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New Texts Out Now: Karim Makdisi and Vijay Prashad, eds. Land of Blue Helmets: The United Nations in the Arab World

Karim Makdisi and Vijay Prashad, Land of Blue Helmets: The United Nations in the Arab World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Karim Makdisi (KM): This book was in the pipelines for a very long time! It began with my renewed interest in the politics of the UN following Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon and Israel’s various Gaza wars. Before that I had been working at the UN regional commission for West Asia (ESCWA), based in Beirut. I had an inside view of how the UN was trying to deal with the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, George Bush’s threats to make the UN irrelevant, and most importantly then the al-Aqsa Intifada in Palestine and the US-UK invasion of Iraq. I was very interested in how the latter, in particular, transformed for some in the region at least, the understanding of the UN into an active collaborator with US occupation even though the majority of UN staff and agencies of course opposed the role played by the so-called big powers acting on behalf of the Security Council. The UN, during its golden age of the 1960s and 1970s, had served as a key site for the Third World, something I had studied and written about during my graduate school years.

When I served as Associate Director at AUB’s Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (IFI), I established the UN in the Arab World research program to critically study the changing role and politics of the UN in the region. We brought in many UN people to give talks and engage in discussions with students and faculty. We also invited (mostly critically) scholars to present their research and suggest interesting areas of study. Our program published a number of studies, including a handbook on how to conduct research on various aspects of the UN in the Arab World (put together by a visiting scholar-affiliate to our program, Martin Waehlisch) and most recently the findings of a year-long research project I conducted with my colleague at AUB Coralie Piston-Hindawi on the Joint Mission that oversaw the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons. This book, Land of Blue Helmets, was made possible through many of those networks and contacts we established during the UN in the Arab World program, and it also brought it to a natural conclusion. When Vijay served as AUB’s Edward Said chair, he brought with him his vast knowledge of the UN across the global south and we had a really productive year. I think we both immediately understood that working together on such a project would make perfect sense both on a professional and personal level. 

Vijay Prashad (VP): Karim had begun this project long before I joined him. I was interested in the project because it took a close view of the work of the UN in the region while not taking an ideological position on the UN itself. In other words, the project was keen to interrogate the different levels of the work of the UN and the different kinds of political pressures at each level. This is the kind of granular work on the UN that is really necessary – not only for West Asia and North Africa, but for other parts of the Global South. I’d like to see a book about the UN in South-East Asia, for instance, and another on the UN in Central and Western Africa.

I had written about the UN as a journalist – covering its activity in Iraq and elsewhere – and had written part of the history of the Third World bloc inside the UN to help create and sustain the Third World Project. So I was already interested in the idea, and meeting Karim and getting involved with him on this project simply pushed along those earlier investments.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

KM and VP: This book features a real diversity of writers, including academics who critically examine the UN in the Arab region and those practitioners who are reflecting on their experiences working in the UN and the context of that work. Since the UN has such a vast role in the Arab region – from its political role to its role of relief provision – we had to engage with the very breadth of this work. So our book opens with an essay by Andrew Gilmour (now the Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) on the history of the initiatives of the UN Secretary General in the region, and it ends with an essay by Kinda Mohamadieh (now the Policy Advisor of the Arab NGO Network for Development) on the role of civil society organizations alongside the UN. The range is not only of subject or stance, but also of generation – the contributors to this volume range from those who have retired after a long tenure in the UN to those who are just beginning their careers. This gives the book the sense of the long history of the UN in the region and the different perspectives of those who come at these issues from their different experiences. There are four parts to the book – Diplomacy; Enforcement and Peacekeeping; Humanitarianism and Refugees; Development. Each section has about five essays. We could have produced a multi-volume work. We had to control ourselves!

