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.


A.J. Gunesekera said...

Ms Iyer, very interesting and I wd want to quote Sri Lankan writer Malinda Seneviratne here, "Elder was not mandated to make public statements. That’s taking refuge in the broader meaning of communications and surreptitiously expanding mandate arbitrarily. There is no mandate for UN agencies like the UNICEF to interpret policy or make public statements that contain interpretation and projection. There are agencies that do have the right to examine, comment and call for action and even this only in fairly well specified forums.
The UN has a role to play but it is selective in affirming its mandate. This is why Boutros-Boutros Ghali was not allowed a second time, as has been usual, as UN Secretary General. Why not? Well, the man criticized the USA and Israel in relation to the question of Palestine and the gross violation of human rights against the Palestinians."

Kamran said...

It is easy to blame the UN when conflicts escalate. The world’s major powers have again assumed a more confrontational tone. It is no coincidence that over the same period, there has been a parallel development from a situation where countries looked to the UN to play a key role in all areas of international policy, from democracy-building to peace operations, to a situation after 2000 where cooperation in the UN has been increasingly strained.
Perhaps the best known example is the debate in the Security Council in the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq. Was this an example of UN failure? In my view, it was not. No organisation could have stopped the US. The Security Council functioned as intended; it refused to give Bush the legitimacy he was seeking for his military operation.
Today, however, the tone from the US Administration is quite different. In a speech to New York University, the US Permanent Representative to the UN, Susan Rice, underlined that the UN is important not only for US foreign policy, but also for its security policy. ”If there ever were a time for effective multilateral cooperation in pursuit of US interests and a shared future and greater peace and prosperity, it is now.” An open invitation that we should accept whole-heartedly.
It is easy to criticise the way major powers use, or fail to use, the UN. And often there is good reason to do so. At the same time, it is important to stay in touch with the realities of politics and bear in mind the limitations we have to work with in practice.
* If the UN is to function properly, it must be a forum that is interesting for all countries, including the major powers, so that they feel it is worth their while to invest political capital in the organisation. The UN needs to strike a balance between realpolitik and idealpolitik. It needs to follow a policy that is realistic enough to reflect the actual power relations in the world, so that the major powers are willing to take part, but at the same time idealistic enough to follow clear visions and have the potential to bring about change.
* If the UN fails to reflect the growing power of India and China in the future, this will create a problem not only for India and China, but also for the UN as a whole. And for all the countries of the world.
* At the same time, there are several prospective major powers that contribute little to the UN in terms of financial or practical support. Our role as a good, but critical friend of the UN includes maintaining a dialogue with such countries on multilateral issues in general and the UN in particular, and encouraging them to play a more active part. tks, Kamran

Vetri Iyer said...

What bias is Sri Lanka talking about?If it has so much problem then it should probably speak out at the UN..rather than blabbering things here and there in media. All this is nothing but Sri Lanka's way of shielding military excesses committed by its army on the Tamils.

Anuj Dhar said...

I like the new masthead. Anuj.

Ehtasham Ahmad said...

Very informative. There are a couple of points which I would want to know from you. For example, I would really want to know in detail about the veto power and what would the P5 do in case it is abolished? Should the veto power be abolished? Why was it introduced in the first place. When UN represents the majority, why should the power be restricted to just 5 countries alone? Thanks.

Shazneen said...

It is evident that the basis of world order, with UN at the helm of global governance has come under severe strain with the rise of unipolar world. But it still doesn't minimise the relevance of the UN cos' it is still the last best hope of immunity.

Rahmanabbas said...

Undoutedly UN was a hope for justice but since its inception with the P5 its charater was undemocratic, the Veto power i.e some nations are more equal than other nations. Hence we witness UN has been a gang of P5 and fail to deliver justice in some of the most significant international conflicts. Its silence when US invade Iraq was a criminal act but we don't have any other body of justice where UN offical can be trialed.