The Cavalry Takes Charge

new internationalist
issue 236 - October 1992

Illustration by BRICK
The Cavalry
takes charge
Olivia Ward reports from the smoke-filled front line of the UN Security
Council, where high hopes for peace slowly turned to dust.

25 AUGUST 1990

[image, unknown] The coffee is cold, the milk sour and the soda water flat - a typical long night outside the UN Security Council in the late summer of 1990. 'War is heck,' says a tired voice from a lounge chair.

'But we're not at war,' replies a grey-faced minor diplomat leaning over the smoky bar adjoining the Council Chamber.

'Yet,' mutter voices from the floor, where chairless journalists are strewn like derelicts, panhandling for any spare facts that might make the endless hours less tedious. As we drift toward dawn the Council moves inexorably towards war.

For months we've seen the Council, the UN's 15-member executive arm, coming closer together as Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev consolidates his relationship with Washington. This would have been unthinkable during the Cold War. Now Moscow is becoming a client of the US. Non-aligned countries are left without compass points, scrambling for a new way of getting heard.

The UN is now capable of quick and harmonious action in a crisis. But only the nuclear-powered permanent members of the Council - the US, Soviet Union, Britain and France - can define what is serious. The other veto-bearing member, China, keeps its head down.

After Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on August 2, the White House has grasped the reins. US Ambassador Thomas Pickering sits firmly in the saddle of the anti-Saddam cavalry, riding hell-for-leather towards final confrontation. He's buoyed up - occasionally overshadowed - by UK Ambassador Sir David Hannay, tagged 'Britain's one-man fighting machine'.

The Council has now passed the most sweeping sanctions in history against Iraq. Setting aside years of indifference to brutality on a massive scale, it has joined forces to defend a tiny country with an autocratic, royalist government.

At the start of the face-off with Iraq, China was opposed to military action, the Soviet Union feared it and France wrestled with diplomatic solutions. But Washington has made it clear that sanctions alone are not enough.

It's been a long night. China, Cuba, Yemen, Malaysia and Colombia have been arguing against the use of force. But as the first rays of dawn spill through the smoke of the lounge only Yemen and Cuba refuse to cast their votes in favour. Without a veto, they are quickly swept aside.

Cuban Ambassador Ricardo Alarcon, whose flamboyant oratory gets crisper as his suits grow more crumpled, declares that it is the beginning of the end for the UN. 'This is not a United Nations embargo under international law. This is an American armada.'

What he means is that the UN blessing has been given to any member country that wants to send ships into the Gulf to monitor the sanctions. Canada and a handful of other Security Council members immediately issue disclaimers - it is not an act of war, they say, even as more battleships sail into the Middle East.

But the cheering drowns out the critics. The vote is hailed as a triumph of diplomacy for Washington. What are the aims and limits of military force? Who decides? Who is in command? Who, ultimately, is responsible? These questions are debated, ignored, buried - but never answered.


Distraught TV reporters smash through the ranks of print journalists. Security guards, faced with unaccustomed UN popularity, shove anyone suspected of working for the media behind steel barriers.

'Used to be a bloody tomb. Now it's a bloody zoo,' says one correspondent as he emerges from behind a potted palm.

For only the third time in history, foreign ministers from the 15 Security Council countries have assembled to vote at the circular wooden Council table, on extending the anti-Iraq embargo to the air. The result - a predictable agreement with only Cuba opposed.

Illustration by BRICK By now the excitement of the United Nations' crucial position is building to a peak. Previously comatose departments within the sprawling UN complex spring to life like a scene from a perverse production of 'The Sleeping Beauty'. Diplomats whose opinions have always been ignored are suddenly cultivated and cajoled to speak - for want of any real content in their oratory reporters invent Byzantine interpretations of their words.

But the hidden spark of war ignites the excitement. Eduard Shevardnadze, the Soviet Foreign Minister, fuels it. 'The day Iraq invaded Kuwait was Black Thursday,' he says. He douses any lingering Iraqi hopes that the USSR will split the coalition, 'War may break out in the Gulf region any day, any moment'.

