The Perpetual Conflict of Development: an examination of the UN’s pursuit of development and its impacts on the developing world

by Jess Morrison

Since its creation the United Nations has continuously pursued economic development within former colonial territories as an extension of its mission to secure peace.[1]  While peace and its attached economic successes have arguably been achieved for Western states,[2] it has not been realized elsewhere, as former colonial territories in Africa, Asia, South America, and the Middle East[3] see constant conflict.  The regional conflicts that simmer in post-colonial states are persistent reminders of the UN’s inadequacy when advancing its primary goals of promoting peace and encouraging development.  Further, when taken as a component of a larger historical narrative, the UN projects can be seen as actually encouraging regional conflict rather than securing international peace.

The UN’s pursuit of peace and development is laudatory, but it comes with the attendant legacy of colonialism and colonization’s civilizing project.  The UN’s emphasis on development is a contemporary manifestation of this civilizing project, which seeks to legitimize economic exploitation and political hegemony as necessary aspects of conferring civilization.[4]  While the UN overtly decries colonialism,[5] the repercussions of its actions speak differently, calling to mind the idea that, “every empire, however, tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate.”[6] 

For post-colonial states international actors such as UN organs, the World Bank, and multinational corporations are repeating a cycle of plunder and control.  The obligatory justifications of opening trade markets, education, and empowerment are reminiscent of colonial subjugation, especially as continuing stratification between wealthy and impoverished populations dominate regional conflicts.  As long as the UN project of development employs the structures and language of colonialism it is working against the precept of sovereignty and impeding its own goals.

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which had an operating budget of approximately 5 billion USD in 2012, focuses on democratic governance, economic growth, and countries/regions in crisis.[7]  The UNDP does not operate alone, as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) significantly augment its efforts.  Both the World Bank and the IMF provide extensive loans to developing states, and often demand the prerequisite liberalization of their economies and attached cultural mandates.[8]  Opening foreign markets and subjugating foreign cultural practice is strict adherence to colonial models of control. 

“Under the UN system, newly decolonized and independent states made efforts to resist the hegemon states’ colonial practices by adopting a series of General Assembly resolutions, including the resolution regarding Inadmissibility of the Policy of Hegemonism.[9]  Those resolutions, however, lacked the effect due to opposition from the hegemonic states.  Meanwhile, international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, dominated by Western influence, expanded privatization of the third world’s resources, hindering newly independent states’ ability to exercise the sovereignty they had finally achieved.”[10]

Under colonial rule European states, and private corporations within those states, exploited the natural resources of their colonial territories, established trade monopolies, and culturally relegated colonial subjects to secondary political status.  In this international legal structure, colonial states were the center of conflict and economic exploitation.[11]  This exploitation was justified on cultural grounds encapsulated by Kipling’s utterance of the colonized subjects as “half-devil and half-child,”[12] or put another way, the civilizing gift brought by Europeans.

The themes of conflict and exploitation reemerge in the post-colonial states. “Imperialism did not end, did not suddenly become ‘past,’ once decolonization had set in motion the dismantling of the classical empires.  A legacy of connections still binds countries like Algeria and India to France and Britain respectively.”[13]  Importantly, these themes are disseminated not by the overt civilizing project of colonialism, but by the modern language of development.[14]  In each scenario the result is the same.  Western developed states propose to bring aid and development, generally in the form of modernization and industrialization, but extract a cost of economic access and cultural dominance on developing states.[15]  Thereby developing states contend with impugned sovereignty and economic disadvantage.

Colonial Structures in Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea (PNG) serves as an example.  Initially colonized in part by the British Empire and the German state through its German New Guinea Company, PNG was administered by Australia under the Mandate system following WWI.  The colonial powers sought to exploit PNG’s natural resources by engaging Australian and British companies in favorable economic contracts.  After obtaining its independence from Australia in 1975, the country saw political turmoil and military coups while Australia continued to provide the majority of its external aid.[16] 

Currently the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is extremely active in PNG and provides services that include fostering democratic governance and poverty reduction.  “Poverty is exacerbated by among other things; extreme rural isolation; high rates of crime and violence; a burgeoning HIV/AIDS epidemic and recent political turmoil.”[17]  Tellingly the UNDP frames the issues facing PNG as internal problems that require external intervention.  It makes no mention of outside actors, the colonial heritage of those actors, or the existent problems that those actors contribute to.  It also makes no mention of external states and their contributions to PNG’s political instability or the economic and environmental abuses committed by corporate entities under the protection of foreign states.

Presently, global economic hegemons such as China, Australia, and the United States vie over PNG’s extensive natural resources while the population suffers from the perpetual conflict local leaders exert – at hegemonic backing.[18]  This is best exemplified by Rio Tinto, a British and Australian mining corporation, that is currently in litigation in United States courts[19] over allegations of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.  These allegations arise from Rio Tinto’s conduct in cooperation with the PNG government to combat political rebels that obstructed mining operations on the island of Bougainville.  The rebels, agitated by the extensive environmental devastation caused by Rio Tinto’s mining operations, argue that heinous offenses committed by the PNG government were done on the behest of Rio Tinto.  The rebels claim that Rio Tinto directly and indirectly supported the PNG government as it committed atrocities against civilians and combatants with impunity.  Australian helicopter pilots and Australian provided weaponry featured prominently in the direct fighting and indiscriminate killing of at least fifteen thousand (15,000) people (an estimated 10% of the island’s population).  Additionally an extensive food and medical blockade instigated by Rio Tinto resulted in another ten thousand (10,000) deaths.[20]

It is worth mentioning that Rio Tinto claimed revenue of over 50 billion USD in 2012, and has claimed earnings of over 264 billion between 2009 and 2012.[21]  In contrast PNG has a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 15.6 billion in 2012 and only 45.2 billion over the same 2009 to 20012 timeframe.[22]  Over the last four years PNG, a sovereign state, has only earned 17% of the revenue generated by Rio Tinto, a corporation accused of committing crimes equivalent to those prosecuted in UN ad hoc tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.  In PNG, modern economic imperialism mirrors the atrocities and the economic plundering of traditional colonialism. 

