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The United Nations Role In Korea

Is the UN Role in Korea 1947-1953 the Model Being Repeated Today?

I. The United Nations

The United Nations (UN) is a globally inclusive international security organization that grew out of a war time military alliance fighting against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan and their Axis allies. The 26 nations and governments in exile that signed the Declaration by the United Nations on January 1, 1942 pledged “not to make a separate armistice or peace. . .” but to seek “complete victory over their enemies.”[1] As that victory drew closer in 1945, the United States (US) submitted a draft to its war time partners the United Kingdom (UK), the Soviet Union (SU) and China for a Charter for the UN. The US and SU insisted that their membership would be conditional upon the agreement that no substantive action would be taken by the organization without concurrence of the major powers (US, SU, UK, France and China). The draft with amendments was agreed to by 51 nations at the United Nations Conference on International Organization, (April 25–June 26, 1945) in San Francisco. The main purpose of the organization stated in the Charter is to maintain international peace and security.

A General Assembly was provided to discuss and make recommendations on all questions. The condition imposed on the organization by the US and SU is embodied in the Charter in Article 27 where the voting procedure of the Security Council requires that all decisions on non-procedural matters include the concurring votes of the five members given permanent seats on that Council (China, France, SU, UK, and US).

Among the principles of the organization agreed to in the Charter are sovereign equality of all its Members, refrain in international relations from the threat or use of force, and the non intervention in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.[2]

II. Korea: Background

Korea has been a single nation for at least 1000 years with a continuous society, language and political system. In The United Nations Role In Korea1943, a Korean in exile wrote that “When the ancestors of northern Europe were wandering in the forests, clad in skins and practicing rites, Koreans had a government of their own and attained a high degree of civilization”.[3] Koreans had a national governance system before some Europeans gathered themselves together and started to form nations.

There was foreign influence on Korean society especially from China but never long lasting foreign domination. Koreans had turned back, with some help from China, military action by Japan in 1593 and 1597 trying to subordinate their country. Korea remained independent despite 400 years of efforts of bigger powers to dominate it. That is until Japan defeated China in the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895 and Russia in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, and the big powers acquiesced to the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910. Before and during the annexation, Koreans continuously struggled for their independence. Japanese colonization of Korea ended on August 15, 1945 when Japan surrendered unconditionally to end the Second World War (WWII).

Perhaps we could say that modern Korea begins with the liberation of Korea with the surrender of Japan. That liberation however was coupled with the arbitrary drawing by the US of a dividing line at the 38th Parallel on August 10 1945. The SU accepted the US proposal of a zonal division of Korea for the purpose of receiving the surrender of the 600,000 Japanese military personnel and the colonial government. But that led to a division between northern and southern Korea. The American historian Bruce Cumings places the beginning of the Korean War at these two events in 1945, liberation and division. Three years later in 1948 the UN give the division its sanction and almost 5 years later military hostilities broke out between South and North Korea again with the UN giving its sanction this time to internationalization of the military conflict.


 III. The UN and Korea: 1948.

After WWII, the question of the future of Korea was addressed internationally by the US, SU and UK at the Moscow Conference of Foreign Ministers in Dec 1945. It was agreed that a Joint Commission would be drawn from the US and SU commands in their respective zones to assist in forming a provisional Korean government. The SU aimed for quick independence for Korea while the US aimed for a four power trusteeship. The conference agreed to the formation of a provisional government under a trusteeship of not more than five years.[4] There were no Koreans at the Moscow Conference or at any previous discussion by the allies about Korea. Apparently ignored in Moscow was the fact that the Korean nationalist and revolutionary resistance to Japanese colonialism emerged after the surrender of Japan and by September 1945 had formed a Korean People’s Republic with Peoples Committees throughout the Peninsula. In 1945-46, these Peoples Committees were incorporated into the Soviet Union’s occupation governance north of the 38th Parallel but were suppressed by the US Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK) in the US zone.[5]

By the summer of 1947, it was clear that the bilateral Joint Commission was failing to make progress toward formation of a provisional Korean government. The US State Department had been planning since at least 1946 for the possible involvement of the UN if the US and the SU were unable to make progress agreeable to the US. This despite the agreement among the major powers that the UN was not to handle questions arising in connection with peace treaties or other actions at the end of WWII. Also, as American journalist IF Stone argues, since the organization was founded to take actions only upon which all the major powers agree, to “take a hand in a dispute between the United States and the USSR was itself unwise”.[6] In any case, by 1947 the US State Department planning included involving the UN in elections to establish a separate provisional government in its zone.[7]

In September 1947, the US brought the “problem of Korean independence” to the UN. Not to the Security Council which could take action if necessary to enforce a solution but also where a SU veto was possible but to the General Assembly, which has according to the Charter only the powers to “discuss” and “recommend” or “call the attention of the Security Council to situations which are likely to endanger international peace and security”.[8] The SU challenged the US arguing that the question of Korea was a product of WWII, being only properly addressed by the parties to the Moscow Agreement issued at the end of the Moscow Conference.

The SU countered with a proposal at the Joint Commission and later at the General Assembly that both sides remove their troops by the beginning of 1948 to allow “the Korean people itself the establishment of a national government in Korea”.[9] A survey found that 57% of Koreans living in the US zone supported that proposal.[10] But the US had made the tactical decision to involve the UN before it would remove its troops.

The General Assembly voted, over SU objections and arguments, to put the question of the “problem of the Independence of Korea” on its agenda. The SU rejected the legitimacy of the General Assembly debating this question but submitted proposals as did the US. The SU proposals defended the right of self determination of the Korean people and required that Koreans participate in the UN debate over their independence. The US proposed amendments to the SU proposal requiring oversight of the choice of which Koreans to participate by a commission sent to Korea. Sending such a commission was seen as a substantive action by the SU which argued such action must be decided only by the Security Council.

