The ability of the United Nations to maintain peace and security in the Middle East during the Cold War



Analiza CIM no. 9/2011

Wrzesień 2011

“The UN was created not to take humanity to heaven but save it from hell.”

Dag Hammarskjöld


The United Nations (UN) was created in 1945 as a part of the post-war world order “to maintain international peace and security”. (1) Its constituting document, the Charter, provides several mechanisms of dealing with the threats to peace; they can be divided into three categories. To start with, it suggests peaceful means of seeking the conflicts’ resolution, such as “negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements…” (2) Furthermore, there are non-military coercive measures which, together with the third category, are exclusive competence of the Security Council (SC) under the Chapter VII of the Charter. “These may include complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, air, postal, telegraphic, radio, and other means of communication, and the severance of diplomatic relations.” (3) Finally, as Article 42 states, the UN can also undertake military action against parties with a use of air, sea or land forces in order to maintain or restore peace and security world-wide. Moreover, in the process of coping with global issues, the peacekeeping mechanism, observation missions and the Uniting for Peace procedure were formed within the structure of the UN, although the Charter does not legitimise them directly.

This paper aims to examine the ability of the UN to implement aforementioned means in order to maintain peace and security in the Middle East during the Cold War era. Therefore I find extremely important to set borders of the space-time for following analysis. First, I apply the narrow definition of the Middle East as a region comprising territories of Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and states located on the Arabian Peninsula (4) albeit, having in mind the scope of this paper, the discussion will be limited to the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Furthermore, under the term ‘Cold War’ one should understand the period between 5 March 1946 and 9 November 1989. (5)

The Background

The Cold War era which began in mid-1940s can be described as a permanent rivalry between the West led by the Unites States and the East under the Soviet Union’s leadership; the rivalry in the political, military and economic spheres, not only in bilateral relations but also within international organisations such as the United Nations. In this highly adverse international environment one of the most troublesome issues of the post-war era has arisen – the statehood of Israel and its imperishable struggle for survival among Arab neighbourhood. In spring 1947 the British Cabinet announced to the Secretary General (the SG) its readiness for withdrawal from Palestine (6) within one year and in fact handed the problem of governing the area where both Jews and Arabs wanted to create their states, to the UN.

In fact, the beginning of the UN’s activity in the Middle East was very complicated. Proper institutions and mechanisms of cooperation had not been fully developed by that time; a problematic sphere was also the uncertainty about the competences of particular UN organs and their mutual relations. For instance, the Palestine Commission (PC, established to implement the partition plan of Palestine) was not sure about its responsibility and relations with the SC, so it asked for a special paper from the SG to clear the situation. Moreover, major UN organs have created different auxiliary bodies with coinciding terms of reference. Except the PC (appointed by General Assembly, GA), there were also the Truce Commission for Palestine (established by SC), the Special Municipal Commissioner for Jerusalem (recommended by GA, appointed by the UK), the UN Mediator (founded by the decision of GA), the Truce Supervision Organisation (created by UN Mediator) and the Palestine Conciliation Commission (established by GA), all of them concerned with peaceful settlement. When adding to that non-UN agencies involved in arranging truces (e.g. the British High Commissioner and the International Committee of the Red Cross), one can see an excessive bureaucracy and lack of ability to act together. (7)

The Security Council and Coercive Measures (Art. 41 & 42)

The inter-bloc competition during the Cold War had a strong influence on the UN’s ability to maintain international peace; it was highly dependent on the superpowers’ willingness to act in accordance with the Charter. In other words, the UN’s effectiveness to respond to threats to peace was a result of both blocs’ geopolitical interests. The division was easy to observe particularly within the Security Council, even though at the end of the 1940s the compromise was still possible to achieve, whereas in further decades rather unlikely.