Securing Peace
Perpetual conflict of the kind we see in PNG exists only in the developing world, and similar stories play out from Nigeria to Bangladesh.  The actors are not merely internal insurgents and established governments, but every facet of the international community: external sovereign states, multinational corporations, and international bodies.  These forces, and the UN’s unwillingness to recognize its complicity is problematic because it operates contrary to the UN’s stated goals of sovereign equality and international peace.  It is precisely these UN goals that encourage and frame the conflict in developing nations.  When the UN champions its dual projects of peace and development, it is complying with far older and ingrained legal structures that have to be recognized before their potency can be diminished.  UN goals and projects that are rooted in this history are bound to reestablish the violence and conflict inherent in the system. 

            If the UN and other international bodies wish to secure peace, then they must first understand the larger historical narrative and legal structures through which they engage global development initiatives.  The UN cannot continue to endorse development projects with the same rationalizations that colonial empires justified their exploitation and control of foreign territory and people.  The UN must instead justify its development drive on the positivist theory of international law, which places sovereignty at the utmost principal of legitimacy.  By reaffirming sovereignty and sovereign power in developing states, the UN could effectively provide checks against foreign intervention.[23]  It could also minimize the leverage of wealthy multinational corporations so that they may not overwhelm poor states.  The PNG example demonstrates that an increased emphasis on the sovereignty of a state could work to mitigate the internal unrest and political upheaval that is sometimes injected by external actors.  The Charter of the United Nations squarely places sovereignty as the essential criteria of statehood and international personality.  Perhaps it is time the UN returns to its own criteria to achieve its goals.

Jess Morrison is a S.J. Quinney College of Law class of 2015 candidate from Park City, Utah. He is also an S.J. Quinney Research Fellow focusing on issues within international law.  Morrison’s entry to the GlobalJustinceBlog is part of an assignment for the course International Criminal Law, taught by Professor Wayne McCormack.

[1] U.N. Charter preamble, 3.

[2] Assuming that the absence of formal war is indeed peace.

[3] The Middle East, while not formally a colonial possession, was partitioned to European powers with a deep history of colonial administration after World War I.

[4] Antony Anghie, Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law 96-97 (Cambridge University Press 2005).

[5]  Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, G.A. Res. 1514, U.N. Doc A/RES/1514 (1960).

[6] Edward W. Said, Blind Imperial Arrogance: Vile stereotyping of the Arabs by the U.S. ensures years of turmoil, L.A. Times, July 20, 2003

[7] U.N. D.P. Fact Sheet. (May 2012). 

[8] Michael Goldman, Imperial Nature: The World Bank and Struggles for Social Justice in the Age of Globalization 2-45 (Yale University Press 2005).

[9] See Inadmissibility of the Policy of Hegemonism in International Relations, G.A. Res. 34/103, ¶ 1, U.N. Doc. A/RES/34/103 (Dec. 14, 1979).

[10] Upendra D. Acharya. Globalization and Hegemony Shift: are states merely agents of corporate capitalism? Boston College Law Review and International and Comparative Law Revew.  BCLR Vol. LIV, No. 3. ICLR Vol. XXXXVI, No. 2, 946-47 (2012).

[11] Antony Anghie, Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law 196-244 (Cambridge University Press 2005).

[12] Rudyard Kipling, The White Man’s Burden (1899).

[13] Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism 282 (Vintage Books 1999).

[14] See generally, David Harvey, Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development 69-116 (Verso 2006).

[15] David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism 36-119 (Oxford 2005).

[16] See Australian Government, AusAID. (October 2, 2013) (estimating 2013/2014 aid to reach over 500 million Australian dollars).

[17] United Nations Development Programme – Papua New Guinea. (October 2, 2013).

[18] John F.M Kocsis. Papua New Guinea’s Great Power Conflict.  Harvard Political Review (Feb. 15, 2012) (“Papua New Guinea is an attractive destination for investors due to its untapped 22.6 trillion cubic feet in natural gas, not to mention its copper and gold wealth.  Exxon Mobil is working on a$15.7 billion liquefied natural gas project that should due to be completed in 2014.  The China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) is developing China’s largest overseas mining investment, a $1.6 billion attempt to exploit 140 million tons of nickel.”).

[19] Rio Tinto PLC v. Sarei, 133 S. Ct. 1995 (2013) (“On petition for writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Petition for writ of certiorari granted. Judgment vacated, and case remanded to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit for further consideration in light of Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., 569 U.S. ––––, 133 S.Ct. 1659, 185 L.Ed.2d 671 (2013)”).

[20] Sarei v. Rio Tinto PLC., 221 F. Supp. 2d 1116, 1124-27 (C.D. Cal. 2002).

[21] See Mergent Online (Rio Tinto). (October 2, 2013).

[22] The World Bank. (October 2, 2013).

[23] A concept first enshrined in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.