The UN: A brief history of the UK’s long opposition

In the mainstream, the official view is that British governments provide enduring support to the United Nations. The opposite is true: it is clear from the historical record that the UN has traditionally been seen as a major threat.

Britain’s ambassador to the UN, Patrick Dean, lamented to the Foreign Secretary in 1963 about ‘an international climate which makes unilateral protection of interests by military means increasingly complicated and difficult’. He was then complaining of the widespread opposition at the UN towards British policies on Rhodesia and British Guiana. Britain, he stated, had a ‘diversity of interests of every kind all over the world’ but these ‘are less and less capable of protection by her own physical strength’.

In the last half of the cold war, 1965–1990, Britain cast more than twice as many vetoes in the UN Security Council as the Soviet Union – 27 to 13 – mainly to protect the racist regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa from full international sanctions (the US applied 69 vetoes over the same period). The last veto cast by the Soviet Union before it collapsed was in 1984; over the next six years Britain cast 10 Security Council vetoes (the US, 32). I have yet to see any mention of this consistent British obstruction of the UN in mainstream analysis, which prefers stories about the cold war, or simply the Soviet veto, hobbling the UN.

In the 1950s, the UN was seen by British planners as ‘an instrument which can be used to promote the United Kingdom’s prestige and influence’. But a danger could arise given ‘the possibility, under the system of “one state, one vote”, for small nations to exert undue influence’, which ‘may endanger the ability of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth to preserve their essential interests from United Nations interference’, the Foreign Office noted.

A Foreign Office paper of 1964 states that ‘a specific British objective’ towards the UN is:

‘to use it as a channel of influence in the pursuit of British policies and for this purpose to maintain our existing privileged position as one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council’.

The Foreign Secretary in the Heath government, Alec Douglas-Home, wrote in 1970 that Britain’s position as a permanent member of the Security Council ‘gives us special opportunities for using the United Nations as a forum to exert our influence’. He then considered three policy options: first, to make the UN the major element in British foreign policy; second, a policy of minimal contribution and involvement in the UN; and third, a policy based on recognising the ‘practical limitations’ of the UN but also ‘its importance to the achievement of our foreign policy goals’. The first two options were rejected – the first since, according to Douglas-Home, other nations would not follow suit and the UN was unable anyway to become more effective. The third option was therefore the favoured one. This meant that the UN was not an organisation ‘which we can hope to use across the board to promote our interests’; this will happen ‘only occasionally and in certain fields’. It also meant that Britain should focus its efforts as part of the UN to achieving British objectives ‘and not to the long term hope that it will develop into a more effective world force’. On matters where ‘our essential national interests are affected’, Britain should ‘make clear in advance’ that it would be ready to use its veto.

This policy continues today. For the past 50 years, the essence of British strategy has been to ensure the UN’s failure to prevent or condemn Britain’s, or its allies’, acts of aggression. From 1980 to 1988, for example, Britain and the US vetoed 12 separate UN Security Council resolutions condemning apartheid South Africa – Britain vetoing 11 of these, the US all 12. After its brutal invasion of Angola, South Africa was protected from full international pariah status when the US vetoed, and Britain abstained on, a resolution in 1981. Britain used its veto in May 1986 against a draft resolution condemning South Africa’s attacks on Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, and the following month Britain and the US vetoed a resolution condemning South Africa for further attacks on Angola.

Margaret Thatcher with her friend and ally, the genocidal dictator General Suharto of Indonesia

When Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975, leading to the deaths of around 200,000 people in one of the bloodiest operations in post-war history, Britain in effect supported Jakarta at the UN. Declassified files show that the British planned before the invasion not to condemn the Indonesians and that ‘if there is a row in the United Nations . . . we should keep our heads down and avoid taking sides’. Between 1975 and 1982 there were two Security Council resolutions and eight General Assembly resolutions condemning the invasion and urging Indonesian withdrawal. Britain did vote in favour of the two Security Council resolutions, though these were weakly worded and simply ‘called upon’ Jakarta to withdraw. London abstained on, or voted against, all the General Assembly resolutions, while it provided arms to Indonesia and deepened aid, trade and diplomatic relations.

When the US organised an invasion of Guatemala in 1954 to overthrow the reformist nationalist government of Jacobo Arbenz, the Guatemalans took their case to the UN. A Guatemalan request for the Security Council to consider its complaints about external aggression was rejected partly due to abstentions from Britain and France, acting in support of US policy.

