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Where next for the UN?

United Nations
‘Tough Crowd’. Illustrations: Krishna

Unreal expectations of the UN have sometimes led to frustration and disillusionment when the organization has not delivered – but avoiding illusion is essential for a sense of proportion. It does not help that the UN has as many avatars as the Hindu pantheon. There is the aspirational UN of its founding Charter’s stirring ‘We, the Peoples…’ which pledged to save future generations from the scourge of war; but that has to be set against the UN that is a pragmatic political pact of ‘Them, the governments’. And of course, some governments more than others, many of which have often conspired to stifle the standard-setting side of the UN.

But while countries might have their fingers crossed behind their backs when they sign UN documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, having committed themselves, their evasions become aspirations and then can eventually translate into actual behaviour. After all, the General Assembly and similar bodies like the Human Rights Council are global public stages on which countries’ pledges can be compared with their deeds.

Without at least the passive support of the US, no initiative is likely to succeed

The core principle of the post-1945 system was that war was illegal unless sanctioned by the Security Council, the most powerful UN organ, which can authorize joint action against states. Closely tied is the principle that the acquisition of territory by force is illegal. That has not, of course, stopped wars or invasions, but no-one has gained clear title to any gains since 1945. That is why, after many years of Indonesian occupation, East Timor became independent, and why no-one accepts Morocco’s claims to Western Sahara, or Russia’s to Crimea, let alone Israel’s to the Occupied Territories. Even Trump’s plan to move the US embassy to Jerusalem has its limits; showing a residual respect for international law, the US State Department still refuses to issue passports with Israel as the place of birth to Americans born in the holy city.

Responsibility to Protect

In 2000, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, backed by like-minded member states, used the Millennium Summit to reinterpret the terms of the UN Charter so that Security Council members were obliged to respond not just to threats to international peace but also in-country atrocities. This aspirational interpretation, known as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), is honoured more in the breach than the observance, but it is now an accepted principle and Council decisions, including any action it takes to protect populations such as arms embargos or sanctions, are binding in International Law.

Annan, a charismatic – yet cautious – secretary general, had good relations with world leaders. His support for R2P and the International Criminal Court (ICC) had the strong support of Nelson Mandela and other African leaders as well as a personal impetus, because of Annan’s own admitted part in the UN’s failure to prevent the massacres in Bosnia and Rwanda in the mid-1990s.

On the Security Council at that time there was strong support for the concepts (if not always the practice) of international justice from the Clinton administration. Robin Cook as British Foreign Secretary was trying to introduce an ‘ethical dimension’ to foreign policy and France was in full rhetorical flow against the Iraq war. The West and Russia were relatively accommodating, and Beijing’s foreign policy was tied to its immediate environs.

Big powers deadlocked

The current picture is much gloomier. World politicians and the military, from Israeli generals to Henry Kissinger, may now consult lawyers along with their travel agents to avoid international arrest warrants, but the mayhem in Syria, Ukraine and Myanmar show the impotence of the UN Security Council in the face of deadlock among its five veto holders: the US, UK, France, China and Russia. The African coalition that once backed Annan is crumbling, with Mandela’s successors threatening to pull out of the ICC. And the disastrous misuse of R2P in Libya, which saw UN-sanctioned ‘humanitarian’ intervention rapidly segue into regime change, has led to widespread doubt about the concept rather than a questioning of how it is applied.

Sadly, realpolitik dictates that without at least the passive support of the US, no initiative is likely to succeed. At one level people could cheer Trump’s near-abdication of the US from its role as global leader, but there is no coalition to take its place, and even if the EU, Britain, France and Germany were united, it is unclear whether they still have any leverage in Washington. In that context, China’s growing eagerness to play a role at the UN commensurate with its economic power is a welcome counterbalance to Washington. But it comes with a price tag: China, top patron of the Myanmar regime, is one of the main obstacles to protecting the Rohingya against brutal ethnic cleansing.

Secretary General’s prerogative

So, what is the role of the Secretariat – around which the aspirational, political and standard-setting aspects of the United Nations orbit? Outspoken Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali used his powers in the Charter to raise issues with the Security Council and General Assembly – and was promptly barred from a second term in office by a US veto. Incumbents have since been cautious about using this prerogative – which can only be effective if reinforced with a willingness to name and shame recalcitrant powers.

Incumbents in the top job vary in how they exercise their influence. Kofi Annan had a team of outspoken assistants who could push the envelope for a world public, and yet be disclaimable if they went too far. His South Korean successor Ban Ki Moon, relied on frank one-on-one discussions, while firmly stating UN principles unacceptable to major powers. However, while this meant politicians turned up for the photo op, for the public it was the diplomatic equivalent of a tree falling in a forest where no-one can hear it.

With his exposure as Portuguese foreign minister and experience as head of the refugee agency UNHCR, many staff had great hopes of Antonio Guterres, who took up the post in 2017. But he was quickly accused of pandering to the new US president; any Secretary General has to accommodate the US, the UN’s major funder, but few have had to accept Trump’s nominations such as the Evangelical Christian and islamophobe Ken Isaacs, to head up the International Office for Migration (IOM). The rationale is that he can get the funding from Washington, but when most refugees are Muslim, appointing Isaacs challenges pragmatism as well as principle. But unless other governments come up with replacement cheques, they are hardly empowering Guterres to reject objectionable appointments.

The Secretary General of the UN occupies a uniquely prominent position to draw world attention. The vigorous – and too often successful – efforts of human rights offenders to stack the Human Rights Council are an oblique testimony to the UN’s efficacy as a global pillory for malefactors. In this context, Guterres’s habit of avoiding publicity may not play well.

An empowered Secretary General has the moral authority to improve the UN’s protection record. Guterres would do well to point out that, with few exceptions, UN Peacekeepers are not effective military forces in themselves: more of a thin, blue line, a token of international concern. Where they have worked, as on the Macedonian border with Serbia, or in Sierra Leone, it has been because they have had explicit strong military back-up. When they are sent as under-resourced cosmetic devices to save face for the Council members, the consequences, as in Rwanda, can be disastrous.

Guterres’s power must be built up if it is not to be a bee sting – a potent but one-off weapon. If, say, he were to exercise his prerogatives to draw a line in the sand over Isaacs’ appointment, that could help win the popular approval that is his best leverage.

In this interlinked world, global support is ultimately the biggest weapon of the Secretary General. Not just from governments – whose passive and active acquiescence has allowed the killing fields of Yemen, Syria and Myanmar and countenanced the perennial attritional atrocities of Congo – but also from their citizens.

Ultimately, effective UN reform will be about voters pushing governments and their representatives to live up to their own stated promises; not yet more high-level, everlasting committees on reorganization or geographically proportionate committee seats for ambitious diplomats.

Then, Guterres may be able to live up to UN supporters’ hopes and act as a tribune for the world’s people, prepared to confront the great powers’ leadership in their full range from pathetic to poisonous.

Ian Williams is the UN correspondent for Tribune and the author of UNtold: The Real Story of the United Nations, available from Just World Books.

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