The United Nations - world divided by the imperialists

A US Navy jet flies over burning Kuwaiti oil fields during Operation Desert Storm

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no 98, December 1990/January 1991

‘I have never been prouder that the United States is the host country for the United Nations. For the first time, the UN Security Council is beginning to work as it was meant to work.’ President Bush’s statement expresses the pleasure that the US ruling class feels at the collapse of the socialist camp and the absence of any restraint in the UN on the US use of its military might to reassert its position as the leading global power. TREVOR RAYNE examines the history and role of the UN from Yalta to Iraq.

In mid-November the US and British governments conferred on whether they should go again to the UN to get express authority to launch an all-out military strike on Iraq. Mrs Thatcher claims they already have authority to mount an attack under Article 51 of the UN Charter. This was the Article that the government cited to justify its Falklands/Malvinas venture. The US attempted to use it during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. It proclaims the ‘inherent right' of individual states to self-defence if under attack.

Kinnock wants any military assault to be authorised by the UN: ‘unrelenting pressure must be sustained under the terms of the UN resolutions. And if force should be necessary to implement that policy that too should have the authority of the UN.’

Thatcher and Kinnock transparently uphold imperialism’s interests. Tony Benn, however, presents support for UN sanctions against Iraq as an alternative to war and part of a potentially progressive role for the UN. ‘The United Nations always used to be paralysed by the cold war and the automatic veto. This no longer exists. We need to think through the role of the United Nations to ensure it is not just a League of Nations club representing the views of rich white ministers but one of genuine democracy.’ He envisages the UN guaranteeing Middle East borders and fair oil prices. Benn considers the collapse of the socialist bloc an advance for the working class and democracy and views imperialism as an anachronistic policy that can presumably be overturned in a UN General Assembly vote, where, no doubt, oppressed peoples outnumber the oppressor. This is a misrepresentation of what the UN is, why it was formed and what it is doing in the Gulf.


Forerunner to the UN was the League of Nations which emerged out of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles carving up the German and Ottoman empires and targeting the Bolshevik Revolution. The League (‘a league only in name . . . a pack of wolves that are at all times at each other’s throats’, Lenin) distributed mandates to govern colonial possessions: Palestine to Britain, Syria to France, Namibia to South Africa etc. The US Senate refused to ratify the Treaty and kept the US out of the League.

The 1924 Geneva Protocol branding aggressive war an act of international crime failed because of British opposition. Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931. The League dispatched an inquiry mission. Japan withdrew from the League but European statesmen had no interest in forcing Japan to yield the territory it had seized. Hitler, intent on rearmament, withdrew Germany in 1933, the year that the Soviet Union joined. The League tried to win him back, rather than oppose him. When Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Haile Selassie appealed for the League’s help. Sanctions were declared, which Britain and France broke by ensuring Italy vital oil supplies. Italy withdrew from the League and joined Germany in the Spanish Civil War. The League made just one expulsion, the Soviet Union for its occupation of Finland in 1939.

The UN Charter was signed in San Francisco in June 1945. There were 50 signatories but the main motivation for the new organisation came from the US, Britain and the Soviet Union who had signed a United Nations declaration on 1 January 1942. This combined the Allies against the Axis powers and committed the Allies to negotiate ‘spheres of influence’. Such negotiations were seldom open: Churchill secretly agreed with Stalin that Soviet influence would extend over Rumania and Bulgaria, British influence over Greece and Yugoslavia. The US, intent on the dismantling of the British empire as a barrier to its own global aspirations, opposed such deals.

While the US and British ruling classes hoped to use the UN as a means of restraining the Soviet Union internationally, they formed the International Monetary Fund (1945), the World Bank (1946) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (1948) as means of reconstructing and regulating markets for finance capital. The notion of a democratic United Nations representing equally the interests of all peoples was no more present in the minds of its founders than charity has been in the heart of the IMF.

