The best test of any institution, large or small, is to ask whether we could get along perfectly well without it. In the case of the United Nations, the question arises not in some immediate practical sense – for all its well-advertised flaws it is here to stay – but because it is about to choose a new leader, who at least in theory could make the 71-year-old organisation rather more useful than it has been. Is it capable of reform or should we, ideally, start again?
Whoever gets the job – and there is an unusually long shortlist of candidates – will find themselves leading an organisation that is very much of its time, and thus rather out of date, and mired in utter confusion about the biggest global challenge of our time.
The huge hole in the UN’s mission, and the thing that makes it obsolete, is symbolised by Isis. The question the UN is paralysed by – and has been for at least a couple of decades – is whether so-called humanitarian interventions in the internal affairs of a legitimate UN member state can be justified, legally or morally. Even in its more well-established role of preventing wars between nations, it has shown itself wanting.
To offer just a few examples from the depressingly broad array of contemporary threats to humanity, the UN has proved irrelevant over Syria, North Korea, and Ukraine. Each represents different scales of failure; all are, though, equally pitiful and deplorable. In Syria, and indeed in neighbouring Iraq, the rise of Isis, still occupying much territory, albeit with a diminishing hold, we see this confusion about “interference”, and its human consequences. Common sense, humanity and any moral sensibility should point to an overriding need for a UN effort that is more than just supplemental diplomacy. Even if the UN has no troops of its own, as ever, it can authorise its members to use theirs. No such luck.
The UK, Australia, Denmark, Russia and America are already operating in Syria, but without reference to the UN’s policy, and sometimes in opposition to it. Here in Syria, as we see so upsettingly, a people is being slaughtered by, in turns, Isis, other resistance and insurgent groups of varying and shifting allegiances, and by its own government. Survivors are fleeing across Europe, creating the largest movement of refugees there since the end of the Second World War.
The UN has proved quite useless in the face of all this. It remains at best confused about its role. Syria is a UN member state, with its President still in his palace, ordering mustard gas to be dropped on his country, yet the case for humanitarian intervention, while it may seem obvious, does not easily fall within the UN’s 1945 Charter. Even if it did, it would need the permanent members of the Security Council, the notoriously fractious body of American, French, Russian, British and Chinese diplomats and governments, to agree on what to do.
The Chinese and Russians, as ever looking to their own backyard of human rights abuses and internal secessionist movements, aren’t keen on blessing multinational invasions of other nations. Even if they were, there remains the revived historical enmity between the US and Russia, who cannot agree on a course of action, even when they are faced with an implacable common enemy in the form of Isis. It is wrong, by the same token, to blame the UN for the abject failures and cruelties of its most powerful members; but it is right to face up to the fact that the UN is unable to do anything about that, even if the vast majority of its 193 members want it to.
The UN has, in the past, agreed to humanitarian interventions, arguably in breach of its own Charter, simply because there was a consensus on doing so. Too readily forgotten now, the British-initiated UN-authorised deployment of royal marines in the civil war in Sierra Leone in 1998 saved many lives and many more from the mutilation of missing arms or hands. Though deeply unfashionable in his homeland, Tony Blair has the odd satisfaction of seeing a preponderance of adolescents in Sierra Leone named “Tony Blair” as one of his more acceptable legacies. And yet the question still arises; did we really need the UN to approve the move, in practical terms? Did the passing of a resolution in far-off New York keep defeat the rebels? We might also ask if the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), a traditional peacekeeping mission, would have succeeded without a British military force. Thankfully it was a success.
Contrast that with the ignominious failure of UN forces sent into Rwanda in 1994, and, most infamous of all, when faced with Bosnian Serb forces after the siege of Srebrenica, when the mass murder of 8,000 Muslim men and boys was committed after Dutch UN peacekeepers were unable to hold the line.
The UN was a high-minded project that came form the inventive mind of Franklin Roosevelt as a global police force that would help prevent wars of aggression and genocide. In the 1990s it proved itself inadequate to the job, and things have not improved since. In North Korea, the UN is in a strange position. Thanks to a Russian decision to boycott proceedings back in 1950, the Korean War, whence the division of the country derived, was a truly UN war, albeit one which, technically, isn’t over. North Korea is, then, as much a product of the international community’s failures as anything else. In all events, the threat North Korea poses to its neighbours is perfectly clear, but the UN is, once again, powerless to act, partly because of reluctance on the part of China to deal with its turbulent ally, and partly because, in truth, neither China not anyone else has that much leverage over the decisions of Kim Jong-un. The UN is powerless because although North Korea has developed nuclear weapons against international treaty obligations, it hasn’t yet launched them at anyone (well, not on target anyway).
All we do know is that if any sort of stability is to return to that region it will be because the regional powers – the US, Russia, China, South Korea and Japan – manage, miraculously, to find a way of taming, disarming or otherwise confounding the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea. The UN wouldn’t be much help on that, just as it failed to restrain the various nuclear or chemical weapons programmes of Pakistan, apartheid-era South Africa (though a suspended UN member admittedly), Israel or, yes, Iraq, which undoubtedly did once possess them, even if they had somehow disappeared by the time of the 2003 invasion.
The Iraq fiasco, led by George W Bush and Blair, does not need rehashing here. Suffice to say that the UN’s various resolutions, some perhaps ambiguous, masked a deep division in the international community about how to deal with Saddam Hussein and the threat he posed to his neighbours – two of which had after all been invaded in the then recent past, Iran and Kuwait, not to mention the well-documented gassing of his own people and murder of the Marsh Arabs and Kurds.
Whether you take the view that the war was illegal and unjustified, or that it was indeed authorised in the terms of the UN resolution and morally righteous in removing a tyrant, it was not a happy episode for the UN. Either the UN failed to stop America and Britain committing the most serious breach of international law since 1945, with calamitous consequences, or it failed to back a morally justified rescue of an oppressed people. The Ukraine displays the UN's failure at its purest. There are no messy moral issues here, no uncertainty about weapons of mass destruction, no questions about the reliability of intelligence or doubts about the international mood.
President Putin committed an old-fashioned act of naked aggression against a neighbour right out of the 1930s playbook. His arguments weren’t entirely empty; no doubt there was a Russian historical claim and a Russian minority he felt obliged to protect, and the manner of the change of government in Kiev that immediately preceded the annexation of Crimea wasn’t a model of democratic probity. Even so, it was in clear breach of quite a proportion of the clauses of the UN Charter that the then USSR was a founding signatory to, and the consequences for Russia have been negligible.
There were hostile words and some sanctions, but they soon subsided and, albeit in a dysfunctional way, the US and the Russians are, as described above, on the same side in Syria, though they may not realise it or desire it. To these recent episodes may be added historic irrelevance in Vietnam, the succession of Arab-Israel conflicts, the tragedy of Palestine and many more. It’s fair to add there are plenty of UN success stories too: conferences, such as the recent summit on climate change, that sometimes achieve great things.
The unsung work of agencies such as Unicef’s rehabilitation of child soldiers is real enough, too. But the UN remains an organisation with a remit rooted in the politics of the pre-Second World War era, and its habits of power play from the Cold War. In the age of asymmetric war, multinational terror, failed states and Isis, the UN is well past its time. We shall see if the next Secretary-General can revive the dream of a global government empowered to keep the peace and protect the universal human rights declared by the UN in 1948. No one expects much success, apart from the various contenders for the top job. He or she should call on the UN’s members to rip it up and start again.
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