The General Assembly eventually passed a resolution[11] based on the SU draft recognizing the “rightful claims of the people of Korea to independence” but totally changed with the US amendments establishing a United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea (UNTCOK) to travel, observe and hold consultations throughout Korea to facilitate participation of representatives of the Korean people. The US had also specified the nine member nations to serve on the commission and the recommendation to hold elections toward formation of a national assembly. The language of the resolution seemed to treat the Korean people as one nation and set as its purpose the independence of that nation.

The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (Ukraine) designated in the resolution as a commission member announced it would not serve on the UNTCOK. It argued that the resolution violated the Charter and the Korean people’s right to self-determination. If any commission should be sent, the Ukraine delegate argued, it should be made up of neutral persons not government representatives responsive to US instructions. The SU rejected the legitimacy of the process and result and made clear its intention not to cooperate with the UNTCOK. Canada was reluctant to participate on the commission but eventually sent a participant.

The General Assembly sent UNTCOK to Korea with the mandate to “facilitate and expedite the attainment of the national independence of Korea and withdrawal of occupying forces.” A secretariat was organized for UNTCOK with Victor Hoo, a former official in the Nationalist Chinese government who had close relations with rightists in Korea.[12] The commissioners arrived in Seoul in the US zone in January 1948 adopting a resolution that “every opportunity be taken to make it clear that the sphere of this Commission is the whole of Korea and not merely a section”.[13] They immediately found two obstacles to fulfilling their mandate. First, the SU stood firm in its rejection of the legitimacy of UNTCOK which therefore could not consult or observe in the SU zone. Second, the social and political situation in the US zone meant UNTCOK could not consult with many leftist parties and individuals because it found that they were in exile, in prison, dead, under police surveillance or in hiding due to the suppression of left wing activity in that zone. The US military government had outlawed the Korean Communist Party in May 1946.

Three UNTCOK commissioners favored helping establish a separate South Korean state. However, after less than one month there was agreement UNTCOK could not observe a national election and should report this back to the newly created Interim Committee of the General Assembly. UNTCOK asked the Interim Committee if it should continue efforts to only consider the whole of Korea or whether under the actual circumstances it was “open to or incumbent upon the Commission” to implement its work just in the US zone?

The Interim Committee had been created by the General Assembly on November 13, 1947, the day before it created the UNTCOK. The US State Department had introduced the draft resolution creating the Interim Committee in part because the US was dissatisfied with the use of the veto by the SU in the Security Council. [14] Already in 1947, the US was changing or molding the UN to become an organization where it could get international sanction for action it wanted to take with or without SU agreement. The SU and its allies were too weak and too few in number to prevent such use of the UN except by veto in the Security Council. Some other governments which might have wanted to keep the UN out of taking sides in disputes between the major powers made the judgment it was in their national interest to align with the US because the US was the main source of international aid and loans or out fear of the spread of socialism or to cement its alliance with the US. But also, with the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, the US gave the appearance of being on a high moral ground opposing fascism, colonialism and championing democracy, if only rhetorically.

The SU strongly opposed the resolution creating the Interim Committee as an attempt to diminish the Security Council’s primacy and to nullify the founding agreement of unanimity on questions of substance. When UNTCOK turned to the Interim Committee for guidance, the SU characterized that move as “an illegal Commission seeking instructions from an illegal Committee.”[15]

For the US, the outcome of the Interim Committee consideration was crucial to it plans to be able to have a presence on the Asian mainland while also able to withdraw it troops from Korea. But many nations friendly to the US feared the response the US wanted to the UNTCOK request “would actually result in permanent division and two hostile governments.” [16] Brazil proposed a ten day adjournment to give time to study the question. During the ten days there were consultations at the highest level as the US government sought to convince its allies of the importance to it of their support. India, Canada and Australia particularly opposed the direction the US wanted to go with an election as the first stage in the formation of a separate South Korean state.[17]

The US was successful in winning India over. Australia and Canada remained opposed. But in any case the vote on the US resolution was 34 in favor, two against and 11 abstentions. The SU and its close allies did not participate. The answer the Interim Committee voted to send to UNTCOK was that it is incumbent on UNTCOK to implement the program as outlined in the original General Assembly resolution “in such parts of Korea as are accessible to the Commission.” The abstentions were three Latin American and three Scandinavian. These allies of the US worried about the consequences.[18] The US had its victory and seemed unmoved by the warnings of its allies and friends.

After the decision, UNTCOK reconvened in Seoul. Even before it held a formal meeting, the US military government in southern Korea announced there would be an election on May 9, 1948. The commissioners split over this announcement. The Canadian commissioner argued, “If elections in South Korea alone contribute nothing to the unifying of Korea, then the United Nations Commission has no right to participate in them”.[19] He was supported by the Australian and Indian commissioners. The Syrian commissioner felt a ‘fair’ election was not possible. The Indian commissioner argued that supporting an election only in the US zone was not legally sound. But the Interim Committee had made a political decision not a legal one. Despite his grave doubts he was under instructions from his government to proceed with supporting the election. The French commissioner took the same position. The legal question had been turned into a political one.[20]

At first only the Philippines, El Salvadorian and Nationalist Chinese commissioners had supported a separate election. However under instructions from their governments, all the commissioners aligned themselves with giving the US military government support for an election in its zone alone. The example of Canada is instructive.