Being aware of a unique character of the Arab-Israeli problem, none of the governments wanted to be directly involved in its resolution. What is more, in 1947-9 none of the permanent members of the SC, maybe except China, could remain unbiased in the conflict: the United States had a powerful pro-Zionist lobby within its borders, the Soviet Union presented an anti-colonialist stance (hence it was strongly pro-Israel), the United Kingdom wanted to wash its hands of Palestine and France had its own special interests in the region and was not prone to get involved. (8) Lack of political will led to the paralysis of the SC and, as it also happened in case of further crises, it was not able to declare any side as an aggressor and therefore apply to coercive measures under Chapter VII. Thereby it could just call upon “all persons and organisations” and to refrain from “importing or acquiring or assisting or encouraging the importation or acquisition of weapons and war materials” and later upon “all governments” to “refrain from importing or exporting raw materials” (9) (general military embargo), instead of requesting it. (10) Thus the General Assembly had to assume a responsibility for managing the problem.

Even more unfavourable situation occurred during the Suez Crisis in 1956-7 when two out of five permanent members of the SC – the United Kingdom and France – were politically and militarily involved in an action against Egypt and its plans to nationalize the Suez Canal. What is not surprising, they vetoed the SC resolution to oppose their aggression and due to the SC ineffectiveness because of ‘permanent misuse of the veto’ (11) there was no other choice but to cede a problem to the GA under the Uniting for Peace Procedure. (12) What is worth remarking is the fact that the Russians have altered their policy in the Middle East meanwhile, moving from pro-Israel position into strongly opponent one (since 1950s the Soviet Union was representing Arab interests in the SC). The Security Council was also paralyzed in 1967 prior to and during the June War, although it had a slightly different background. The initiative for calling a meeting of the Council is normally undertaken by its President. It happened in 1967 that the Nationalist China was leading the SC whereas seven of the Council members recognized the mainland Chinese government and another seven – the Nationalist regime on Taiwan. “This made the normal consultative process virtually impossible, thus placing a special responsibility on the Secretary General.” (13) Therefore it is intriguing why U-Thant did not use the Article 99 procedure (14) to call the SC meeting once it became clear that none of the other possible ways of doing it had any chance to be implemented. However, when the SC finally started to work properly, it adopted the Resolution 242 (1967) which has become a basis of the peace process for the following decades. (15) Its text was a matter of negotiations for nearly two months in order to make it acceptable to the main parties and was even described as “a new level of achievement in international diplomacy.” (16)

The SC’s ability to implement its decision-making mechanisms came back in the early 1970s. When facing the Yom Kippur war in 1973, it was even possible to undertake decisive steps towards maintaining peace, although none of them was applicable to Art. 41 or 42 of the Charter: SC resolutions called upon all parties to cease fire, then demanded it and established the UN Emergency Force (UNEF) to monitor the truce etc. (17) On the contrary, a role of the UN as a protector of peace in the region started to decline due to American, especially Richard Nixon’s and Henry Kissinger’s attitude. They saw the United Nations as “largely anti-American and anti-Israeli institution” (18) which only provided the possibility for the Soviet Union’s involvement in the region. As Urquhart indicates, “its peace-keeping capacity was still valuable, but its intergovernmental organs, the Security Council and, especially, the General Assembly, were no longer regarded as impartial forums” by both Israel and the US. “By the mid-1970s it had become a secondary player in Middle Eastern affairs.” (19)

Non-coercive Measures (Art. 33)

Undoubtedly the most common way of dealing with the Middle Eastern problem was the use of means of peaceful settlement listed in Article 33 of the Charter. The first two, negotiation and enquiry, are bilateral processes involving only the parties (although the latter may involve assistance of the others). Therefore once the conflict breaks out, the UN organs ‘first of all’ call upon the fighting parties to stop violence and then encourage them to negotiate. In case of the Middle East this took place several times (e.g. SC Resolutions 61, 62 and 73 in 1948-9), especially due to the lack of political will to get directly involved. (20) However, the most effective of all non-coercive measures, at least towards the Arab-Israeli Conflict, were mediation, good offices (21) and conciliation – all require involvement of purportedly disinterested person, state or agency to assist the parties with reaching the agreement. (22)

