Saturday, September 19, 2009

Has the UN lost its relevance?

The United Nations has been on a receiving end from Sri Lanka, literally.

First the UN workers were banned from accessing the internment camps by Sri Lanka; then two of its employees were held by the government on suspicion of collaborating with the Tamil Tigers and now very recently, Unicef communications chief James Elder was sent packing.

The explanation given by Sri Lanka is that the August body and its officials are biased in favor of the Tamil separatists. There is no new angle to Sri Lanka’s claims. In the past, such assertions have been made by countries like Zimbabwe, Sudan and a lot of third world countries.

The anti-Israel bias by UN for instance, stands out amongst all. In the years 1947 to 1989, the General Assembly passed a total of 690 resolutions (full or partial). Of these, 429 were against the Israeli position while only 56 were against Arab positions.

The UN has repeatedly held Emergency Special Sessions of the General Assembly -- originally convened in 1950 for emergencies like the Korean War -- on Israel at least 15 times.

Was it comfortable enough for the UN to forget the genocide in Rwanda, Chinese occupation of Tibet, the disappearances in Zaire, the horrors of Bosnia and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia?

For how long the UN is going to play the game of favorites? With the 64th UNGA in session, it becomes all the more pertinent to ask whether the UN -- conceived after World War II as a world body dedicated to peace, justice and morality -- has lost its relevance.

Michelle Benson and Nil S Satana in their paper, Choosing sides: UN Resolution and Non-Neutrality, agree that an “assessment of General Assembly resolutions show that the UN often expresses a clear bias in conflicts towards one side or the other…The same can be said of the Security Council. Indeed the interests of the 15 members of the Security Council often play a role in what type of resolution is passed…”

The UN is not the strongest actor in the international system as is agreed by most experts. It is constantly in need of resources from its member states. The members, as noted by author Lawrence Ziring, are not free from predilection and are often bitterly divided. Further, Shoji Ogawa, Japanese ambassador to Iraq, “The UN is not a super-national body, as may be misunderstood by many people and even some politicians. The policies and actions of the UN are decided through agreements by member states, not by the international bureaucrats working for the Secretariat”.

The Secretariat is just an executive body that implements the policies and activities dictated by the member states. The UN, therefore, cannot act effectively if the Permanent 5 -- US, Russia, China, France and UK – do not support the UN.

For instance, what everyone prefers to call an anti-Israel bias is due to the fact that many members of the UN are countries with sympathetic positions towards Arab states or countries without democratic system of governance. Ogawa agrees, “It is not the fault of the UN but reality of the present world.”

As regards the ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia, the UN peacekeeping force that was deployed to protect Muslim inhabitants did not have sufficient military capability or authority to respond to attacks from Serbian forces because Russia favoring the Serbian action did not support giving a strong mandate to UN forces. Also, the Western powers, especially the US, were not too keen to intervene in the conflict. Consequently, UN forces suffered remained powerless before the ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the Serbs.

According to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, 2009, “In the past, the US has used its authority to limit funds to the UN as a mechanism for influencing UN policy. In some cases, US Congress withheld a proportionate share of funding for UN programs and policies of which it did not approve. Since 1980, it has withheld funds from regular budget programs, including the UN Special Unit on Palestinian Rights (for projects involving the Palestine Liberation Organization), and the Preparatory Commission for the Law of the Sea.

All this brings us to another moot point – Is the UN actually toothless? Shouldn’t it be called the P5 instead of UN? And isn’t Sri Lanka justified when it says that the superpowers in UN are engaged in a clandestine process trying their level best to discredit Sri Lanka because they cannot bear the very fact that poor third world country achieved what they tried and couldn’t in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.

There is going to be no dearth of such arguments until the UN strives in order to make itself more reflective of today’s international political realities. For those who choose to remain unaware, the UNSC consists of 15 members – 5 permanent and 10 non-permanent. The Permanent 5 have veto powers. The structure has remained unchanged since UN’s inception, although the memberships expanded from about 50 in the beginning to 192 at present.

On March 2005, then Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for reform of the General Assembly. He criticized the Assembly for focusing too much on consensus and trying to address too broad an agenda. These reforms include streamlining its agenda, committee structures and procedures, strengthening the role and authority of the president, and enhancing the role of civil society.

A specific proposal was also put forward by nations aspiring to be permanent members – India, Japan, Brazil, and Germany – to increase the number of seats from 15 to 25 including both permanent and non-permanent. The reform of the United Nations Security Council also includes procedural reforms, such as eliminating the veto held by the five permanent members. The African Union insists on the veto for new permanent members — a plan that is openly or implicitly opposed by the five countries currently holding the veto power.

Unfortunately, most of these proposals are still in cold storage. “The reform of the Security Council is perhaps best described as one of the most successful failures in the history of the United Nations,” Sri Lanka's Permanent Representative to the UN Ambassador HMGS Palihakkara, a longstanding diplomat who has served both in New York and Geneva for more than a decade, was quoted as saying in a news report.

A campaign to limit the veto requires the strength of the middle powers. But, as long as these powers aspire to permanency, they will not lend their support to this vitally important reform.

What is it that’s holding UN from undertaking massive reforms which even the world body agrees is need of the hour?

The complex relationships that exist among member states outside of the UN system is one of the many challenges hampering the UN reform efforts. These relationships are entirely independent of the UN but can affect how countries work together within the UN framework to achieve reform objectives. Military conflict, religious and ethnic differences, political conflict, trade and economic issues and geography can all potentially impact reform cooperation among UN member states.

According to Ogawa, “The issue of UNSC reform is extremely complex as the positions of member states are so divergent”. For instance, Pakistan opposes India’s bid to become a permanent member, China opposes Japan’s bid, and Argentina opposes Brazil’s.

“Many argue that the existing UN budget limits may not be able to support all of the reform initiatives currently being considered. Some member states, including the United States, however, contend that money saved from other reforms, such as mandate review, could create a funding source for further reforms and/or the creation of new UN programs or bodies,” elucidates the CRS report.

“The key to reaching an agreement is the position of the US, which is not thus far very enthusiastic about advancing negotiations, adds Ogawa.

The UN is imperfect but indispensable, says US president Barack Obama. The moot point is that if the world body is irrelevant, then why the US was so desperate to get its approval before going for war with Iraq? In fact, the strength of the UN lies in its moral authority as guardian of the rule of law and protector of the weak. Any operation under UN control enjoys greater credibility, wider acceptance and legitimacy which cannot be acquired otherwise. The UN is merely a reflection of the realities on international politics and does not function in a vacuum. Geopolitics influences the UN more than the UN influences geopolitics. One has to realize the limits of its capabilities and strive to make the alliance effective with a just and balanced perspective. Accusing it of “bias, impotency and inefficiency” won’t further any nation’s cause.