From the beginning of UNTCOK, the Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King opposed Canadian participation arguing that Canada should not get into the middle of a big power dispute. In a private conversation, he remarked that he was intent on “keeping Canada out of trouble and not allowing it to be used as the cat’s paw of United States policy.”[21] However advisors and members of his government were in consultation with US officials. They argued for the need for Canada to line up with the US. Otherwise Canada would appear to be friendly to the SU and to communism. These Canadians politicians worked to shift the position of the Prime Minister from opposition based on what was best for Canada and Korea, to acquiescence with what would strengthen the US-Canadian alliance. Most Canadian cabinet members had not closely followed the UN proceedings or events in Korea. The Prime Minister was fearful of a new world war. The politicians arguing for alignment with the US won over support for elections in the US zone alone. This change was conveyed to the Canadian commissioner. [22]

There were at most 35 members and staff of UNCTOK who had the task to observe an election among an estimated 20 million or more Koreans living in the US zone of almost 40,000 square miles. The US military government controlled the entire election process. It appointed to the National Election Committee mostly members from Syngman Rhee’s group and the Korean Democratic Party (KDP). UNTCOK was able to make short inspection visits to at most 2% of the polling places. When they did leave Seoul, the commissioners were accompanied and guided by US military government and Korean officials. A survey conducted in Seoul found that almost 80% of eligible voters had registered to vote but many indicated they had been forced to register or not receive an election stamp on their ration card or by other threats. Most major political parties and politicians in southern Korea conveyed to the commissioners that they opposed the elections. There were strikes, demonstrations and protests against creating a separate South Korea. The police, constabulary and right wing youth group repression of this opposition resulted in over 10,000 arrests. In the ten days before the election 323 persons including 32 Korean policemen were killed in riots and raids.[23]

On the island of Jeju 50 miles southwest of the Korean Peninsula there was an open rebellion in opposition to rightwing terrorism and to the election which would create a separate South Korea. The commission was aware that the election had to be cancelled in two out of the three voting regions on Jeju. Over the next year, between 30,000 and 80,000 Jeju people were killed during the suppression of the rebellion.[24]

Having taken as its mandate to support an election in the American zone, UNTCOK virtually ignored the North-South political conference called by left and conservative southern leaders as a step toward forming a national government. The conference did take place in Pyongyang in late April. By then UNTCOK was wedded to the election being undertaken by the US military government in the US zone and no longer had any capacity to support a unification process.[25]

The election was held on May 10, 1948 supervised in part using “Community Protective Corps” right wing youth groups organized by the military authorities. It was accompanied by a boycott by many center and left parties and by continuing anti-election and anti-opposition violence. The US military government data showed almost 7,500,000 Koreans voted out of a population of over 20 million, a little more than one third. On the basis of its minimal observations and activities, without giving significance to the overwhelming evidence of US military government and right wing party control of the election process, the commission sent its report to the General Assembly: “The result of the ballot was a valid expression of the free will of the electorate of those parts of Korea which were accessible to the Commission and in which the inhabitants constituted approximately two-thirds of the people of all Korea.”[26] From that time on, in UN and US documents the extremely limited and compromised role of UNTCOK in the election process was described as an election “sanctioned’ or “supervised” by the UN.

UNTCOK took over one month after the election to write this report. Meanwhile it was virtually left out of the rush of events following the election, such as the convening of an assembly calling itself a ‘National Assembly’, writing of a constitution for a ‘Republic of Korea’ and installing of Syngman Rhee as president of a separate state calling itself  the ‘Republic of Korea’, but to this day known as South Korea. All these events represent the failure of what appeared to be the original General Assembly intent which seemed to be the end of the zonal occupation and division of Korea and the emergence of a national Korean state. The creation of the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the US zone was followed shortly by the creation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) also called North Korea in the SU zone. The division of Korea UNTCOK helped to solidify haunts the UN until today.

In December 1948, the General Assembly debated the “Korean Question”. Delegates from the SU and its allies argued strenuously for an invitation to the DPRK to participate in the debate. They argued against accepting UNTCOK’s endorsement of the May 10 election basing their case on UNTCOK’s interim reports which had documented the obstacles to a ‘fair’ election. But the majority rejected these arguments and documentation. The result was the December 12, 1948 UN General Assembly Resolution195 (III) which declared:

“. . . that there has been established a lawful government (the Government of the Republic of Korea) . . . over the part of Korea where the Temporary Commission was able to observe . . . based on elections which were the valid expression of the free will of the electorate . . . and that this is the only such Government of Korea.”[27]

The resolution also created a United Nations Commission on Korea (UNCOK) to replace the temporary commission UNTCOK.

To achieve majority approval, the resolution did not call the ROK a national government nor recommend recognition of it by UN member states. But the US and the ROK and their allies sited this resolution in support of ROK’s claim to be the only legitimate government in Korea and therefore entitled to UN membership representing all of Korea. The resolution did make the UN one of the fathers of the ROK and set the basis to label the DPRK an aggressor across an international border when its troops crossed the 38th parallel two and one half years later.

IV. The UN and Korea: 1950-53

When hostilities broke out at the 38th parallel on June 25, 1950, the US State Department had a general plan ready: Request that the UN Security Council call for a cease fire. If the fighting does not stop, then request that the UN authorize military and other sanctions.

On Sunday June 25 at 3:00am NYC time, twelve hours after the reported start of hostilities in Korea, the State Department called UN Secretary Trygve Lie. The State Department read to Trygve Lie an edited version of the cable it received from the US Ambassador in Seoul but they hid from him that the Ambassador was not yet clear how the hostilities started. Did the North attack the South or did the South attack the North which repelled the attack on then went on the offense?[28]

Later in the morning the State Department formally requested of the President of the Security Council that he call an emergency meeting for that day. The US had already prepared a draft resolution which condemned North Korea for its “breach of the peace” and “act of aggression.”

At the emergency meeting, the Council president recognized Secretary General Trygve Lie as the first speaker. Trygve Lie said he believed the North Koreans had violated the UN Charter, was the aggressor and had breached the peace. As IF Stone documents in his book, The Hidden History of the Korean War that statement contradicted the report Trygve Lie had received from the UNCOK which provided no evidence yet about how the hostilities began.[29] With his statement Trygve Lie had effectively preempted any debate over questions of fact and law.

