Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Nearly ninety years of solitude: Magical realism and the United Nations

Last night the UN rebuked the Zimbabwean government”

(Quoted from front page article, The Guardian, 24th June 2008)

When I ask my daughter about the literature module she’s been studying on the works of Gabriel García Marquez, Mikhail Bulgakov and Salman Rushdie, she replies: “But, mum, I think the whole of life is magical realism!” And thus she gifts me the language by which I can begin to translate the fantastic narrative of the United Nations.

Just a quick recap of the main aspects of the genre: time passes and yet stands still; events repeat themselves, but nothing is resolved; cause and effect are inverted while the characters - resembling each other and even having similar names - accept rather than question the logic of the magical element. In general, the story holds a dreamlike quality with heightened sensory details, emotions and symbolism all of which work to seduce and confuse the reader.

Is the magical or the mundane rendering of the plot more truthful to the world as it is?
Here it goes…

The forefather of the United Nations was the League of Nations - conceived during the first world war and established in 1919 under the Treaty of Versailles, “to promote international cooperation and achieve peace and security”. Twenty years before, its existence was heralded by the first international peace conference, hosted in Den Hag, to elaborate common instruments for settling crises peacefully, preventing wars and codifying rules of warfare. The weakling League of Nations was disowned in 1942 for having failed to prevent the second world war. So, in 1945, fifty countries came together in San Francisco to celebrate the birth of the newly proposed United Nations and to baptise the Security Council - the body with primary responsibility for preserving peace - which held its first meeting in January 1946.

Unlike the UN General Assembly, the Security Council was given power to enforce measures (on any danger to world peace) and was organized as a compact executive organ. Also unlike the assembly, it in theory functions continuously... However, on substantive matters, the nine affirmative votes required under the charter must include the five permanent members. This requirement of ‘Big Five’ unanimity embodies the so-called veto. The veto has prevented much substantive action of the UN but it embodies the reality that resolution of major crises requires the agreement of major powers” (US, UK, France, Russia and China).”

Almost lost in translation here: the Security Council as an entity was never given the power to avert crises or to exert sanctions – but the five major powers gave themselves (and each other) a licence to wage war (although of course Russia and China were never meant to use this). How many times during the 1980s did the UN General Assembly condemn US interference in the domestic affairs of Nicaragua (for example) while the US arrogantly shrugged off the ruling of the International Court of Justice in Den Hag? In more recent times, how often has the toothless Security Council vacillated over relationships in the Middle East, before and after, in all impotence, watching as the US and UK invade Iraq?

As I float back through the nebulous history of the UN family, I can recount how Iraqi oil was an issue that arose during the first world war: the archives show that the British government rushed troops to Mosul in 1918 to gain control of the northern oil fields. Britain and France clashed over Iraq's oil during and after the Versailles Conference, but Britain eventually took the lion’s share by turning its military victories into colonial rule. The powerful Iraq Petroleum Company acted always in the cartel interests of the Anglo-American companies. To the fury of the Iraqis and the French, the IPC held down production to maximize profits elsewhere, keeping a monopoly of Iraq’s oil sector until nationalization in 1972 (see Global Policy Forum).

During the final years of the Saddam era, envied companies from France, Russia, China and elsewhere obtained major contracts. But UN sanctions were kept in place by the US and the UK, making those contracts inoperable. Since the occupation of Iraq in 2003, have things changed? The Iraqi constitution of 2005, greatly influenced by US advisors, contains language that guarantees a major role for foreign companies in the forthcoming decades. But it is not yet a done deal - the Iraqi parliament has balked at the legislation; most Iraqis favour continued control by a national company and the powerful oil workers union strongly opposes de-nationalization. This is another thread in the nylon stocking of the storyline that will run and run.

