Action for UN Renewal

campaign for reform of the United Nations


Carne Ross at Portcullis House (Westminster) on 20th February 2007

 (we are grateful to John McDonnell MP for hosting the meeting)
Chair: Karl Miller


Carne Ross resigned from the Foreign Office over the false information given by the government before the invasion of Iraq. He subsequently founded the non-profit-making Independent Diplomat, to help smaller countries and mount generic campaigns to deal with the diplomatic aspects of working with the United Nations.


His subject was ‘How the United Nations Security Council makes bad decisions’. A subtitle was ‘What it is like to be in the Security Council and affected by it’.


He spent 4 ½ years at the UN, rising to the rank of First secretary, working mainly on Middle East matters. Most of the time he was working as a ‘supposed expert’ on Iraq matters despite not being able to speak Arabic or having been to Iraq. Ross explained that this was common practice in the Foreign Office. Much of his work at the UN was on the UN sanctions regime decisions were made on the basis that “the suffering in Iraq was the fault of the regime”. Behind their attitude was that “the P5 (permanent members) matter; other Security Council members do not matter at all”.


Ross admitted that the sanctions targeted the wrong people, Iraqis, not their government. He regretted that his work on the penal sanctions had led to the deaths of thousands of Iraqi children. It was also now accepted that ambassadors to the UN should visit countries under review by the UN.


Later, Ross was assigned to work with UNMIK, peacekeeping in Kosovo. The UN was making a bad job of running Kosovo and the frustration exploded in March 2004. Mobs went round attacking Serb homes and churches, also all the UN offices. He said that the UN secretariat was always able to distort reports in order to say that the UN was doing a good job.


He had resigned from the diplomatic service after testifying to the Butler enquiry. He did not believe the government statements about the danger from Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.  Now, working through Independent Diplomat, he was able to help the people of Western Sahara put their case against occupation by Morocco. Despite having a UN ruling in their favour the states that should have helped them to regain their independence had instead assisted the occupiers. Preserving their trade with Morocco was more important than the independence of Western Sahara. Thus their people were still living in refugee camps.


One of the faults of the UN system was that community leaders were unable to testify to the Security Council, or even to be present to hear their problems debated. He had accompanied the Prime Minister of Kosovo to the UN but the PM was not allowed to speak or respond to the discussion because Kosovo is not yet an independent member of the UN.


What was to be done about the Security Council? Ross said that he did not believe that a bigger Security Council would be more effective. (In this he echoed the belief of Lord Hannay, former ambassador to the UN, who was a member of the Secretary General’s High Level panel on ‘Threats, Challenges and Change’.)


Ross believed that a bigger UN Security Council could find it more difficult to make decisions, although he conceded that this might please some people. Because of the power of the permanent members he thought it would be wrong to elect “the ‘nice’ Indians or the Japanese” to the Council as permanent members. 


The Security Council’s problems are symptomatic of its structure, expansion is not enough. It is necessary to break the grip of governments on institutional decisions. One proposal he made was that the SC (which decides its own procedures) should set up a wider democratic structure to offer opinions before the Council makes its decisions. At present, some subjects are never discussed, such as Kashmir


During questions/discussion Ross was asked about the non-aligned group of member states. He said that the EU had more clout; because of its numbers (and influence) if the EU was against something it didn’t pass. This is probably because none of the non-aligned group is a permanent member of the SC). On the responsibility to protect He said that the reality was being played out now in Darfur. The UK had supported the concept in Kosovo and Sierra Leone but because of Iraq the process was now “dead in the water”.


Asked if we really understand the nature of violence he replied that there is structural and cultural violence. The Foreign Office people are not acting in our name. There was a lack of idealism. He added, “when at the UN, I didn’t think I would be starving babies”. Replying to Keith Hindell who believed that the UN “had no stomach for confrontation” he said he still believed in sanctions, The moral behaviour of the UN has been weakened by Iraq. Stopping genocide should be a prime objective.


Ross made it clear that he criticised the Council for being about power, not about peace; power to get your way. He accused member states, especially the permanent five, for basing their policies on self-interest.


Regional consultations were essential, especially if we wished to help Iran come to terms with its region. Finally, he said, “the foreign office exists in complete ignorance of the views of the people it represents”


Carne Ross’s experience in the British diplomatic service

(Extract from a ‘Guardian’ interview)


After five years controlling the sanctions against Iraq he began to realise that they were counterproductive. He says now “Sanctions were wrong and they harmed the wrong people, they did immeasurable damage to the Iraqi civilian population. We were conscious of the damage but did too little to address it… I am not proud of my own role in that because I was a vigorous defender of British policy in the Security Council. We would not have treated European or American people in that way”.


“I often thought as a British diplomat that the things I really wanted to do were help the people who were less privileged than us. I don’t believe in the received wisdom about what foreign policy is about. I don’t believe in things like British interests and the calculus of security and trade and all the rest of it. I think it’s mostly manufactured”.


‘Independent Diplomat’


With a Rowntree Trust grant he is able to fund ‘Independent Diplomat’ which is advising the current government of Kosovo and trying to publicise the plight of the people of Western Sahara. He wants to help emerging governments or “political groups struggling to make their voice heard”.


Notes by Jim Addington (chair) Action for UN Renewal


Action for UN Renewal (Patrons: Tony Benn, Bruce Kent and Caroline Lucas MEP) is the combination of the Forum for UN Renewal and Renew UN which began in 1993, before the UN’s 50th anniversary. They came together as a united campaign in the Millennium year. We aim to work with parliamentarians, the media and the general public to persuade the government to support the United Nations and the UN Charter. We demand the return of respect for the international rule of law.


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