The US then introduced its resolution condemning North Korea for a breach of the peace. It asked the Council to invite the South Korean Ambassador to the US who was also an observer at the UN to sit with the US delegation. That gave the representative of South Korea a chance to appeal to the Council to act as he put it “forthwith in removing this threat to international peace.” At this meeting, the government on Formosa was in China’s seat. To protest the non seating of the People’s Republic of China, the Soviet Union was boycotting Security Council meetings. The representative of Yugoslavia unsuccessfully offered an alternative resolution calling for a ceasefire and the invitation of North Korea to voice its complaint to the UN. In the vote, only Yugoslavia abstained. Its delegate explained that “there seemed to be a lack of precise information that could enable the Council to pin responsibility”. This agreed with the recommendation from the UNCOK on June 26 or 27 that the UN urge mediation between the two sides to negotiate peace.[30]

The next day, US President Truman gave orders for the US military to give air and sea support and all possible military aid to South Korea. Then the US State Department offered a draft resolution for the June 27 meeting of the Security Council based on a template it had already created. The draft resolution called for sanctions against North Korea. Stone writes, “The door was shut on the mediation advocated by the UN Commission.” The resolution passed with Yugoslavia voting no, two abstentions and the Soviet Union absent. The resolution recommended that “members of the UN furnish such assistance to the ROK as may be necessary to repel the armed attack and to restore international peace and security.” In a later resolution introduced by the UK and France on July 7, the command of all operations was given to the United States under a Unified Command not subject in anyway to UN control or oversight. Often this Unified Command is called the UNC or United Nations Command but I have not been able to find any action by the UN that set up such a United Nations Command for Korea. To this day this Unified Command completely under the US is active in South Korea, still called the UNC as if it has some relation to the UN.

For this study, the next relevant event was the decision the US made to send its military north across the 38th Parallel with a push toward the Yalu River and the eventual carpet fire bombing of all of North Korea. It can be argued that crossing the 38th Parallel and such bombing totally violated the Security Council resolution “to restore international peace and security.” Even Trygve Lie began more urgently to call for negations. But the UN could not have been expected to call the US and the Unified Command it created a new aggressor. When the fighting had for the third time reached near the 38th Parallel in May 1951, Trygve Lie called for a cease fire, “approximately along” the 38th Parallel. That, he said, would fulfill the purpose of the UN to repulse aggression.

Again when the war came to a stalemate at the 38th Parallel 1 ½ years later in 1952, Stone makes a strong case that US Army headquarters provoked or created incidents to derail the ceasefire negotiations. When the North Koreans and Chinese had ceded on Nov. 4, 1952 to the three demands of the U.N. side, the U. S. military spread a story that “The Communists had brutally murdered 5,500 American prisoners.” The talks were being dragged out, the US military argued, because “The communists don’t want to have to answer questions about what happened to their prisoners” and they are lower than “barbarians[31].” At no time after these reports were these “atrocities” reported again or documented. But hope of a ceasefire subsided. South Korea strenuously resisted all attempts at a negotiated settlement. Syngman Rhee always asserted South Korea did not make all its sacrifices to end up without victory.

Finally on July 27, 1953 an armistice was signed without the ROK. Until today there is yet to be a peace treaty. Korean is still divided at the 38th Parallel. US troops have been stationed in South Korea as a sign that the war-like situation continues. And as we saw in 2010 in the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents a resumption of hostilities is always a possibility.

V. Libya

As for Libya, it can be dated back even further than Korea. In ancient Greek times all of Mediterranean Africa west of the Nile Valley was called Libya. The people were grouped in nomadic tribes. Throughout the history of the region, the territory often fell under foreign dominance most prominently by the Romans and after the Romans, by the Arab expansion. In more recent times Libya was dominated by the Ottoman Turks (1551-1911) and as an Italian colony (1911-1943). This accounts for the rich mixture of people who make up Libya. During their colonial dominance, the Italians united three separate sections into a confederation with separate capitols. WWII left Libya as a trust territory divided again partially under British and partially under French dominance.

A Kingdom was formed out of the three separate sections and with UN help the Kingdom of Libya became independent of Britain and France in 1951. The Kingdom was over thrown by an uprising of young military officers headed by Muammar al Qaddafi in 1969 which proclaimed a new Libyan Arab Republic. That began a restructuring of Libyan society as a form of socialism but not rejecting Islam. That restructuring united and was supported by most Libyans but also left some discontent. Like North Korea, Libya had tried to carve out its own type of system and was able to remain independent of Western dominance for over 40 years.

VI. Libya and the UN 2011

The conflict in Libya broke out in mid February 2011. Two UN resolutions and NATO bombing internationalized the conflict. US Congressman Dennis Kucinich, a long time member of the US Democratic Party gave a speech to the Congress on March 31, 2011[32]. I will use that speech to show parallels between the Korean and Libyan Wars.

Kucinich opens his speech saying, “The critical issue before this nation today is not Libyan democracy. It is American democracy.” He was referring to the decision by US President Barack Obama to order the US military to bomb sites in Libya. “Let us make no mistake about it,” Kucinich told the Congress “dropping 2000 lb bombs and unleashing the massive firepower of our air force on the capital of a sovereign state is in fact an act of war.” The US Constitution gives war making power to the Congress. Obama had side stepped the US Congress in violation of the Constitution which led Kucinich to say, “How can we pretend to hold other sovereigns to fundamental legal principles through wars in foreign lands if we do not hold our own presidents to fundamental legal principles at home?”

Up until the Korean War, every US president seeking to order the US military into major action followed the Constitution and asked Congress for a declaration of war. But President Truman did not seek a Congressional declaration of war in 1950. The Korean War set the precedent which has been followed ever since. The executive branch has by-passed the Congress in every war since Korea in violation of the US Constitution thus denying the chance for a debate over the proposed war and a chance to prevent a war. My conclusion is that “the rule of law” and established democratic procedures do not function in the US when it is a question of war.

In the Libya case, instead of Congress, the Obama administration went to the Arab League and the UN Security Council for authorization of this war.

