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Thursday, May 23, 2024

The United Nations, just an expensive show

by Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor

© Shutterstock

The United Nations is arguably the most worthwhile organization on earth. On paper that is.  Established in 1945 with just 51 member countries, primarily to prevent a third world war, the goals encapsulated in the organization’s charter are admirable. Bringing the international community together under the UN umbrella was achieved to maintain peace and security, to nurture friendship between nations on the basis of human rights, fundamental freedoms, international laws - and the self-determination of peoples.

The idea was to provide a forum for international diplomatic, social and economic dialogue and the resolution of disputes with the benefit of muscle to be exerted as a last resort under Chapter VII of the Charter that permits the UN Security Council “to determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression” and to take military action to “restore international peace and security”.

No doubt UN organs such as UNICEF, UNDP, UNESCO, the UNHCR and the WHO undertake invaluable work within the limits of their budgets, but there’s no getting away from it, the main UN body, consisting of 193 member states today, has overall proved to be a spectacular failure. It is not meeting its obligations under its own charter. A glaring example of the UN’s impotence to do anything other than debate is its ineffectiveness in halting the Syrian regime’s ongoing mass murder. It’s good at cataloguing crimes, drafting resolutions and holding press conferences which make not one jot of difference to Syrian men, women and children who are being tortured, mutilated, shelled and bombed almost daily.

I’ve been following the numerous Security Council meetings intently, hoping against hope that its five permanent and ten non-permanent members will take decisive action to halt the killing, but all I see is squabbling, backbiting and obstruction. Most of the world agrees that something tangible must be done, and done quickly. On Friday, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution drafted by Saudi Arabia “deploring the failure of the Security Council to agree on measures to ensure the compliance of Syrian authorities with its decisions”. But as the General Assembly has no power, that resolution, like so many others, is destined to be filed away and forgotten.

Kofi Annan, the envoy appointed by the UN to mediate in Syria, has thrown up his hands, announcing his resignation effective end August. “Without serious, purposeful and united international pressure including from the powers of the region it is impossible for me or for anyone to compel the Syrian government in the first place and also the opposition to take the steps necessary to begin a political process...At a time when the Syrian people need action there continues to be name calling and finger pointing in the Security Council,” Annan said.

This isn’t the first time that the UN has reneged on its responsibilities. The UN abandoned the people of Rwanda under Annan’s watch. A report published by an independent investigatory commission led by former Swedish Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson accused the UN of failing to stem the genocide in Rwanda that robbed the lives of some 800,000. Mr. Annan in his capacity as UN Secretary-General accepted the report’s findings and expressed his regret while pledging to thwart a similar future disaster. That promise has turned out to be empty.

The United Nations has also admitted failure in its peace-keeping role by permitting Bosnian Serbs to systematically murder thousands of Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in July 1995. Srebrenica was supposed to be a safe area under the protection of UN-led troops. “The tragedy of Srebrenica will haunt our history forever,” is a quote for a self-flagellating UN report. UN forces were insufficiently manned and if NATO hadn’t stepped in, the Muslim Bosnian death toll would have been much higher.

Over 20,000 have been killed in Syria. Just like Rwandans, the Syrian people are crying out to the international community for protection and all they’ve received so far are commiserations. To be fair, neither Annan nor his successor Ban Ki-Moon should be held accountable. Any UN head is virtually powerless.  The way that the organization is structured with decision-making solely in the hands of the Security Council makes the UN nothing more than a house built on sand.

It’s preposterous than the Big Five permanent members – the U.S., the U.K., France, Russia and China – can veto resolutions blessed by all the other members. Russia and China have used their vetoes on three occasions to thwart resolutions censuring the Al-Assad regime in order to preserve their respective economic and geopolitical interests. They’ve been loudly condemned by Washington, London and Paris but, in fact, the US doesn’t hesitate to wield its own veto to block resolutions that justly chastise Israel or support the Palestinian bid for UN recognition of a Palestinian state with full UN membership. Moreover, whenever the US attempts to bring fellow members into line it threatens to cut its funding.

As long as individual countries prioritize their own national interests and those of their allies over the principles clearly set-out in the UN Charter, the organization will continue to be a sham, a body that holds out false hope to the dispossessed and the disenfranchised. Few had much faith in the Security Council before Syria erupted but now that it’s witnessed massacres of young children from the beginning of the uprising on March 15, 2011 until now and done nothing, it’s been exposed as a bad joke.

I never imagined that I would agree with the sentiments of that hawkish neoconservative John Bolton, a former US Ambassador to the UN, who controversially said if the UN lost ten floors “it wouldn’t make a bit of difference”. He was right. Better still, the entire bloated edifice should be demolished or turned into a museum or mall. Furthermore, those 7,750 pen pushers in the UN Secretariat and the 8,230 specially funded administrators should be sent home. The UN’s annual budget currently standing at US$ 5.15 billion (2012-2013) should be put to better use such as ensuring no child dies of starvation in famine zones. I wonder how much of that budget goes on cocktail parties, trips and personal allowances. It should be investigated and audited. Its failures and accomplishments should be made public so that its usefulness can be fairly evaluated.

The UN has emerged as a tool of big powers. The body’s charter is no longer worth the paper it’s written on. It’s lost its credibility so it should be replaced by an international organization headquartered in a neutral country like Switzerland wherein member countries enjoy voting rights proportional to their populations – and where no one nation is empowered to lead the others by the nose.

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