Sunday, July 25, 2004

How the UN has failed in its mission

By Wallace Kantai 

Here’s a quick pop quiz. What do right wing ideologues in the United States have in common with the filth in Nairobi’s garbage dumps? At first glance, there is nothing that obviously ties them together, but closer inspection turns up the one thing they share. They may both be harbingers of the death of the United Nations. 

The United Nations is evidence of humanity’s fear of itself. The horrors of the World War II led the victorious powers to set up a body that would be tasked with ensuring that there would never be another global conflagration. 

There was recognition that hard power needed to be managed, that channels and avenues needed to be opened that would enable resolution of issues before they escalated into crises. 

There was also recognition that "softer" issues also needed to be addressed; that development issues would decide the course that millions of lives would take and that this would have a direct effect on world stability. Thus, the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council were established as UN bodies of equal strength. 

Realpolitik, or what passed for pragmatism in the years of the Cold War, gradually elevated matters of security to the fore in the operations of the UN, and put development on the back burner. The action was all at the Security Council — after all, this is where Nikita Khruschev took off his shoe and banged it on the table to make a point. The Security Council is the club everyone was clamouring to be part of. 

On the other hand, the General Assembly, which represented the veneer of democracy that the UN maintained was a central tenet, was the place where Heads of State from tiny, unimportant nations could make their five-minute allotted speeches in October and have a good photo of (and soundbite for) the television cameras back home. 

The development bodies of the UN, such as the Economic and Social Council and agencies such as the UN Development Programme, Unesco, the UNHCR, and other UN agencies and bodies making up a complex and confusing alphabet soup, were all relative backwaters, where retired world leaders could be posted as secretaries general. 

The United Nations Environment Programme was launched in 1972 with great fanfare and its headquarters placed in the heart of Africa, with the hope and expectation that this would induce better thinking on issues of sustaining life on the planet, and being a tad more careful not to let our desire for generating wealth overtake the earth’s capacity to absorb the filth we produce while doing so. 

However, the years have unfortunately shown the United Nations to be a largely ineffective body for moderating global affairs. The main problem seems to lie in the fact of the overwhelming economic and military strength of some countries over others, meaning that any pretences to equality are mere illusions. 

As the United States showed in the run-up to the war in Iraq, and as Israel has shown countless times in its dealings with Security Council resolutions on Palestine, the UN is a body whose imprint is sought when it would give a gloss of legitimacy, but which is waved away as an inconvenience when it threatens a determined course of action. 

Also, as seen in the 1990s, the UN is hostage to domestic American politics. The body was almost bankrupted when the cantankerous but powerful Senator, Jesse Helms, held up billions of dollars in UN dues in order to play to a narrow minded constituency in the United States. 

In the development arena, many countries choose to conduct their energies through different channels, such as bilateral and multilateral dealings, as opposed to going through such an unwieldy body as the UN. 

The danger is that the UN will begin to be perceived irrelevant even in those areas where it has had traditional strength, such as security and peacekeeping. 

Back in May of this year, Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay of the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations respectively, wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post on just those problems. The institutions they represent are some of the most influential in the United States. They proposed an "Alliance of Democratic States", to supplant the United Nations and become the premier global body making decisions on global security and related issues. They maintained that countries such as the US itself, members of the Europen Union, Australia and Botswana, among others, had much greater moral authority than the questionable members of the UN in such matters. 

They made the point that the United Nations peacekeeping forces almost never have enough authority to enforce the peace and are thus largely ineffective in their primary duty. 

If such ideas gain currency among decision makers in the capitals that matter, the United Nations may die a slow, painful, lingering death, its authority deflated by the unwillingness of members to accede to a body that they perceive as powerless and irrelevant. 

They will look at the UN as a body founded on idealism, but that could not convince the world to live in peace, or to even pick up its trash.