Putting Civilians First

As I survey the commentary on the current crisis in Israel and Lebanon from traditionally anti-UN media outlets like Front Page Magazine and the New York Sun, it has become clear that UN critics have a decidedly polarized view of the United Nations’ role in armed conflict. According to these critics, anything less than the full support of the military objectives of one party to a conflict is evidence that the United Nations supports the opposing side. So if the Secretary General and his staff do not lend support to the Israeli bombardment of southern Lebanon, then they must be Hezbollah sympathizers.But choosing sides during a conflict of this nature is simply not something the United Nations does. Rather, the duty of the General Secretariat in a crisis like this is to reduce the suffering of civilians caught in the conflict. So when Jan Egeland says that both sides have violated international humanitarian law, it does not mean, as the anti-UN hordes would have it, that the UN is a tool of Hezbollah. Rather, as the United Nations top humanitarian official, he is foremost concerned about the well being of civillian non-combatants.

In this case, the Secretary General has concluded that an appeal to end the violence through a cease-fire is the best way to reduce suffering of the civilian population of northern Israel and Lebanon. And to that end, the United Nations is opening lines of dialogue like no other entity can. A three member UN team has met with top officials from both sides, and there is talk of envoys being sent to Iran and Syria–countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel. By not taking sides, the United Nations is playing an indispensible role in this crisis.