The UN Mediator in Palestine, Count Folke Bernadotte, was appointed on the basis of GA Resolution to “use his good offices with the local and community authorities in Palestine” in order to “[p]romote a peaceful adjustment of the future situation of Palestine.” (23) As Bailey presents, Bernadotte claimed that his task was to help the parties to solve the problem rather than to act as an advocate of the UN decisions. “I have not considered myself bound by the provisions of the 29 November resolution [partition plan of Palestine], since, had I done so, there would have been no meaning to my mediation.” (24) In fact, except mediating the conflict, his responsibilities included also demarcating the cease-fire lines and supervising cease-fires, arms embargo and humanitarian aid transports, which sometimes were incompatible and difficult to combine. Nonetheless, Bernadotte has succeeded to organise and supervise two cease-fires and to create the UN Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO, first military observation mission of the UN). His successor (25) Ralph Bunche, described as “a patient chairman and an ingenious draughtsman,” (26) continued this quite successful mission and by leading bilateral negotiations he managed to sign armistices between Israel and its neighbours.

Extremely important was the role of the UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld during the Suez Crisis. When the first tensions between Israel and Egypt arose in spring 1956, he has undertaken negotiations and managed to obtain a cease-fire, however the nationalisation of the Suez Canal undermined it. Later on, by 6 November 1956, he negotiated the arrangements for a cease-fire and UNEF (the UN Emergency Force) to supervise the withdrawal. (27) What is worth pointing out is personal authority of the SG. Hammarskjöld was perceived as a skilful diplomat and at the same time had very good private relations with both the Israel’s Prime Minister Ben Gurion and the Egyptian Foreign Minister Mahmud Fawzi what allowed him to get their acceptance of the UNEF. (28) Another “patient, discreet, modest and fair-minded” (29) diplomat – Gunnar Jarring – was responsible for negotiations and good offices after the June War of 1967. Nevertheless, despite his personal abilities, he did not achieve a peaceful settlement of the conflict, mainly because of “misunderstanding and an ambiguity about the resolution authorizing his mission.” (30) Further negotiations, after the Yom Kippur War, were led by Henry Kissinger. However crucial for the peace process in the Middle East, they were held under auspices of the US State Department and therefore will not be a matter of consideration in this paper.

The well-known example of the UN’s conciliation efforts in the Middle East is the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine established by GA Resolution 194 “to assume . . . the functions given to the United Nations Mediator” and “to assist the Governments and authorities concerned to achieve a final settlement of all questions.” (31) It considered many arguable issues which arose between Israel and Arab states, such as the special status of Jerusalem, refugees problem, use of transportation and communication facilities, borders or a comprehensive peace. It is still in existence, although it does not perform an effective role anymore. (32) Further means of peaceful settlement: arbitration, juridical settlement and resort to regional agencies or arrangements have never been obtained in the Middle East.

Uniting for Peace Procedure

The whole procedure finds its beginning in the Uniting for Peace Resolution of 1950, which gives the GA the authority to consider “a threat to the peace . . . or act of aggression” when the SC “fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security” due to the lack of unanimity among its permanent members. (33) It was adopted several times with reference to the Middle East, first in 1956. Whereas the SC could not deal with the crisis because of a veto paralysis, the GA insisted on an instantaneous cease-fire and withdrawal of all forces involved; it also established the UN Emergency Force, the first mission of peacekeeping characteristics in the UN history. Despite its relatively good prospects, it could not be implemented without states’ consent due to the lack of relevant authority of the GA. As Urquhart remarks, both the Procedure and the UNEF were “a milestone in the development of the UN.” (34) Although all the subsequent sessions were rather unsuccessful and had just opinion forming and moral character, they enabled to deal with severe problems in the most democratic of the UN organs notwithstanding.