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

KM: I see this book as connecting my larger interest in the Third World and the question of Palestine (in its global sense) to my current book project centered around the politics of the UN during the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon. I see the UN as both reflecting the evolution and current status of great power politics; and as a site of conflict, one where material struggles on the ground are sometimes transformed into competing claims for legitimacy. We live in an interesting time, where the US unipolar moment seems to be fading into a more complex world order, and we can study this through the UN lens. For instance we can see that the US is no longer able to impose its power via the UN in places like Syria, Libya, and even Lebanon. I am interested in this transformation, in these periods of crisis where the outcomes are not certain and the importance of struggles becomes sharper.

VP: In The Darker Nations (2007) and The Poorer Nations (2013) I looked at the UN from a macro-scale and from a geo-political perspective. Here I was keen to help collate work that came at the UN from a much more micro-scalar angle. The essays are so good at doing precisely that – looking at the UN work in some detail and offering the analytical space for us to make the claim that there are several United Nations: the UN of the agencies, that do the work of relief and rehabilitation, and the UN of geo-politics, where the pressures of international conflict produces paralysis. In other words, the work that the UN does at these many different levels gets covered over by the political tensions at the UN Security Council. It is as if the UN can be reduced to the veto power of the permanent members. The kind of work that the UN agencies do is often set aside, even made hostage to that political paralysis. Our book shows that the paralysis that is seen is not UN paralysis, but the paralysis of the world order mirrored in the UN Security Council.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

KM and VP: On one level, we hope that the people who work in the UN will read our book. That is why we were so pleased to launch the book last December at the UN Bookstore in New York. We’d like to do an event at the UN in Geneva as well and perhaps one at the ESCWA office in Beirut. We want to raise these questions in the UN, and show those working there that the region and its histories and contexts are incredibly complex, and so knowledge of the countries and regions they are working on is crucial. But we are also eager to hold this conversation in the field of UN Studies, where understanding the particular histories and contexts of specific regions such as the Middle East is rare; International Studies, where the UN is sometimes seen only at the macro-level and is therefore seen sometimes as stagnant; and Middle East Studies, where the UN is seen purely in power politics and thus as a largely uninteresting area of research. Our recent book event at Harvard was the start of this process. We hope this book can connect UN, international, and Middle East studies. We think this will be a useful book for those who are studying West Asia and North Africa – to get a sense of why the UN is so ubiquitous and what this ubiquity means.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

KM: I am working to finalize, along with my colleague Coralie Pison-Hindawi, two journal articles addressing the Syrian chemical weapons disarmament story. These are based on a year long research project and interviews with many of the relevant officials in The Hague, New York, Washington DC, Geneva, Vienna, Beirut, Damascus, Tehran, and Amman. I am also working on a book project focused on the politics of the UN during the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon.

VP: I am ready to release a small book of essays on climate change and capitalism called Will the Flower Slip Through the Asphalt: Writers Respond to Capitalist Climate Change, with essays by Naomi Klein, Amitav Ghosh, Ghassan Hage, Rafia Zakaria, Susan Abulhawa, Masturah Alatas, Shalini Singh, and John Bellamy Foster. This will be published by LeftWord Books in February.


Excerpt from chapter fourteen, by Filippo Grandi, “Challenged but Steadfast. Nine Years with Palestinian Refugees and the UN Relief and Works Agency.” Filippo Grandi is the 11th United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

 Prologue: Yarmouk, Syria, 2014

On 24 February 2014, as part of my last visit to Syria as Commissioner-General of UNRWA, I was able to enter the embattled Damascus suburb of Yarmouk. Syria, at the start of the civil war, had been refuge to approximately half a million Palestinians. The largest Palestinian community in the country lived in Yarmouk, until 2011 a vibrant social and economic hub in the outskirts of the capital, where refugees had lived side-by-side Syrians for decades.

Most Palestinians had been extremely cautious in not taking sides in the course of the war. Unfortunately, however, war had caught up with them.  Some – a small minority – had eventually taken up arms, either with pro-government or opposition groups, and during 2013 fighting had engulfed most of the areas in which Palestinian communities had lived in relative peace.