For the Security Council, and for the UN at large, it is an important turning point. Moscow has been suffering severe strains on the home front, where Boris Yeltsin and his Russian supporters are agitating for reform and independence. Yeltsin and his foreign-affairs advisor, Andrei Kozyrev, oppose Gorbachev's increasing attention to the Gulf.

When Gorbachev at first refuses to contribute battleships to the naval embargo, the Coalition appears to be cracking.

But after the vote, as Shevardnadze and US Secretary of State James Baker stand shoulder to shoulder, their eyes locked in mutual kinship, the New World Order is revealed.

'This is a one-power Council and a subjugated UN,' says Abdulla Al-Ashtal, the lively, diminutive Yemeni Ambassador. 'But the worst thing is, nobody seems to care.

11 OCTOBER 1990

Like an old-fashioned movie heroine the UN has walked away from a drama with a smile on its lips and its virtue intact.

The issue is not Kuwait. It is the Israeli security forces' killing of more than a dozen Arabs after stones were thrown at Jewish worshippers in Jerusalem's Old City - an issue that threatens to pull apart the anti-Iraq coalition as nothing else has done since the August invasion.

Most Arab countries privately attack Palestinian support for Iraq, but they are virtually united against Israel. Third World Security Council members call for nothing less than a full-scale UN investigation of the incident with a view to imposing sanctions on Israel. At a heated Council meeting diplomats from Iraq and Kuwait are united in condemnation of the Jewish state. Washington, Israel's protector at the UN, takes a gamble. It enlists the support of Britain and Canada to 'massage' the resolution into a more acceptable shape - censure for Israel, but only a scaled-down 'fact-finding' mission with Israeli co-operation.

Illustration by BRICK The gamble pays off. The Coalition emerges stronger than ever and the price of US support marks another step towards war in the Gulf.

But it is not an obvious step. French President Francois Mitterrand has just left the UN with a plan to link the wider Middle East peace process to the Kuwait invasion. He and Gorbachev are clearly steering towards a non-military solution. Diplomats deny any rift, but ripples are beginning to surface.

Meanwhile the Pentagon is drawing up its own plans, labelled 'GAS' by one Washington insider - 'Gulf After Saddam'. A new vote of censure is being levelled against Iraq, demanding war reparations.

Moscow is attempting some last-minute contacts with Baghdad. The Soviet Ambassador, Yuliy Vorontsov, rushes to Pickering and pleads for a 48-hour delay. Reluctantly Washington agrees.

After two days' wait, the Council votes to make Saddam responsible for damages to Kuwaitis and others affected by the invasion. The door is left open for war-crimes charges.

The French-Soviet effort has been declared a failure. It is widely rumoured that Saddam walked out of the talks. The Soviet envoy to Iraq, Yevgeny Primakov, indicates that the negotiations have been cut off at the knees by Washington.

'The fact is, we had to offer something in return for withdrawal from Kuwait if we wanted to avoid war,' says Yevgeny Prirnakov in New York. 'Not appeasement, of course, but you might say "incentives"... Unfortunately, this was not acceptable to some of the parties.'


Everyone is nervous. Diplomats swing between anger and arrogance towards the press. Hard-nosed reporters, weary of the unaccustomed attentions of their editors, grow frustrated. The 'story' appears to be happening at the UN, but the strings are being pulled in the capitals and above all in the White House.

No-one says it, but it is patently clear - Washington is not planning to send its troops home without action after the largest military build-up since World War II. War is virtually guaranteed.

In the corridors of the UN Mohammad Abulhassan meanwhile works the crowds with agility. The dapper Kuwaiti Ambassador delivers daily messages from besieged Kuwait of women being raped, men murdered, babies ripped from incubators, the country ransacked and dismembered. Reports of atrocities add more heat to the already volatile atmosphere.

From the opposite corner Iraqi Ambassador Abdul Amir al-Anari, a bespectacled former oilman, describes the attacks on Iraq as an American attempt to control the petroleum market. Iraq is being victimized; Western elites are looking for an Arab scapegoat.