Observation & Peacekeeping Missions – “Chapter 6 ½”

The idea of the UN’s presence in the conflict area arose for the first time in case of Palestine in 1948 as an initiative of the UN Mediator Bernadotte. The UN Truce Supervision Organisation was responsible for, among others, monitoring cease-fires, supervising armistice agreements and preventing isolated accidents from escalating; it performs its functions until today. (35) Yoder describes it as an institution having “a genuine international character, which obtain[s] respect that would not be given to groups made up of parties who take sides in the conflict.” (36) The first full peacekeeping mission to be established was the UNEF, a mission which legitimisation was based in the GA resolution, therefore not having the authority to impose its decisions upon the states. Whereas Egypt accepted UNEF within its borders, “Israel, however, has consistently refused to consent to the presence of a UN military force on its territory.” (37) Nonetheless, the international force has played an important role in stabilising the Middle East and was a buffer between British and French invading forces and Egyptian army, a catalyst for British, French and Israeli withdrawal from Sinai and afterwards a buffer between Egyptian and Israeli forces in Gaza and Sinai. (38) However, it has occurred that a peacekeeping force appointed on the basis of the consent of the parties and without military capacity “can easily be brushed aside by a determined government.” (39) In May 1967 Egyptian Government requested the UNEF Commander to withdraw his forces. (40)

Amazingly important role of the presence of even small, lightly-armed international force has been confirmed after the 1973 War, when the SC established the UNEF II in order to monitor the truce between Egypt and Israel (7,000 troops without soldiers of the superpowers). (41) A year later another peacekeeping mission – the UN Disengagement Observer Forces – was set up to patrol a cease-fire line and neutral zone of the Golan Heights. Everything because “Kissinger . . . found that the UN peacekeeping forces were essential to his diplomacy in the Middle East,” (42) even if the UN itself was rather useless from his point of view.

Moreover, the UN’s experiences in peacekeeping have become a basis for subsequent international forces established in the region by the United States. In the Camp David peace process, in 1981, the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) was created in order to supervise “the implementation of the treaty’s security arrangements following Israel’s withdrawal” and to prevent any violation in the area. (43) After Israeli-Lebanese War another mission, the Multinational Force (MNF), was founded to “provide appropriate assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces,” (44) again similar to UN’s previous operations and again beyond its structure.

Worth remarking is also the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) which “has served the Arab refugees in the fields of relief, health and education” (45) since 1948 and played a vital role in the region, however largely unrecognised and underestimated.



Despite severe UN’s interest and involvement in the Middle East, (46) it is not easy to clearly assess its credibility and ability to oppose threats to peace and security in this unstable region. As it was mentioned before, there were intensely negative aspects of the UN policy towards the region, especially among the Security Council. Very often contradictory interests and therefore lack of consensus between the East and the West led to blockade of decision making procedures. The SC was not prone to declare any side of the conflict as an aggressor and thus could not apply to measures provided by Chapter VII of the Charter, whether military or non-military. Hence the UN had to invoke a makeshift – a non-forceful peacekeeping which could not handle military force or even low-scale violence. However, had not the UN established peacekeeping missions, there would not have been even this minimal level of peace or some degree of calm the region has enjoyed. What is more, the UN’s involvement in negotiations process and extraordinary efforts of personalities such as Ralph Bunche or Dag Hammarskjöld to mediate successfully played a crucial role in establishing the truces, armistices and a framework for a peace process in general. On the contrary, the partiality towards one side of a conflict among great majority of the UN members by all odds has declined the UN’s credibility to deal with this unquestionably difficult problem. Nevertheless, without it, one can say, the world would be like a jungle.


