In the rather dismal record of the UN in preventing conflict, there are some partial successes, just as there are some really impressive judgments by International Courts. This essay will discuss one of each. I have narrated both examples before in other contexts. They deserve to be viewed in this context as well. Noteworthy is the fact that US is center-stage in both.
The Suez Crisis
Completed in 1869, constructed by the French, and co-funded by Egypt and France, the Canal was jointly owned by the two countries. Suez Canal is an artificial waterway through an isthmus connecting the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean; and a huge shortcut. Not only are the currents in it unpredictable, it is narrow and without locks, making navigating it complicated and treacherous; requiring pilots familiar with the treachery who can navigate it.
This canal was of strategic significance commercially. However, in the era of colonies, its significance increased both, strategically and commercially. After WW 11, when colonization was ending, it retained its significance for transporting another strategic requirement; oil.
During straitened times, later in the 19th century, Egypt sold its shares in the canal to UK. All pilots that guided ships through the canal were either British or French. The original agreement stipulated that Egyptian pilots were to be trained, by the French, but they never did, and Egypt remained oblivious of the consequences.
After a successful coup, in 1956 Gamal Abdul Nasser became President of Egypt and decided to nationalize the canal. Obviously, this irked the two owners. Together with Israel, these two countries hatched a plot, called the Sevres Protocol. Israel was to attack Egypt and, these two, France and UK, would join in, ostensibly as peacekeepers, and take back the canal.
Despite the extensive and intensive intelligence services on both sides, neither US nor USSR got wind of the plot until after Israel’s invasion. Post nationalization of the canal, Nasser had acquired the services of Russian pilots to get ships through but, when Israel attacked, conscious of their limitations, Nasser ordered the canal blocked.
Despite numerous efforts by USSR and the US, they couldn’t get a resolution through the NSC, as both affected countries vetoed it. Eisenhower, Ike, then President, was fully conscious of the strategic significance if the canal fir the US and its allies. But, perhaps overestimating American influence on Egypt was determined to prevent further escalation of this conflict.
Stymied in the UNSC, he decided to set a fresh precedent. Fully conscious that the UNGA could not pass a binding resolution, he had his ambassador table a resolution condemning France and UK for their plot. I believe there were 137 members of the UN but, the resolution was passed unanimously, with two abstentions. No guess required as to which countries?
This unanimous condemnation sufficed to embarrass the two conspirators, prevent their participation, and conclude the war. The US got nothing out of it. Nasser took to the Russians and, the rest is history. Nonetheless, kudos to Ike. But, its only a US President who could carry this of; could another?
Nicaragua vs US
Unlike the UN, the International Court of Justice, ICJ, has more than one success to boast of. I merely picked the one I found most interesting.
The US has a long history of interfering in Nicaragua, starting 1909, when President Taft sent in forces to capture the country and emplace an American-friendly government; they did. Numerous incidents of American interference continued but, in 1979, a Socio-Communist Party, the Sandinistas came to power in Nicaragua. In 1981, Ronald Reagan was elected to office.
Reagan was, apparently, obsessed with anti-Communism and desperate to remove them. To which end, he wanted to fund the Contra rebels who were engaged in a guerrilla war against the Sandinistas. However, the most empowered leader among democrats, the US President is solely constrained when he needs congressional approval and, this Congress wasn’t giving Reagan a cent.
In his desperation, Reagan turned to more dubious, dishonest ways to find the funds to support the Contras. When this story broke, it was called the “Iran-Gate Scandal”. But, that isn’t our concern, we are more concerned with the cause why journalists pursued this truth so vigorously.
Fed up with US intervention in their country, Nicaragua filed suit in the ICJ against US in April, 1984. The US disputed ICJ jurisdiction on this issue. The ICJ reaffirmed its jurisdiction, and accepted the case for hearing. The US did not participate in the hearings. The ICJ can only give a judgment, if both parties agree to accept its verdict. If, however, as in this case, one party doesn’t, the ICJ can merely give a judgment which is a “non-binding opinion”.
The judgment came in 1986, ruling that US had violated international laws as well as bipartisan agreements between the two countries. It also ruled that US owed compensation to Nicaragua. However, the mere fact that the ICJ had accepted the case was sufficient for hounds to start sniffing. The legal significance is the notation by professor on International Law, Anthony D’Amato, to the effect that, “if law is to function only if both parties agree to the trial, no criminal [in this case, criminal country] would be tried, and mankind would return to jungle laws”. Did Reagan blush? Certainly not. But, D’Amato’s notation made clear that the ICJ had also been defanged so as to ensure international strife [and economy] continue to thrive undeterred.