Meanwhile, the UN flounders incomprehensibly across the globe, as ‘breaking news’ (UN News Centre ) eerily echoes both past and future:

“Settlement in Cyprus ‘not a foregone conclusion’ says envoy”

“UNICEF reports rising trend of violence against children in strife-torn countries”

“Ban calls for ‘redoubled’ efforts on causes and consequences of forced displacement”

“Kosovo plan is a ‘practical and workable solution’”

“UN chief says more women need to be involved in peace negotiations and recovery.”

In Africa conflict, food insecurity, poor health and inequality prosper. Help is at hand, however, according to ‘musician and humanitarian’ Bob Geldof who raised money through the Live Aid concerts of 1985 in response to famine and drought in northeast Africa (the UN estimated 160m people were still affected after nine months) .

This gentle knight accompanied the US president on his journey round Africa recently and records the experience without irony:

“On Air Force One, the President and I discussed this Luminous Continent, drenched in light and hope, grace and spirit…” (No! How could I make it up? This is from Time magazine, March 3rd 2008) “…The great unacknowledged story of America in Africa didn’t immediately originate with this President. But it was accelerated hugely by him, increased by him and monitored by him… I look forward to seeing exactly what the next President will do to continue this great untold and secret story. The story of the African Bush.” (No! seriously!) “The quiet triumph of America’s foreign policy.”

In the same issue of Time, ‘last true movie star’ George Clooney has an alternative perspective. Founder of a Darfur support organisation Not on Our Watch, he has a UN passport bearing the legend ‘Messenger of Peace’ (“it’s very cool”) which allows him to visit. “I’ve been very depressed since I got back. I’m terrified that it isn’t in any way helping. That bringing attention can cause more damage. You dig a well or build a health centre and they’re a target for someone… A lot more people know about Darfur but nothing is different. Absolutely nothing.”

Travelling to conflict areas of Sierra Leone and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, we next find goodwill ambassador for the UN High Commission for Refugees, Hollywood actress and ‘earth mother’ Angelina Jolie (with adopted children from Ethiopia, Vietnam and Cambodia she has said she would like to create her own UN family) (Scotland on Sunday, 22nd June 2008).

Still active in the story from time to time is ‘international entertainment personality’ Geri Halliwell, who as goodwill ambassador to the United Nations Population Fund since 1998, draws on her ‘girl power’ persona to promote women’s sexual and reproductive health rights not only in countries like the Philippines and Zambia, but also in the US (speaking to Congress - and respect to her).

Stop press for 18th June 2008:

At roundtable discussions at UN headquarters in New York, US Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice raises the issue of war rape and joins calls for an end to sexual violence in armed conflict. She also presses the UN to weigh in on Zimbabwe’s rising violence: “the UN must act.” A UN food survey warns of impending food crisis in Zimbabwe. Neighbouring Malawi (where pop singer Madonna adopted her son) can help out because bumper harvests last year have provided a surplus, so the government is selling maize to Zimbabwe while the poorest Malawians are unable to buy sufficient food for their own families.

Violence and discrimination have marked Mugabe’s reign since he was first elected in 1980. However, during the first ten years, a commitment to social programmes brought real changes in the areas of health and education. From 1990 there followed austerity measures (it’s the same old story) imposed by the World Bank and IMF (both members of the UN family) - which have drastically affected social development in Zimbabwe.

So, here is the UN Security Council’s first direct involvement in the Zimbabwean crisis: mundane, magic or meaningful? Compare with the (still unsuccessful) nearly fifty-year-old US trade embargo on Cuba which continues despite the fact that, in the annual UN General Assembly, all of the USA’s closest allies vote against it. But no surprises there, especially as the term ‘magical realism’ was originally coined in 1949 by Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier : he called it “lo real maravilloso” in his novel The Kingdom of this World.

In 1967, The New York Times hailed One Hundred Years of Solitude as "the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race."

Read more
The new International Journal of Cuban Studies is now online at http://www.cubastudiesjournal.org/

And all my posts under Conflict and Africa!

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