TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The Viability of International Governance: Recommended Reading on UNIFIL

At the outset of the Iraq War, political debate involved the conflict between principles of unilateralism and multilateralism. Despite considerable efforts by the Bush administration to bring the UN on board, its policies were characterized as “unilateralist.” The real alternative to such go-it-alone practices, so the argument went, would involve forms of international government and, consequently, limits on national sovereignty. Hence the conflict between western European governments, which seem (or seemed) to be ceding aspects of national independence to the European Union, and the United States, criticized for working against international cooperation, especially the UN.

The political theoretical questions concern sovereignty and the political standing of international bodies. The empirical evidence can be collected from the behavior of the UN and its subsidiaries. This blog recently discussed reports that, at the outset of the hostilities, Lebanese villagers from Marwaheen tried to find refuge at a UN outpost, but they were turned away and sent off—some of them to their deaths. Whether the UN will investigate this crime is unlikely. The point is that the UN de facto collaborated in the Hezbollah strategy of maximizing civilian casualties.

We learn now that, during the fighting in Lebanon, UNIFIL—presumably too neutral to protect local villagers—posted movements of Israeli troops and weapons on the internet, thereby providing Hezbollah with invaluable intelligence information. Read all about it here or, to get to the gist of Lori Marcus’s report:

“UNIFIL—the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, a nearly 2,000-man blue-helmet contingent that has been present on the Lebanon-Israel border since 1978—is officially neutral. Yet, throughout the recent war, it posted on its website for all to see precise information about the movements of Israeli Defense Forces soldiers and the nature of their weaponry and materiel, even specifying the placement of IDF safety structures within hours of their construction. New information was sometimes only 30 minutes old when it was posted, and never more than 24 hours old.

“Meanwhile, UNIFIL posted not a single item of specific intelligence regarding Hezbollah forces. Statements on the order of Hezbollah “fired rockets in large numbers from various locations” and Hezbollah’s rockets “were fired in significantly larger numbers from various locations” are as precise as its coverage of the other side ever got.

“This war was fought on cable television and the Internet, and a lot of official information was available in real time. But the specific military intelligence UNIFIL posted could not be had from any non-U.N. source. The Israeli press—always eager to push the envelope—did not publish the details of troop movements and logistics. Neither the European press nor the rest of the world media, though hardly bastions of concern for the safety of Israeli troops, provided the IDF intelligence details that UNIFIL did. A search of Israeli government websites failed to turn up the details published to the world each day by the U.N.”

With friends like Kofi Annan, who needs George Galloway? Information like this shows how many devils are in the details of the “rules of engagement” of UN forces—but, more importantly, it highlights the failure of international governance structures. The empirical question is: do events like these, the scandal of Marwaheen or the broadcasting IDF information, represent exceptions or corruptions of a basically sound project? Or are they not the necessary outcome of the project of international governance objectified in the United Nations? If the former, we just need better management on the East River. If the latter, we better count on national sovereignty for protection and forget the international bureaucracy and their new class fans.

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