plus annual budget: in a large supermarket in the city of Tyre, for example, I found a heavily armed grocery shopping expedition underway. In the supermarket parking lot was a UNIFIL jeep manned by a Korean driver in semi-balaclava; inside were shopping cart-wielding Korean troops amassing quantities of corned beef and canned chicken, escorted by a robust soldier with an assault rifle around his neck and handgun protruding from his vest.

In short, the many Lebanese who perceive the UN as simply another occupying force might be forgiven their viewpoint - especially since UNIFIL has commandeered prime real estate on the south Lebanese coast and erected a sprawling headquarters-cum-colony, which shines in the night sky thanks to immunity from the severe electricity shortages that plague the rest of the country.

Costly solutions, perceived failures

Lebanon, to be sure, is an enduring illustration of the services offered by the UN. But it’s merely one of numerous examples - from Bosnia to Haiti and beyond - of the outfit’s tradition of providing very costly non-solutions to the world’s problems.

The UN has been accused of a wide array of biases - some of them more fanciful than others. In recent years, it has attracted increasing scorn for perceived failures in Syria and Yemen.

In early August, David Roet, Israel’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN, took it upon himself to raise another apparent bias in a dispatch for The Forward, a publication that self-identifies as “deliver[ing] incisive coverage of the issues, ideas and institutions that matter to American Jews”.

According to Roet, “[o]ne of the most important tasks the new Secretary General will face is dealing with the prevailing bias, discrimination and singling out of Israel” - which, he writes, is “the only country that’s the target of various UN bodies established and staffed solely for the purpose of advancing the Palestinian cause and criticising Israel in the most biased manner possible”.

What this alternate version of reality conveniently overlooks, of course, is that the UN has from the get-go been instrumental in the advancement of the Israeli cause through such projects as the creation of Israel itself - an entity that happens to be predicated on an anti-Palestinian bias that often takes the form of wanton slaughter.

Furthermore, even rightful UN criticism of Israeli behaviour hasn’t had any meaningful repercussions on the ground, thanks in part to the eternal presence on the UN Security Council of Israel’s partner in crime, the United States of America.

One need only briefly peruse the list of Security Council vetoes over the years to see that, whenever Israel comes under partial international fire - for massacring civilians, occupying Palestinian land, or committing any number of related abuses - the US is generally on hand to veto any official and binding condemnation.

Not that Israel is in the habit of complying with any of the resolutions that do make it through UN forums, anyway. Just look at Resolution 242, emitted in 1967, which supposedly required Israel to withdraw from territories occupied in that year’s war.

New direction?

The UN is no monolith, and clashes of foreign policies are frequent, especially between veto-wielding members of the Security Council.

But what the organisation’s operation often ultimately boils down to is a multilateral facade for a US agenda, which translates into big points for Israel at the dire expense of many of the region’s inhabitants. The US and Israel are what you might call Very United Nations - but it’s a most exclusive club.

And while one can easily veto Roet’s contention that international forces critical of the Jewish state are “seek[ing] to pervert the very values upon which the UN was founded”, he is at least correct that a whole lot of perversion is going on.

- Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon briefs the Security Council during the meeting on the situation in the Middle East and Palestine on 26 January 2016 in New York (AFP) 

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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