On February 25 and 26, 2011, the Security Council met to consider the crisis in Libya. Outside of all precedent, 2 defectors from the government of Libya were allowed into the consultation sessions with Council members. Their emotional appeals and the reports from the Arab League rather than any first hand report from UN personnel in Libya were taken as the basis for a resolution condemning unsubstantiated “serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law that are being committed in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.”[33] Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon spoke after the vote on February 26, calling the events in Libya “clear-cut violations of all norms governing international behavior and serious transgressions of international human rights and humanitarian law.”

In the Korean War and Libyan cases, Security Council action was taken before there was definite evidence or a UN sponsored investigation of the actual events. Such evidence or investigation is needed because any action the UN takes should be based on actual facts not the reporting from one side or the other in a dispute. The stated purpose of the UN is “to maintain international peace and security” not to take sides in a dispute. In Libya in 2011 as in Korea in 1950 there was no attempt to question whether the events were threats to international peace and security or were they instead internal events either part of an insurrection, a civil war or a national liberation struggle. In both cases the Secretary General and the Security Council took sides, in the one case with South Korea against North Korea and in the other case with the insurgents against the Libyan government.

Historically, however there are conflicts when the UN did not take sides but rather facilitated a negotiated end to fighting, for example in Kashmir. During the course of its engagement with the Kashmir conflict, spanning 23 years (1948-1971), the Security Council passed a number of resolutions, which were aimed at mediation and resolution of the conflict. That conflict still lingers 63 years later but not as in the Korean and Libyan case because of UN sanctioned military action.

Kucinich told the US Congress, “It is clear that the Administration planned a war against Libya at least a month in advance. But why? The President cannot say that Libya is an imminent or actual threat. He cannot say that war against Libya is in our vital interest. He cannot say that Libya had the intention or capability of attacking the United States. He has not claimed Libya had weapons of mass destruction to be used against us.”

The no-fly zone authorized by the Security Council Resolution 1973 on March 17, 2011[34] was immediately transgressed by US and the NATO missile and air strikes at all manner of targets and structures. Like North Korea when the US-lead military pushed north of the 38th Parallel, authorizing military action has not been accompanied by any oversight or control by the United Nations. There was hope early in its life that a UN police force could be formed without big power dominance but that never materialized. Up until the present, the UN has not developed adequate procedures for asserting political guidance over the military measures it authorizes.

Again in the Libya crisis, the Russia Federation played the same role that the Soviet Union played in the Korean crisis. It did not veto the rush to war. What about China? Had the People’s Republic of China been on the Security Council as it deserved in 1950, could the UN sanction of a US-lead war against North Korea have been avoided? Maybe China would have given the SU the strength to join it in a veto. But even then, the US was prepared to use the General Assembly to authorize the war it wanted. And if we look at the invasion of Iraq, we see the US made its war even without UN sanction. Still the question needs to be raised, why did not China or Russia or both veto Resolution 1973 authorizing an air war against Libya? Is the world stuck with the division of Korea and instability in Libya because there is no force strong enough to challenge the US/Western European powers?  Was the Libyan war just a continuation of the Korean War, another unstoppable big power atrocity against the people of the world?

This brings me to the case of the crisis in Syria which started in March 2011 and continues in 2012.

VII. Syria

Syria goes back in history even further than Libya. Like Egypt and Mesopotamia and China, Syria was among the sites of the earliest civilizations. On the eastern Mediterranean, ancient Syria included Lebanon, much of current Palestine/Israel and Jordon, part of Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Perhaps 10,000 year ago or more, the first domestication of animals and plants arose there. The location of Syria made it an important trade route even in ancient times. Throughout history Syrians were agriculturalists but also commercial traders and middlemen. Every major empire sought to include Syria: Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Mongolian, Arab, Ottoman Turk, and then the French. The European Crusades targeted Syria. The result is the rich diversity of modern Syria but also a sense of nationality above the differences.

Syria came under Arab dominance in the middle of the 7th Century. That brought Islam to what at that time was a mostly Christian society. Syria was part of the Ottoman Empire from 1516 and remained so for over 400 years during which time its economy deteriorated and population shrunk by one half. By the time of the First World War, Syrians were an active part of the Arab revolt against that Empire. Before they were driven out of Damascus, the Ottoman authorities hanged tens of Syrian national leaders in Damascus and Beirut.

Syrian independence was short lived. French troops landed on the Syrian coast in 1920. For over 25 years a constant battle was waged by the Syrian resistance against French occupation endorsed by the League of Nations. Damascus was severely damaged by French air raids in 1925 and 1926 and again in 1945. Independent again since 1946, there was political instability in Syria until 1970, when the Defense Minister Hafez al-Assad led a bloodless coup. He was elected President in 1971. Syria was at war with Israel in 1948, 1967 and 1973 and supports resistance to Israeli occupation of Palestine. Syria stood steadfast against the US led invasion of Iraq. Like Libya, Syria’s relations with the West had recently been improving until 2011.

VIII. Syria and the UN: 2011-2012

The 2011-2012 crisis in Syria is associated with events in early March 2011. On March 6 opposition reports suggest that some teenage boys were arrested for painting anti-government slogans in the town of Daraa near the Syrian/Jordanian border and that protests followed for their release. To ease the tension, the Syrian government announced it would release the teenagers. Some Israeli and Lebanese press reported that between March 17 and 18, seven police officers and four demonstrators were killed and the Baath Party headquarters and courthouse in Daraa were torched. The reports suggested that the deaths resulted from clashes between police and armed gunmen.[35] The government claimed the escalating confrontations that continued in Daraa and elsewhere and deaths including those of police, army and security forces were due to “armed gangs and terrorists” having infiltrated a protest movement. Much of the world saw the events in Syria portrayed by the mainstream international media as a government crack down on an opposition movement presumed unarmed.