The San Francisco Charter established a General Assembly where all members have a right to one vote each, but whose resolutions are not legally binding, and a Security Council where a negative vote by any one of the now five (US, Britain, France, USSR, China) [then four] permanent members renders the resolution invalid. Power resides in the Security Council where time and again the US and Britain have used their veto. The UN works only so long as the leading powers want it to. Any military forces it has at its disposal are ad hoc and deployed with the permission of the major powers. The contending centres of post-1945 were cemented into the structures of the UN: therein lay its purpose and as the global balance of forces change therein will lie its undoing.


From the start the US weighted the UN in its favour. At Yalta, February 1945, Roosevelt promised Stalin that he would not support the admission of Argentina, a refuge for fascism. In San Francisco the US mobilised its Latin American clients and Argentina was made one of the 50 founder UN states. Between 1946-53, the UN General Assembly adopted over 800 resolutions. The US was defeated in just three per cent. A string of dictatorships voted with the US over 90 per cent of the time. Newly-independent India voted with the US on just 33 per cent of occasions. European socialist countries were at first denied membership of the UN, then prevented by US and British vetoes from serving on the Security Council.

In the period between the San Francisco Conference and the first meeting of the Security Council in London in January 1946 the US had used the atomic bomb on Japan. The London Security Council meeting had alleged Soviet interference in Iran on its agenda. During the Second World War Britain, US and the Soviet Union agreed jointly to occupy Iran to keep its oil in Allied hands; they also agreed to withdraw from Iran after the end of the war and to divide up the oil concessions. When the war ended the US opposed any Soviet claims. In response the Soviet Union backed a revolutionary movement in Azerbaijan province and refused to withdraw its troops unless given oil equivalent to the British concessions. The US used its nuclear monopoly: Iran was not even debated in the Security Council and President Truman summoned Soviet Ambassador Gromyko and told him either the Soviet forces withdrew within 48 hours or the US would drop an atomic bomb on Russia. Soviet forces withdrew. US imperialism got its way with brute force and a threat that rendered the UN irrelevant. With a nuclear monopoly the UN would be an extension of US diplomacy or it would be nothing.


In 1947, with British capital weak and under pressure from the US, the Labour Cabinet placed the fate of Palestine in the hands of the UN. Zionism had allied itself to the newly emerging imperialist ambitions of US capital. On 14 May 1948, Britain relinquished its mandate over Palestine and the Zionist state was declared. Jewish people, who constituted 38 per cent of the population of Palestine, were given by the UN 54 per cent of the land. Within a year Zionist terror gangs expanded their land to 77 per cent of the territory, making three quarters of a million Palestinians homeless, and assassinating the UN mediator Count Bernadotte. Nevertheless, on 11 May 1949, Israel was accepted into the UN General Assembly as a ‘peace-loving state’.

Resolution 194 (III) was passed in December 1948 providing for the return of Palestinian refugees and governing the status of Jerusalem. Its provisions have been reasserted by the UN virtually every year since. In 1988, 2.3 million refugees, almost half the Palestinian population, were registered with the UN. Jerusalem was to be placed under an international administration. During 1948, Israel occupied half of Jerusalem, in 1967 took it all and in 1980 declared a united Jerusalem to be the capital and official seat of the Israeli head of state.

Resolution 242 was passed in 1967. Rejected by the PLO for recognising the Israeli state and treating Palestine as a refugee problem, it calls for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. General Assembly resolution 3236 (1974) reaffirmed the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, including self-determination and national independence. It has been reaffirmed by the Assembly every year since. Such statements are mere scraps of paper to the US and Britain to be torn up at will. Under Reagan the US used its Security Council veto 18 times to protect Israel, usually with British support. The Bush administration has used it four times so far.