'For once we're going to war for something we all believe in,' says a Scottish reporter, waving a photo of the much-married Emir of Kuwait and his many children. 'Family values.'

30 NOVEMBER 1990

The foreign ministers parade before the microphones, words confident but voices strained.

It is done. By a vote of twelve to two - with China abstaining - the use of force in the Gulf is authorized, unless Iraq pulls its forces out of Kuwait by January15 1991.

For three weeks US Secretary of State James Baker has shuttled from capital to capital, calling in debts, promising concessions, issuing threats. Washington has won the day at last.

In exchange for trade favours China agrees not to use its veto. Cuba has made a career out of flouting American demands at the UN and refuses to co-operate. Yemen is caught between the displeasure of a distant superpower and the wrath of a close neighbour and benefactor. It also votes No.

Baker and Shevardnadze, once more shoulder-to-shoulder, make tense speeches about magnificent solidarity and the last, best chance for peace - the Soviets' desire to give sanctions six months to work will be respected.

For Moscow the postponement is no mere humanitarian gesture. Gorbachev is painfully aware of the lack of support at home for a war in the Gulf. But to trained UN observers sanctions are history already. The future is military action.

16 JANUARY 1991

UN regulars know this is a moment they will remember all their lives. The first bombs have hit Baghdad. Reporters filing wait-and-see' stories abandon their computers and move into the corridors, where CNN blares out the news no-one dares speak. Pale, silent, haggard from two weeks under pressure, they stand shrugging, shaking their heads.

Illustration by HECTOR CATTOLICA Across the street, at the Canadian Embassy, the 15 Security Council diplomats are drinking a farewell champagne toast to Ambassador Yves Fortier. 'We had no idea we were at war,' says a Canadian envoy later. 'Somebody turned on the TV set to glance at the news and there it was.'

The euphoria has gone. Like the media, the diplomats are at a loss for words. They have issued 12 resolutions to pressure Iraq, authorized the use of force and set in motion the juggernaut of war. Now they are mere bystanders. The euphoria of the early days of the invasion is gone.

Earlier in the day the Council heard a final plea for peace from UN Secretary General Peres de Cuellar. The visibly exhausted Peruvian diplomat had sent a message to Saddam asking for withdrawal from Kuwait and promising attention to the Middle East peace process. But it was not endorsed.

'Dear friends,' he says, as he leaves the building grim-faced, 'I have done everything in my power. In spite of everything there is now war.


The Gulf War ends as it began - with the UN powerless and virtually irrelevant. When President Bush calls a televised end to the War six weeks after it began the UN building swarms with reporters expecting a late-night session of the Security Council to declare a formal cease-fire. As dawn breaks over the East River, they straggle home empty-handed.

'We were waiting to be called, but nothing happened,' says a European diplomat. 'Nothing. It was a very unsettling feeling.'

For the UN it has been a strange war. Now it is a strange peace. The question of international military command has been set aside from the start. According to Chapter VII of the UN Charter the use of force by the UN should be controlled by a Military Staff Committee made up from the five permanent members of the Security Council. But a US diplomat asks indignantly: 'Can you imagine our guys being told how to fight by a Chinese general?'

Cuba, Yemen, Morocco and India attempt to bring the Council together for a debate on the use of force once reports of Iraqi civilian casualties surface. Third World countries, aided by the Soviet Union, suggest a 'pause for peace' to end the bombing of civilian areas.

As bombings continue amid Iraqi defiance, diplomats wonder privately whether they will be the authors of the country's extinction. Belatedly they start to consider Saddam's ruthless willingness to sacrifice the population of Iraq for his ambitions.

Once the US-led military action ends, UN diplomats long to shake off the inertia of the War and end on the same heroic note with which they began. But it is a month before a 20-page resolution drafted in Washington brings UN diplomats back to the Council table.

More than a year later the cease-fire terms are still not fulfilled. As before, the outcome is being decided elsewhere. The saga continues.

Olivia Ward was the Toronto Star's UN correspondent throughout the Gulf crisis and is now bureau chief in Moscow.

Illustration by HECTOR CATTOLICA

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