Just as these events were unfolding in Syria, the Security Council passed judgment on similar events in Libya by passing Resolution 1973 on March 17 authorizing intervention via  a no-fly-zone and eventual all out NATO war against the Libyan government. A little over two months later the UK, France, Germany and Portugal supported by the US (all NATO members and members of the Security Council) circulated a draft resolution condemning the Syrian government for its “systematic abuse of human rights including killing” of its citizens and calling for an arms embargo.[36] The EU, Canada and the US had already begun to put unilateral sanctions against the Syrian people and government. The Peoples Republic of China (hereafter China), the Russian Federation (hereafter Russia) and four non-permanent members voiced concern about the draft resolution for the suggested interference in Syria’s internal affairs. The governments of the US and NATO countries did not hide their blame of Syria’s president for the violence.

The Syrian Ambassador, Bashar al-Jaafari started delivering to the Council President letters from his government providing its understanding of the situation and its documentation of what it called “armed gangs and terrorists” attacking government buildings, security officers, civilians and civilian infrastructure. It also explained its reform efforts in response to what it called “legitimate and important grievances” of its people. Jaafari took what occasions he could to speak to and answer questions from the UN press corps. The case he made was different from and not available in almost any other location than at the UN and online among netizens willing to challenge the mainstream discourse of the brutality of the Syrian government. By seeking every opportunity at the UN to speak especially in webcast sessions, Jaafari provided interested UN reporters and online viewers a chance to hear the Syrian government’s position and evidence and to make them available more broadly especially using the internet.[37] The Ambassador for the Russian Federation, Vitaly Churkin also made substantial statements of principle and answered reporters’ questions so as to counter the wide coverage by most of the international media of the western governments’ condemnation of the Syrian government.

The Security Council did not adopt or even vote on the European draft. It was clear that Russia and China and other Council members would not approve it. Russia and China suggested an alternative draft seeking to safeguard Syria’s sovereignty while condemning violence. On August 3, the Council did issue a compromise Presidential Statement (PRST) expressing grave concern at the deteriorating situation in Syria and condemning what it called the widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities. In this PRST, the Council reaffirmed its strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of Syria. The PRST saw the “only solution to the current crisis in Syria is through an inclusive and Syrian-led political process.”[38]

For a PRST to be issued there must be no objection from any of the 15 Council members. After it was read, the Lebanese delegate dissociated Lebanon from it, stating that “the council’s statement does not help improve the situation there.”[39] Charter principles were stated but the content of the PRST was mostly condemning the government of Syria but not acknowledging the attack on that government which Syria had been claiming to document for the Council and the press.

The UN has its Purposes and Principles. The main purpose is “to maintain international peace and security”[40] and a major principle is non-intervention “in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.”[41] So far the Council had not accepted the argument that the Syria government threatened international peace and security. So far it had defended Syria’s sovereignty which it had not done for Libya. But it also did not find a way to help Syria as a sovereign and founding member of the UN to solve its internal problem. And as time went on, there was more and more evidence that the armed opposition in Syria was being supplied and encouraged and trained by forces outside Syria. When such activity is alleged, the UN has an obligation to investigate the situation and call on member states to act to prevent the outside intervention. Such intervention would threaten peace and security between Syria and its neighbors and in the whole Middle East.

compromise nt with the Kashmir CThe NATO members of the Security Council brought their resolution for harsh measures against Syria to a vote on Oct 4. As they did not do with Libya, China and Russia vetoed the resolution. In the Council hall and at a media stakeout, the Council members and Syria had a chance to make their positions known. The US Ambassador expressed outrage that the tough sanctions and arms embargo needed to protect the population were not enacted.[42] She was introducing a different principle, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) which is not in the Charter and faulting Russia and China for not abiding by it. But R2P is in conflict with the Charter principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation.[43] The representative of China emphasized this principle in his comments, saying any action the UN took should contribute to peace and stability and comply with the United Nations Charter principle of non-interference in internal affairs.[44]

The Syrian crisis continued. Chapter 8 of the UN Charter allows regional agencies to take actions on matters relating to the maintenance of international peace and security in their region provided the actions “are consistent with the Purposes and Principles of the United Nations.”[45] In November, the League of Arab States (Arab League) negotiated with the Syrian government a plan to end the violence. But then it suspended Syria, a founding member. There seemed to be a split among the League members because the League then proposed to send Arab League observers into Syria to verify claims by the government that it was fulfilling its efforts to end the violence. Negotiations with the Syrian government concerning an observer mission achieved agreement on Dec 19. On that basis, the Arab League sent 166 observers from 13 Arab countries into Syria.

After 24 days of observations on the ground, the head of the Arab League Observer Mission to Syria Muhammad Ahmed al-Dabi issued a report.[46] It went a long way to confirm Syrian government claims about armed groups and terrorists operating in Syria.[47] In particular, the report stated that “. . . the Observer Mission witnessed acts of violence being committed against Government forces and civilians that resulted in several deaths and injuries.”[48]

The report was issued just as a new attempt was being made by the NATO members of the Security Council to get a resolution passed that would allow measures to be taken against the Syrian government. This time, Morocco joined them and introduced the draft. The draft called for full support for an Arab League plan to replace Syrian President Assad with his deputy who would then form a new national unity government with the opposition. During Council consultations, Russia insisted that the Observer Mission report be circulated to the Council members. Russia offered some amendments to the Morocco/NATO draft that would take out fixed time limits and would require simultaneous withdrawal of the government and armed opposition forces. The amendments were rejected and the Council rushed to a vote. Russia and China vetoed again.[49]

Not able to get UN backing from the Security Council, the forces seeking a change of the Syrian government not just an end of violence and a political solution, the US and its allies, turned to the General Assembly. The US had turned to the General Assembly to legitimize the creation of a separate South Korea and it had planned to turn to the General Assembly on the Korean War question in case the SU in June 1950 vetoed the Security Council call for military action against North Korea.