US aggression against Nicaragua in the 1980s resulted in condemnations from around the globe, while the US delivered seven UN vetoes between 1982 and 1986. On all of them, Britain declared its de facto support for Washington by abstaining. Thus Britain could not bring itself to condemn the mining of Nicaraguan ports by the US or support the ruling of the International Court of Justice which found the US aggression against Nicaragua to be illegal and which demanded the US comply with international law.

Similarly, when the US invaded Panama in 1989 it was not only Washington but also London that vetoed a draft resolution calling on the US to withdraw.

For the first decades of the post-war world, the British government fought tooth and nail to keep the UN out of its colonial affairs. In 1950, for example, the Colonial Office noted that such ‘ignorant or prejudiced outside interference would do uncalculable harm’. It also explicitly stated its fear that the colonial powers would have to become ‘accountable to the United Nations’, something which necessarily had to be avoided.

In the early 1960s, Britain undertook a covert, ‘dirty’ war in Yemen to destabilise a new, popular republican government. A British ministerial meeting of December 1963 concluded that ‘any proposal that the United Nations should be invited to find a solution for the problem should be resisted since it would be detrimental to our position’ in neighbouring Aden. The UN, explained Sir Roger Allen, deputy undersecretary at the Foreign Office, consisted only of ‘trouble makers’ and would reflect only the position of the Egyptians, then Britain’s rival in the region.

British policies have long been condemned at the UN and invariably ignored and deflected by Whitehall planners. After the British intervention in Oman in the 1960s to support the extremely repressive Sultan’s regime against a rebellion, the UN’s ad hoc committee produced a report in January 1966 concluding that Oman was a ‘serious international problem’ arising from ‘imperialistic policies and foreign intervention’. Afro-Asian delegates in the Fourth Committee, which dealt with colonial issues, tabled a motion stating that ‘the colonial policies of the UK in its various forms prevents the people of the territory from exercising their rights to self-determination and independence’, and calling on Britain to cease repressive activity and withdraw troops. This resolution was passed by large majorities in both the Fourth Committee and the General Assembly and was subsequently ignored by London, which got on with the business of backing its client.

When Britain invaded Egypt in October 1956, international condemnation provoked London’s first Security Council vetoes. Britain refused any serious attempts to resolve the dispute with Egypt through the UN since ‘neither the Security Council nor the General Assembly could give us what we wanted’, Foreign Office minister Anthony Nutting later explained. According to Geoff Simons’ study of the UN, Prime Minister at the time, Anthony Eden ‘was prepared to have the crisis discussed in the Security Council but only as a prelude to independent British action’. He notes that UN Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjold, did his best to ensure the success of talks at the UN ‘but there was a substantial British interest in their failure, and fail they did’, thus paving the way for military aggression.

During the civil war in Nigeria between 1967 and 1970, London backed the Lagos government’s brutal repression of the secessionist region of Biafra. This support included the prevention of any significant UN involvement in the war. Britain was ‘strongly opposed to any suggestion of taking the Nigerian question to the United Nations’, the Commonwealth Secretary told US officials at the time.

The files also show that due to public opposition to Britain’s policy of arming the Nigerian government during its aggression, British officials went through the motions at the UN of taking soundings on an arms embargo. The files make clear that this was done entirely for public relations, to demonstrate that an arms embargo was a ‘non-starter’ and so enable Britain to continue arming the regime. ‘The Prime Minister’s purpose in suggesting these soundings was presumably to strengthen our parliamentary position’, a Foreign Office official noted.

Western policy at the UN well before Iraq was described by former adviser to the Secretary General, Erskine Childers. He noted that the Western powers have long used ‘economic bribery and intimidation’ to get their way at the World Bank and IMF but that this had now been extended to the UN:

‘Whenever the Western powers are determined to get a given vote through either the Security Council . . . or the General Assembly . . . governments are warned. If they do not ‘behave’ they will not get debt relief, World Bank capital projects, easier IMF adjustment conditionalities or urgently needed hard currency IMF credit to pay oil bills. Reduction or cut-off in bilateral aid is an additional threat’.

This general contempt for the UN throughout the post-war era, starkly illustrated in the invasion of Iraq, reveals a fundamental issue at the heart of Britain’s foreign policy: that most of the world has traditionally been opposed to Britain’s major policies. This is the opposite of what our mainstream political culture generally claims – that Britain and the West are the guardians of the highest universal ideals and that it is others who are the barbarians.


Originally published: Mark Curtis (British foreign policy declassified)

This is an edited extract from Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses

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