The UN: ‘Always try to do nothing’

Written By: Ian Williams
Published: November 21, 2017 Last modified: November 21, 2017

It is more decades than I care to remember that I turned up in the grey corridors of the UN and began to write about the place for Tribune and others. Interestingly, years of exposure to British unions and the Labour Party gave me the resolutionary framework to deal with this fascinating multinational bureaucracy, where the title holders did not necessarily pull the switches and where those who made grand principled speeches were often only kidding. This was a multilingual version of Liverpool Town Hall.

The UN has changed – perhaps more than the Town Hall. So, my friend “Krishna” a Canadian cartoonist who had worked for the UN across the world teamed up with me to illustrate Untold: The Real Story of the UN in Peace and War. The book is intended to be deadly humorous, to keep readers awake when faced with a body that can be cataleptic even as it deals with catastrophe.

The United Nations was founded in a flush of enthusiasm, almost worthy of Wordsworth on the French Revolution:
      Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
      But to be young was very heaven!
After more than seventy years both the bliss and the youth are well attenuated, and as a commentator admonished long ago, the purpose of the organization was not to take us to Heaven, but to stop us going to Hell.

The UN is often treated with unctuous verbal reverence, often by those with little regard for its declared purposes. Western politicians who had fought ferociously against UN decisions on Israel or South Africa would piously preach on the need to follow its mandates against Iran, Iraq or whatever the villain state of the day was in Washington. Whenever they got a decision they wanted, it was a mandate from Heaven, yet if they did not like the vote, it was merely advisory, non-binding. It is not surprising that there is often blowback against such expedient diplomatic cherry-picking. As we went to press, the British candidate for a judge’s seat at the International Court of Justice was poised on the edge of defeat after successive run-off votes for a position that had been “accepted” as British since the Court began in 1946. Patriotic feeling aside, it was a well-deserved setback.

The candidate, Sir Christopher Greenwood, had originally been nominated by then Foreign Secretary David Miliband for his eminent services to international law – which included giving a legal thumbs-up to Tony Blair’s disastrous invasion of Iraq. Boris Johnson’s renomination of him exemplifies White­hall’s recently idiosyncratic view of international law in the UN.

And of course, earlier in the summer, the UN General Assembly voted to refer Britain’s ethnic cleansing of the Chagos Islanders to the same court. To the surprise of no one outside Theresa May’s government, many EU governments abstained instead of backing Britain.

These setbacks say a lot about recent British governments’ conduct of foreign affairs and how they affect the country’s stature at the United Nations. They are also eloquent about public and media inattention to the organization – certainly inside the alleged special relationship axis of London and Washington where the near unanimous vote condemning US sanctions on Cuba was barely mentioned.

This is actually dangerous for democracy since the silence about how their governments vote and behave in the UN gives them a free hand. The sad fact is that the UN is regarded as too boring for anyone to take notice. To be fair, in times past, the UN itself preferred to be boring in word and deed. It was said of Secretary General Perez de Cuellar that if he fell off a boat, there wouldn’t be a splash, and bureaucrats often composed UN prose according to George Orwell’s memorable formula, “A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up the details,” – but rephrased in the passive mode. As in word, so in deed. Old UN hands sometimes earnestly schooled young protégés “Always try to do nothing,” as the sure and safe way to promotion and well-pensioned retirement.

Similarly, diplomats have never seen a problem that cannot be fobbed off with yet another “high level” panel or committee endlessly investigating.

But things have changed. Operating below the headlines, the UN has really taken the place of the unlamented News of the World –All Human Life is Here. It is one of its image problems. It is difficult to maintain a clear image when you focus on everything. But despite its absurdities and occasional tedium, it is an essential part of the modern world and those who question its principles, say by invading Iraq, or condoning occupying the West Bank or allowing a Saudi seat on the Security Council, diminish us all.

It might be subjective of me, but the UK was never more highly regarded than in days of Robin Cook and Claire Short, who understood and supported that.

Untold: The Real Story of the UN in Peace and War by Ian Williams is published by Just World Books (, £16.73.).


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About Ian Williams

Ian Williams is Tribune's UN correspondent