Two meetings of the General Assembly were called. Both were outside normal procedure, just as were the two Security Council meetings which gave rise to the bombing of Libya. Some General Assembly members protested, suggesting that the president of the General Assembly, Nasser al Nassir was using his office to further the political goals of his country, Qatar. Several delegates referred to the Arab League Observer Mission Report to balance the picture of the source of violence in Syria. In particular, the Nicaraguan Ambassador stressed that there is “armed violence by irregular groups supported by foreign powers against the Syrian people.” She feared a Libya style UN solution. She urged that the General Assembly not allow R2P “to become a devious argument to justify intervention in the domestic affairs of states.”[50]

Russia offered the same amendments it had in the Security Council. Several delegates supported the amendments and criticized the draft resolution for seeking to violate Syria’s sovereignty. The amendments were not considered. The vote was taken and 137 member nations voted for the resolution. About one quarter of the membership did not, including Russia and China.

The General Assembly resolution mostly condemned the Syrian government. It did recognize that “armed groups” are active. It demanded that the Syrian government “cease all violence and protect its population” and called for full support for the Arab plan to facilitate a Syrian-led political transition in accordance with the timetable set out by the League of Arab States. The resolution requested that the Secretary General appoint a special envoy and report on implementation within 15 days.[51] But the General Assembly did not and could not call for member state action. The Charter reserves requiring action of member states for the Security Council.

One week later, Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General was appointed Joint Special Envoy (JSE) of the UN and Arab League. His mandate was to promote a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis guided by the General Assembly resolution with its “political transition” formula. Secretary General appointments do not require Security Council approval, but there appeared to be no objections raised.

Kofi Annan issued a six point peace plan for a ceasefire on the part of the government. He would seek a similar commitment from the opposition’s various forces and supporters. An agreement was somehow reached for a ceasefire by April 12, 2012. On April 14, for the first time the Security Council passed a resolution on the crisis situation in Syria.[52] The Council agreed to send an advance team of 30 observers to Syria to monitor the apparent ceasefire. One week later a second resolution was passed creating the United Nations Supervisor Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) to consist of up to 300 unarmed military observers for 90 days with the possibility of renewal.[53]

In the Korean situation, the SU rejected the legitimacy of UNTCOK and UNTCOK ended up serving the interests of the US. In the Syrian situation, Russia welcomed UNSMIS as offering a chance to help stop the violence while avoiding external intervention. The US gave its support but predicted failure. The US Ambassador greeted the UNSMIS with the warning, “Let there be no doubt, we, our allies and others in this body are planning and preparing for those actions that will be required of all of us if the Assad regime persists in the slaughter of the Syrian people.”[54]

IX. Conclusion: Is the UN role in Korea 1945-1953, the model being repeated today?

At the writing of this paper, June 15, 2012, it is too soon to know what role UNSMIS and the UN will continue to play in the Syrian crisis. Can the UN help to maintain international peace and security in this situation? There is a reform movement but also an armed opposition. There are terrorists. There is support for the anti-government groups from the US and its NATO allies including Turkey and from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. On the other side are the people in Syria who support the Syrian government which asserts that it embraces reform. There are opposition groups in Syria which reject the use of violence and oppose outside intervention. Russia and China in this case support the UN Charter principles of respect for state sovereignty. Several member states of the UN oppose R2P and its justification of interference by external forces into internal strife and crises. Having helped the world to have a divided Korea and a ruined Libya, is there any reason to hope the UN’s role will lead Syria to a better fate?

The UN is a dilemma. It provides a forum for more than one side or just the major powers to be heard. It provides for the gathering of all nations and the possibility with its deliberations for compromises or new networks of nations to emerge. But still one of the world’s major powers, the US had dominance in the Korean situation and with its allies in the Libyan situation. In the Syrian crisis, Russia and China have so far challenged and resisted that dominance. The challenge is not just from those two states and the several others who voted against the General Assembly resolution or abstained when Russia and China vetoed the first Security Council resolution. That challenge is also taken up by some very few journalists at the UN and by the much greater body of netizen journalists who have begun to analyze and circulate the voice of the challengers and add their own minds and research and voice. The Syrian crisis is a test whether with this help the UN can start to shake off the Korean model of manipulated elections, wars and divisions and live up to the best of its Purposes and Principles.