(1) Art. 1, The UN Charter, <> (12 February 2009).
(2) Art. 33, The UN Charter, <> (12 February 2009).
(3) Art. 41, The UN Charter, <> (12 February 2009).
(4) A definition consistent with the opinion of the US State Department from 1958 quoted in: Roderic H. Davidson, “Where is the Middle East,”  Foreign Affairs, 38:4 (July 1960), p. 665. In fact in the UN nomenclature problems of the Middle East are limited to the Arab-Israeli Conflict.
(5) Commonly respected dates: 5 March 1946 – the Winston Churchill’s speech in Fulton (US) about the ‘Iron Curtain’ dividing the West and the East; 9 November 1989 – the fall of the Berlin Wall.
(6) As its previous mandate within the League of Nations.
(7) Sydney D. Bailey, Four Arab-Israeli Wars and the Peace Process (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1990), p. 396.
(8) Brian Urquhart, “The United Nations in the Middle East: A 50-Year Retrospective,” Middle East Journal, 49:4 (Autumn 1995), pp. 573-574.
(9) United Nations Security Council Resolutions 46 (1948), 17 April 1948  and 50 (1948), 29 May 1948,<> (13 February 2009).
(10) Sydney D. Bailey, How wars end: The United Nations and the termination of armed conflict 1946-64. Vol. 1. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), 196-198.
(11) Paradoxically, the phrase was first used by Sir Pierson Dixon, the Permanent Representative from the UK to the UN in 1954-1960 when describing  Soviet Union’s sympathy towards Nasser’s Egypt. Quoted in: S. Bailey, Four Arab-Israeli Wars…, op. cit., p. 148.
(12) However, all three invading countries had expected that Anglo-French vetoes ‘would remove the UN from the arena’. S. Bailey, Four…, op. cit., pp. 145-8; Amos Yoder, The evolution of the United Nations system (Washington, London: Taylor & Francis, 1997), p. 54.
(13) Bailey, Four…, op. cit., p. 409.
(14) “The Secretary-General may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.” Art 99, The UN Charter <> (13 February 2009).
(15) It described, among others, principles of peace in the Middle East: ‘withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict’ and ‘respect for and acknowledge of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area’. United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 (1967), 22 November 1967, <> (13 February 2009).
(16) Arthur Lall, The UN and the Middle East Crisis 1967 (New York, London: Columbia University Press, 1968), p. 279.
(17) United Nations Security Council Resolutions 338 (1973), 22 October 1973 and 340 (1973), 25 October 1973, <> (13 February 2009).
(18) Jerry Pubantz, John Allphin Moore, Jr. , “Best of Times, Worst of Times: The Fortunes of the United Nations in the Middle East,” Turkish Journal of International Relations, 2:2 (Summer 2003),  p. 123.
(19) B. Urquhart, op. cit., p. 578.
(20) S. Bailey, How…, op. cit., pp. 158-163.
(21) Not namely stated in Article 33, although commonly used as one of ‘other peaceful means’.
(22) Ibid., pp. 163, 166-7.
(23) United Nations General Assembly Resolution 186 (S-2), 14 May 1948. Quoted in: S. Bailey, Four…, op. cit., p. 76.
(24) Count Folke Bernadotte. Quoted in: S. Bailey, How…, op. cit., p. 169.
(25) Bernadotte was assassinated by Zionist group Lehi on 17 September 1948.
(26) S. Bailey, Four…, op. cit., p. 399.
(27) A. Yoder, op. cit., pp. 54-55.
(28) B. Urquhart, op. cit., p. 575.
(29) S. Bailey, Four…, op. cit., p. 412.
(30) Ibid., p. 413.
(31) United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 (III), 11 December 1948. Quoted in: S. Bailey, How…, op. cit., p. 165.
(32) S. Bailey, Four…, op. cit., p. 401.
(33) United Nations General Assembly Resolution A-RES-377(V), 3 November 1950, <> (13 February 2009).
(34) B. Urquhart, op. cit., p. 575.
(35) United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation <>  (13 February 2009).
(36) A. Yoder, op. cit., p. 52.
(37) S. Bailey, Four…, op. cit., p. 404.
(38) B. Urquhart, op. cit., p. 575.
(39) Ibid., p. 577.
(40) A. Yoder, op. cit., pp. 56-57; S. Bailey, Four…, op. cit., pp. 191-194.
(41) A. Yoder, op. cit., p. 60.
(42) Ibid., p. 61.
(43) Richard Nelson, “Multinational peacekeeping in the Middle East and the United Nations model,” International Affairs, 61:1 (Winter 1985), p. 69.
(44) Ibid., p. 72.
(45) Harry N. Howard, “The United Nations in the Middle East,” Current History, 60:353 (January 1971),  p. 49.
(46) During the Cold War, 189 out of 552 (34%; excluding resolutions about admitting new members to the organisation) SC Resolutions have considered the problems of the Middle East. 8 out of 17 (47%) UN operations implemented in 1946-1989 have taken place in the region. Similarly, 5 out of 9 (56%) GA Emergency Special Sessions were devoted to the Middle Eastern issues.

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