Politics & Policy

U.N. Future

It cannot continue as is.

Whatever the outcome of the current feud in the Security Council, one fact already stands out: The United Nations must not continue as it is. Far from being part of the solution to the numerous threats to peace, the 58-year-old organization may have become part of the problem.

The U.N. is the centerpiece of a system of international organizations created at the end of the Second World War and shaped during the Cold War. These included the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and The General Agreement on Tariff and Trade (GATT), recently transformed into the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Some of these organizations, notably the IMF, the World Bank, have long been the object of criticism. And WTO has been the magnet for anti-globalization militants.

The left regards those bodies as instrument of American “imperialism,” while the right accuses them of distributing aid money among corrupt third-world dictators.

Anyone familiar with the so-called “international system” would know about its bureaucratic inefficiency, political ineptitude, and widespread corruption.

Most heads of these organs behave like mini-potentates with their courts, and pursue policies aimed at self-preservation. Unlike government leaders in democratic societies they are not exposed to public scrutiny and do not face popular elections. They are also protected against dangers, such as assassination, coup d’etat, and revolution that leaders face in undemocratic societies. Talleyrand once described diplomacy as an instrument to delay action, or “making haste slowly,” to prevent governments from committing costly errors.

That might have been correct in the post-Bonaparte Europe that needed a period of convalescence to heal its wounds. It might have also made sense during the Cold War when hasty action might have led to thermonuclear war.

Today, however, the so-called ” international system” is often used to delay action to right a wrong or prevent a tragedy.

The U.N. would not have authorized the Tanzania to invade Uganda, boot out Idi Amin, and break his death machine.

Neither did the U.N. approve when the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia to get rid of the Khmer Rouge that had already killed half of that country’s population. Nor did the U.N. applaud American action to remove tyrants from power in Grenada and Haiti, and restore democratic government.

The former U.N. secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali has had the courage to admit that it was guilty of criminal negligence when it did not act to stop the genocide in Rwanda (some two million dead) or in the former Yugoslavia (half a million dead). More recently, the U.N. has turned a blind eye to the genocidal war waged by Russia in Chechnya where a whole nation is being destroyed. Each time anyone did anything to right a wrong it was outside the U.N. remit, as was the case in Kosovo.

For much of the 1980s the U.N. watched, and presumably prayed, as over a million Iranians and Iraqis died in a war triggered by Saddam Hussein. The Security Council ended up by passing a resolution in 1988 that Iraq continues to violate.

In 1990 the U.N. authorized the expulsion of Iraq from occupied Kuwait, and, over the following 12 years, passed 18 resolutions that demanded precise action by Iraq on a range of issues.

Kuwait was liberated by force, but Baghdad honored none of its commitments, including respect for human rights inside Iraq itself.

Even during the Cold War the U.N. was unable to prevent its members from going to war without its authorization. The Anglo-French invasion of Egypt in 1956, with Israel in supporting role, the French wars in Indochina, The U.S. intervention in Vietnam, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, the India-China war of 1961, the four Arab-Israeli wars, the three Indo-Pakistan wars are just some of the 200 or so military conflicts which the so-called multilateral system failed to prevent.

Today, a world crisis map would show 66 conflicts with various degrees of intensity: dormant, semi-active, and hot.

Of these at least 22 could be described as either active or hot.

These rage from the genocidal war that Myanmar is waging against Muslim, and other non-Buddhist minorities, to the current civil war in Ivory Coast, and passing by the Israel-Palestine conflict. In almost every case the U.N. is either absent or used as an instrument for delaying a solution.

The official excuse, of course, is that the U.N. is nothing but the sum total of members and thus cannot be blamed as such. That, however, ignores the fact that every synthesis of contradictory elements develops a new identity. Thus the U.N. is something both less and more than the sum total of its members.

The U.N. is based on the assumption that all members are of equal stature and have equal interests, aspirations, and preoccupations.

That is a myth.

The newest member, Switzerland, is not in the same category as one of the U.N.’s founding members, Afghanistan. Nor does the Maldives have the same preoccupations as China. A majority of U.N. members are in no position to develop an analysis of the global situation and are, at best, preoccupied with their survival. This is why they think nothing of giving the chairmanship of the U.N. commission on human rights to Libya while voting to expel the United States, or to ask Iraq to head the U.N. committee on disarmament.

The situation in the Security Council is even more anomalous.

The five permanent, or “veto” holding members, represent a balance of power that has long ceased to exist. Today India is a bigger player, in terms both of demography and economic power, than France, Britain, and Russia. In terms of economic clout, and aid to the developing nations, Japan and Germany are the second and third biggest powers after the U.S. Even if one goes by regional distribution it makes no sense that Europe should have three veto-holding seats in the council while Latin America and Africa have none. Together, the veto-holding nations account for less than a quarter of the world’s population.

When it comes to the nonpermanent members of the council what we have is a lottery. Different combinations of membership could produce opposite results in the same debate. One could imagine a membership that would have given the new resolution sponsored by the U.S. and the U.K. all the ten votes of the nonpermanent members. But one could also imagine another list of members that would have turned out ten votes against the same resolution.

In most cases, however, the council is obliged to approve ambiguous, if not hermetic, texts that, far from solving the problem at hand, generate new problems. One example is the famous resolution 242 on the Palestinian issue. Another is resolution 1441. Its sponsors believed it authorized war. But at least four of those who voted for it believed it would prevent military action against Saddam.

Kurt Waldheim, a two-time secretary-general, once described the UN as a mechanism for ” lying in support of peace.” Waldheim, who had lied about his own Nazi past, knew what he was talking about. And nothing of value could be created through lies, diplomatic or otherwise.

— Amir Taheri, Iranian author and journalist, is based in Europe. He can be reached through www.benadorassociates.com.


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