  • [1] Declaration by the United Nations, January 1, 1942  https://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/decade03.asp
  • [2] Charter of the United Nations (hereafter, Charter) Chapter I, Article 2, paragraphs 1, 4, 7. https://www.un.org/en/documents/charter/
  • [3] Quoted in Bruce Cumings, The Origins of the Korean War (Volume 1): Liberation and the Emergence of Separate Regimes 1945-1947, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981 (hereafter, Origins I) p. 106.
  • [4] Cumings, Origins I, pp. 215-217.
  • [5] Ibid, Chapter Eleven, ‘The North Wind” and Chapter Nine, “The Fate of the Committees in the Provinces”.
  • [6] I. F. Stone, The Hidden History of the Korean War, New York, Monthly Review Press, 1952 (hereafter, Hidden History), pp. 75-76
  • [7] Bruce Cumings, The Origins of the Korean War: Volume II The Roaring of the Cataract 1947-1950 , Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1990 (hereafter, Origins II), pp. 65-66 and note 97 p. 784.
  • [8] Charter, Articles 10 and 11.
  • [9] As quoted in Leon Gordenker, The United Nations and the Peaceful Unification of Korea: The Politics of Field Operations, 1947-1950, The Hague, Matinus Nijhoff, 1959 (hereafter, Field Operations), p.17 and  p. 283 note 42.
  • [10] Soon Sung Cho, Korea in World Politics 1940-1950: An Evaluation of American Responsibility, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1967, (hereafter, Korea in World Politics) p. 174 and note 44.
  • [11] General Assembly Resolution 112 (II), 14 Nov 1947, online at: https://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/2/ares2.htm
  • [12] Cumings, Origins II, pp. 72-73.
  • [13] As quoted in Soon, Korea in World Politics, pp. 184-185.
  • [14] Leland M. Goodrich and Edvard Hambro, Charter of the United Nations: Commentary and Documents, Boston, World Peace Foundation, 1949 (hereafter, Commentary), p. 69.
  • [15] As quoted in Soon, Korea in World Politics, p. 187.
  • [16] Ibid, pp. 187-188
  • [17] Gordenker, Field Operations, pp. 74-75
  • [18] Soon, Korea in World Politics, p. 189-190
  • [19] As quoted in Gordenker, Field Operations, p. 81 and note 60 p. 288.
  • [20] Ibid, p.82.
  • [21] Lester B. Pearson, Memoirs, Toronto, University of Toronto press, 1973, p. 137, as quoted in John Price, “The ‘Cat’s Paw’: Canada and the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea”, in The Canadian History Review, 85, 2, June 2004 (hereafter, Cat’s Paw), p. 308 and note 28. Online at: https://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/canadian_historical_review/v085/85.2price.html  (access restricted).
  • [22] Price, Cat’s Paw. See note 21.
  • [23] Gordenker, Field Observations, p. 106. See also, Cumings, Origins II, pp. 72-78.
  • [24] Bruce Cumings, The Korean War: A History, New York, Modern Library Press, 2010, pp. 124-125.
  • [25] Price, Cat’s Paw, p. 320.
  • [26] As quoted in Frank Baldwin, (editor) Without Parallel: The American-Korean Relationship Since 1945, New York, Pantheon Books, 1973, p.12 and note 3, p.16.
  • [27] General Assembly Resolution 195 (III) 1948. Available on line at: https://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/3/ares3.htm
  • [28] Stone, Hidden History, p. 49.Many of the following details are from Parts I and II of this book but cross referenced where possible with other tellings of this history.
  • [29] Ibid, pp. 48 and 50. Stone comments “It was neither honorable nor wise for the U.N. under pressure from an interested great power to condemn a country for aggression without investigation and without hearings its side of the case.”
  • [30] Ibid, p.52.
  • [31] Ibid, pp. 324-25.
  • [32] “Dennis Kucinich speaks to Congress about the conflict in Libya: text of speech”, March 31, 2011, online at: https://www.cleveland.com/open/index.ssf/2011/03/dennis_kucinich_speaks_to_cong.html
  • [33] UN Security Council Resolution 1970 (2011). On line at: https://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/refworld/rwmain?docid=4d6ce9742
  • [34] UN Security Council Resolution 1973 (2011), adopted by a vote of 10 in favor to none against, with 5 abstentions (Brazil, China, Germany, India, Russian Federation). On line with commentary at: https://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2011/sc10200.doc.htm
  • [35] Michel Chossudovsky, “SYRIA: Who is Behind The Protest Movement? Fabricating a Pretext for a US-NATO ‘Humanitarian Intervention’”, May 3, 2011. Online at: https://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=24591.
  • [36] See e.g., “Security Council Report Update Report No. 2 Syria 26 May 2011” online at: https://www.securitycouncilreport.org/site/pp.aspx?c=glKWLeMTIsG&b=7494091&printmode=1
  • [37] See e.g., Bashar Jaafari, Aug 10 UN media stakeout https://www.unmultimedia.org/tv/webcast/2011/08/bashar-jaafari-syria-security-council-media-stakeout-2.html and Aug 18 UN media stakeout https://www.unmultimedia.org/tv/webcast/2011/08/bashar-jaafari-syria-on-syria-security-council-media-stakeout.html
  • [38] United Nations document S/PRST/2011/16. Online at: https://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N11/442/75/PDF/N1144275.pdf?OpenElement
  • [39] “Lebanon Disavows U.N. Statement Condemning Syria‎”, online at: https://www.naharnet.com/stories/en/11929
  • [40] Charter, Article 1, paragraph 1.
  • [41] Charter, Article 2, paragraph 7.
  • [42] Paraphrased in UN Document SC/10403, online at: https://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2011/sc10403.doc.htm
  • [43] See Jean Bricmont, A More Just World and the Responsibility to Protect, 9 July 2009, online at https://www.un.org/ga/president/63/interactive/protect/jean.pdf
  • [44] Paraphrased in UN Document SC/10403, online at https://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2011/sc10403.doc.htm
  • [45] Charter, Article 52, paragraph 1.
  • [46] League of Arab States Observer Mission to Syria, “Report of the Head of the League of Arab States Observer Mission to Syria for the period from 24 December 2011 to 18 January 2012″ (hereafter, Report). Online at: https://www.columbia.edu/~hauben/Report_of_Arab_League_Observer_Mission.pdf
  • [47] See e.g., Ronda Hauben, “Al Observer Report Corrects Media Narratives about Syria,” January 31, 2012, online at taz.de: https://blogs.taz.de/netizenblog/2012/01/31/observer-mission-report-syria/
  • [48] “Examples of those acts include the bombing of a civilian bus, killing eight persons and injuring others, including women and children, and the bombing of a train carrying diesel oil. In another incident in Homs, a police bus was blown up, killing two police officers. A fuel pipeline and some small bridges were also bombed.” Report, paragraph 27
  • [49] See, e.g., Ronda Hauben, “Defending the UN Charter by Use of the Veto: The SC Resolution on Syria”, online at taz.de: https://blogs.taz.de/netizenblog/2012/02/11/defending-the-un-charter/
  • [50] Ronda Hauben, “Using the UN GA to Endorse the AL Regime Change Agenda for Syria”, online at taz.de: https://blogs.taz.de/netizenblog/2012/02/19/un-ga-meeting-syria/
  • [51] General Assembly Resolution A/RES/66/253, online at: https://daccess-ods.un.org/access.nsf/Get?Open&DS=A/RES/66/253&Lang=E
  • [52] See, e.g, https://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2012/sc10609.doc.htm
  • [53] See, e.g., https://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2012/sc10618.doc.htm
  • [54] Quoted by Edith M. Lederer in “UN authorizes 300 observers in Syria”, The Boston Globe, April 22, 2012. Online at: https://articles.boston.com/2012-04-22/world/31378147_1_syria-end-military-observers-cease-fire-observers/2


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