In the course of a career spanning three decades as a UN and humanitarian official, I have witnessed much suffering; but I was hardly prepared for the desperate sight which awaited me when we reached the food distribution point. Palestinian refugees who emerged like ghosts from the ruins, as in a medieval siege, described how they subsisted on grass, spices mixed in water, and animal feed, and burned furniture on their balconies to keep warm. They were suffering severe malnutrition and dehydration. Sixty-five years after the expulsion from their homes in Palestine, they were again dying from readily treatable conditions.

Lyse Doucet of the BBC, who accompanied me into Yarmouk, aptly said in her reportage: “Yarmouk has become the byword for all the suffering in Syria.” But Yarmouk also clearly symbolizes the much larger, unresolved plight of all refugees from Palestine; and its humanitarian and political complexity reflects the challenges, dilemmas and contradictions facing UNRWA as it strives to support Palestinian refugees throughout the region.

That morning in Yarmouk I was well aware that wherever I went, and whatever I said to journalists, carried the risk of being used as propaganda by one side against another. For UNRWA, staying neutral in that war was a desperate necessity and its greatest challenge, just like in the various situations of conflict or occupation that it must confront daily in many places throughout its fields of operation, which also include Lebanon, Jordan and the occupied Palestinian territory.

I was also aware that I had to speak out, and speak out forcefully, to draw the world’s attention to the humanitarian plight of the suffering refugees. All sides in the Syrian war have legal and moral responsibilities in that tragedy, of course. However, the reflex I developed after many years of work with UNRWA told me that I had to mix force and clarity with prudence; and tread carefully on the issue of attributing fault because the next day my colleagues would still be there, struggling to bring desperately needed relief to the population under conditions in which access was dependent on those fighting in Yarmouk. To advocate courageously but to be politically guarded was a crucial balance that I was acutely aware of not only in Yarmouk, but throughout my work with UNRWA.

However, by far the most difficult thing about my Yarmouk experience was seeing the people. Their physical suffering was bad enough, but it was the fear in their eyes which was unbearable, and the realization of profound loss when they looked around and saw only blackened shells where they had built their lives, and also their disbelief that the world was unable to prevent this from happening. Syria had been a country in which Palestinians had found a secure and stable refuge, and where UNRWA had established forward-looking programmes that focused on empowering youth, on community participation, and on self-reliance. All this, I knew, was being swept away by violence, mirroring the fate of other UNRWA innovative projects in Gaza, the West Bank, and Lebanon.

Another immediate thought was that the immensity of Yarmouk’s needs would require us to appeal for massive resources for years to come, amidst all the other priorities in this destroyed country. Raising those funds, pressing as it would be, would make it more difficult to obtain resources also desperately needed in Gaza, and the West Bank, and in Lebanon. And on the other hand, I knew what an uphill battle it would be – if peace ever returned - to convince donors to invest in the rebuilding of houses and structures in the Palestinian refugee camps in Syria. I knew that such funding would inevitably decline after the first surge; but unless we raised adequate reconstruction funds for a number of years, we would witness in Syria the same hardship and tensions caused by the delays in reconstruction experienced in other Palestinian refugee communities affected by conflict and military operations, such as in the Nahr el-Bared camp in Lebanon.

As I left Yarmouk on that cold February day, it clearly occurred to me that Yarmouk in fact symbolizes the persistence of the Palestinian refugee question. In a region beset by overlapping crises, and with resources and political attention stretched to the limits, the presence of a large refugee population, highly exposed to the consequences of war, poverty and political tensions, is not just creating hardship for the refugees; it is also an element of instability, and of political fragility, which will not go away until it finds a just and durable solution.

[Excerpted from Land of Blue Helmets: the United Nations in the Arab World, edited by Karim Makdisi and Vijay Prashad, with permission. (c) 2017.]

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