So what is the UN for?

Dateline 06 April 2007

British Foreign Secretaries like to boast that the country ‘punches above its weight’ in matters of foreign affairs. Britain sits at the intersection of some powerful international organizations. My country is one of the largest, and wealthiest, members of the European Union with a permanent (veto-wielding) seat on the UN Security Council. It is the spiritual home of the 53-member Commonwealth of Nations. Britain has a global influence that far exceeds what might be expected of so small a country.

Britain is the 79th largest country in the world by area and 22nd by population. Arguably, it has the fourth largest economy in the world, but using the more accurate measure of purchasing power parity, Britain is usually placed sixth. Since there are only five permanent members of the Security Council it is easy to argue that neither Britain nor France really qualifies, with Germany, Japan and India all having both larger populations and larger economies.

So, with all this influence, why is that 15 members of HM armed forces are currently held hostage in Iran? The answer is simple: because international organizations are not very effective. The UN postures and flaps, but it achieves very little.

Let us be clear about the merits of the case. The sailors and marines were in Iraqi waters. Even people who opposed the Iraq war are obliged to concede that the British personnel were there legally. The UN authorized the Coalition to take charge of the rebuilding of Iraq, so British forces are in Iraq both under a UN mandate and as allies of the elected Iraqi government. The Iranian navy was not there legally. Iran and Iraq are long-standing rivals and enemies. They were engaged in full-scale war less than two decades ago and Iran currently arms and supports terrorist groups operating against the Iraqi government and people. In such tense times it is extremely inflammatory for the Iranian navy to be trespassing in Iraqi waters, let alone kidnapping Iraqi allies.

Iran is acting of malice, pique, and desperation. Earlier this month formed Deputy Defense Secretary, Ali Reza Asghari, defected from Iran to the West. Unpopular in some quarters for exposing corruption and embezzlement in Iran’s Republican Guard, Asghari had become a particular target of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and had been spying for western intelligence agencies for three years. His defection is a clear embarrassment to Iran, and naturally the country claims he was ‘abducted’. In fact, he brings to the West considerable information about Iran’s ongoing sponsorship of terrorism.

Abduction and hostage taking is, of course, a tactic that is nothing new to Iran. Ahmadinejad was one of the radical students who stormed the US embassy in Teheran in 1979 and held embassy personnel hostage there for 444 days. Far from being prosecuted for his crimes, it was the launching point of his political career.

And yet, the UN Security Council engages in nothing but muted criticisms of Iran’s continuing outrages against decent behavior.

Anger in Britain remains extremely high. Forcing a British servicewoman to wear an Islamic headdress is especially galling. It is difficult to imagine the scale of Muslim anger if a Muslim woman had been kidnapped by a Western country and had been forced to appear in front of a TV camera wearing a bikini.


Quentin Langley is editor of http://www.quentinlangley.net an academic at the University of Cardiff and is a columnist with Campaigns & Elections. This article was first published in the Common Sense series for Lake Champlain Weekly.

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