Karim Makdisi and Vijay Prashad (Eds.),  Land of Blue Helmets: The United Nations and the Arab World (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017), 528 pp.

Reviewed by: Alistair D. Edgar (Associate Dean, School of International Policy & Governance, Balsillie School of International Affairs, Wilfrid Laurier University)

Consisting of twenty-three case-study chapters and an editors’ introduction, Land of Blue Helmets: The United Nations and the Arab World provides a rich collection of substantive pieces from an impressive array of scholars, civil society representatives, and current or former senior UN practitioners.  The volume does not set out a particular research question, nor does it claim to test (or to be shaped and framed by) any single underlying theoretical commitment. Rather, Makdisi and Prashad’s collection offers “a window into the kind of work the UN does in the Arab world and the politics that frames this work” (p. 16).  That said, the contributors consistently demonstrate a clear—and mostly, critical—understanding of the functioning of hegemonic power, states’ interests, and the practical if not symbolic limitations imposed upon the international organization in the face of such power and interest. There also is carefully granulated awareness of the influence of values, and of the role of non-state actors and of individuals (including some of the contributors to the collection) in shaping behavior and outcomes.

United Nations Peacekeeping Forces
Photo Credit: UN Photo/Saw Lwin

The United Nations as an entity is seen through two different frameworks: the first is the politics of the Security Council, as well as the Council in relation to the General Assembly and the Secretary-General. As the volume editors observe, “when the P5 do agree on an important task… funding and political will become nonissues”, while P5 disagreement leads to paralysis (p. 9). The second framework is the “myriad agencies” of the international organization—UNRWA, UNHCR, UNDP, UNICEF, UNESCO, and others. Each organization plays a different role in the region while seeking to function within the financial and political limitations imposed upon them by member states. The externally imposed limitations revealed through the first framework do not mean that this second UN is free from its own internal political and bureaucratic interests and agendas, as a number of contributors (including most notably, Falk, and von Sponek) also illustrate.

Not surprisingly, as the editors note (p. 2), “the Palestine question” is central to almost half of the contributions, although several chapters also reflect upon the role(s) of the UN in Iraq, and the work of the UN in Lebanon, Libya, and Syria are addressed in other chapters. The contributions taken together provide a deeply informed, generally sympathetic but still pointed examination of UN engagement and of how that engagement is shaped, constrained, or too often confounded by member states’ ongoing pursuit of their narrow self interests while local populations’ needs—and suffering—are almost invariably ignored or at best given only secondary consideration.

Following the editors’ introductory essay, which includes a useful short discussion of other scholarly literature on the UN, and the UN in the Arab region, part one of the volume, looking at diplomacy, includes pieces from Andrew Gilmour, Lori Allen, Richard Falk, Noura Erakat, and a co-authored chapter by Asli Bâli and Aziz Rana.  They address the role and limitations of the Secretary-General in addressing Middle East conflicts, the work of the UN Special Committee investigating Israeli practices in the Occupied Territories, the efforts and experiences of the UN Special Rapporteur, Palestine’s bid for statehood recognition, and the failed efforts to achieve peaceful settlement of the ongoing Syrian war.  In addition to valuable and detailed discussions on these specific topics, we see the themes (and realities) of external power and state obstructionism, local parties’ complex relationships with the international organization, and the role of the UN in seeking to offer or maintain space, and hope, for peace processes. As Bâli and Rana observe of the Syrian case, while in a process role it may help to “preserve the possibility or space for local and external parties” to reach a political settlement, the practical value of the United Nations in peace negotiations “exists only to the extent that the primary actors are otherwise motivated to make meaningful use of such a mechanism” (p. 137).