Full-scale fighting between the Korean People’s Army and the US-backed Republic of Korea’s (ROK) forces broke out on 25 June 1950. On 27, June US troops were ordered by President Truman to give ROK forces ‘cover and support’. Later that day the US proposed to the Security Council that UN assistance be given to the ROK. The UN, presented with a fait accompli, rubber stamped it in the absence of the Soviet Union, which had been manipulated by the US into not attending the Security Council on that day. Three days later Truman authorised the bombing of North Korea, a naval blockade and combat use of US troops. The British Labour and French governments proposed a resolution establishing a ‘UN Command’. Under US General Douglas MacArthur it had no need to report back to the UN. Britain then helped draft a resolution giving MacArthur UN authority to cross the improvised border, the 38th Parallel. This US and British troops did 12 hours before the resolution was passed.

The British Labour left accepted a UN ‘police action’ in Korea, but at the Party Conference in October 1950 proposed a resolution expressing ‘alarm at increasing danger of war’ and for better relations with the Soviet Union. Its supporters said it did nothing to offend the government or the Party leadership. However, it clearly did and was defeated by 4,681,000 votes to 881,000. The Labour government agreed, under US guidance, to increase the military budget to 14 per cent of the national product.

Four million Koreans were killed in the war, 405,000 US troops and 793 British troops with 2,878 missing and wounded.


UN Secretary General U Thant attempted to arrange peace talks between the US and Vietnam in 1964. The US rejected such talks saying that they might undermine the South Vietnam government. By 1964 the UN General Assembly had many more members, the newly independent former colonies, and they were likely to embarrass the US in any debate.


SWAPO presented a petition requesting free general elections in Namibia in 1962.
In 1969 the General Assembly declared all acts by the South African government concerning Namibia to be illegal. The 1976 Security Council demanded free elections. Thirteen years later they were held after Namibian patriots with their ANC and Cuban comrades had defeated the South African army battle in Angola. South Africa was spared rigorous sanctions: Namibia is rich in copper, uranium and diamonds.


24 years since the UN General Assembly recognised the inalienable right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination and independence their land is still occupied by Moroccan soldiers. Hawker Siddeley and Vickers have recently signed weapons contracts with the Moroccan government. The Western Sahara is rich in phosphates.


The Smith government declared UDI in 1965. The British Labour government refused to send troops to dislodge it. A complete UN blockade was declared. The Royal Navy imposed the Beira patrol off the Mozambican coast. Regardless, Shell and BP systematically organised illegal oil supplies to ‘Rhodesia’ with the assistance of the British Ministry of Power. A report by a Tory MP showed that 11 countries broke sanctions in 1967: the main offender was Israel.


Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974, taking 37 per cent of land and driving 40 per cent of Cypriots of Greek origin from their homes. Turkish Cypriots had been an oppressed section of the population. UN Resolution 3212 called for respect for the territorial integrity of Cyprus and the withdrawal of foreign forces. It was endorsed by Security Council Resolution 361 and supported in the General Assembly vote by Turkey! Such resolutions have been repeated regularly since, with Turkey still occupying and partitioning the island. The invasion was sanctioned by the US Secretary of State Kissinger to keep Greece and Turkey in NATO and allies of imperialism in the eastern Mediterranean.

In the 45 years of its existence, the UN has done nothing to prevent constant Zionist expansionism. It was powerless to prevent the slaughter of four million Vietnamese and US use of chemical weapons. The US proxy war on Central America now claims a quarter of a million lives. Iraq received no sanctions for its use of chemical weapons on Kurdish people. With no powerful sponsors the Tamils have no voice in the UN as their massacre continues. US invasions of Grenada and Panama went untroubled as the US vetoed resolutions. The UN inevitably reflects the global balance of forces between imperialism and socialism, oppressor and oppressed nations. Lenin’s remarks on the League of Nations are as relevant to the UN today as they were in 1920: ‘Without the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, no international arbitration courts, no talk about a reduction of armaments, no “democratic” reorganisations of the League of Nations will save mankind from new imperialist wars’. (The Terms of Admission to the Communist International.)


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