UNIFIL Patrols in Southern Lebanon
Photo Credit: UN Photo/Jorge Aramburu

In the second part of the volume, on enforcement and peacekeeping, Karim Makdisi, Poorvi Chitalkar and David M. Malone, Coralie Pison Hindawi, Jeff Bachman, and Zacariah Mampilly look at UN engagements in Lebanon, Iraq, and Libya, and India’s role in the UN missions in Sudan. Makdisi’s critical discourse analysis examining the July 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon, and UNSC Resolution 1701, stands out as the section and volume’s most explicitly and strongly theoretically framed piece. Hindawi’s study of “Iraq: Twenty Years in the Shadow of Chapter VII,”  also provides a cautionary tale worth considering. As she notes, the global political dynamics of the Bush Administration’s illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq and the violent regional forces that this invasion caused or released may be unique, but there remains the “persistent dilemma” of the ‘reverse veto.’ That is, the Security Council’s use of Chapter VII “opens the door to coercive measures whose termination, unless the measures are limited in time, will be subject to the Council’s agreement.” (p. 207).  The dilemma is worth reflecting upon for contemporary UN peace operations—and any discussions of the application of the Responsibility to Protect—taking place with Chapter VII Security Council mandates.

Humanitarianism and refugees is the broad heading for Part Three, with contributions by Fateh Azzam, Hans-Christof von Sponeck, Jalal Al Husseini, Fillipo Grandi, Arafat Jamal, Shaden Khallaf, and Caroline Abu Sa’Da. Wider analyses of UN human rights mechanisms, and initiatives for humanitarian action, bracket more narrowly-focused studies of the politics of the Iraq sanctions regime, UNHCR’s work with Iraqi refugees, UNRWA and Palestinian refugees, and the Syrian refugee crisis.  Touching on the symbolic or legitimizing role of the organization, Azzam observes that the UN—through its human rights mechanisms and normative framework—“remains a crucially important forum for calling states to account for their human rights practices” (p.267), as well as serving “a crucial bridging role between governments, their civil societies, and international forums” (p. 270). However, reflecting on states’ power and interests, he also shows the limits of such efforts. In the absence of more substantial enforcement mechanisms than simply ‘naming and shaming’, those human rights processes have become a diplomatic game, and Azzam argues the “Arab states are becoming good players” focused simply on “staying in the game and not losing” (p. 270).

Part Four addresses the theme of development, with chapters by Omar Dahi, Raja Khalidi, Mandy Turner, Walid Hamdan, Susann Kassem, and Kinda Mohamadieh. Development and peacebuilding in Palestine, the work of ESCWA and the ILO, UNIFIL, and civil society organizations provide the case studies for this final section of the volume.  The studies again offer a mixed, critical assessment of the UN and other international engagements: ESCWA’s 2014 Arab Integration report is cited by Dahi as “perhaps one of the most ambitious and radical documents issues by a UN institution in the lost-debt crisis era” (p. 399), while Khalidi notes that the UN system—and the PLO—was complicit in supporting “a rights-deficient, international mandate to Israel to indefinitely rule” Palestinians (p. 409), although UNRWA’s consistent efforts to follow its’ mandate “has made a concrete difference to the lives of millions of refugees and to peace” (p. 412).  According to Turner, however, the application of Western-dominated peacebuilding policies and practices, combined with Israeli occupation and Palestinian Authority weakness, created a ‘zombie peace’—one that downgrades democracy and human rights while advancing instruments of state coercion and colonialism (p. 443).

There are, as the editors recognize, “gaps of emphasis and of coverage” (p. 16) in Land of Blue Helmets, but it would require a series of such volumes to fill those gaps.  The choice not to attempt to situate the work within a single theoretical framework—as some collections do—leaves the book open to a sense of limited identity or direction, as does the lack of a reflective concluding chapter or section introductions for each of the four parts. Nonetheless, Makdisi and Prashad succeed in their goal of providing a collection that highlights “voices located in and perspectives relevant to the Arab region, ones that even a quick glance at general books on the UN reveals are largely marginalized” (p. 17). Gilmour, Falk, Malone, von Sponeck, and Grandi all are, or were, high-profile practitioners and scholars familiar to Western observers of the UN; but the majority of authors included here are perhaps less familiar to readers, although no less experienced and experts in their fields. Their work is rich in substance—even those that adopt a broad survey style—and adds to our understanding of the topic addressed:  that is, “not only the UN in the Arab world but also the UN as seen from the Arab world” (p. 17).