This week, 65 years ago, the United Nations officially came into existence. It has experienced ups and downs, but never has looked to be a greater a failure than it does today. Its founders would be amazed at the Frankenstein creation that now sits on Manhattan’s East River.
The horrors of World War II had led statesmen from countries great and small to devise a council of nations to prevent the worst excesses of international conduct. An admirable ideal, but it has not worked out that way. The world body has built-in flaws which a changing world has made worse.
First: the General Assembly is not a democratic body.
Member states represent not people, but governments, many of them squalid dictatorships. As a result, lack of democracy and human rights is no barrier to UN membership and participation.
At its founding this mattered less, since most UN members then (other than the Soviet and Arab blocs) were democracies. But democracies have been a minority within the UN since 1958. The democratic wave in Eastern Europe and Latin America following the Cold War has not only receded in some cases, but was in any case too small to alter this fact.
Second: the UN system is organized into blocs, of which the largest is the so-called Non-Aligned bloc. The policy of this bloc is largely determined by the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference, which includes the 22 member states of the Arab League. Very few of the OIC’s members can be considered functioning democracies. This bloc, and subsets within it, connive to render the UN impotent.
For example: no discussions are held, resolutions passed, or action taken on China’s obliteration of life and culture in Tibet. The UN General Assembly cannot even muster a simple majority merely to condemn the slaughter of Christians and animists in Sudan’s Darfur region.
Third: the Security Council is beholden to the veto power of five very different permanent members.
Undoubtedly, this prevents the UN from doing much that’s wicked, but also most that’s decent. The rare occasions on which the UN came to anyone’s rescue — South Korea in 1950 and Kuwait in 1991 — were made possible by a Soviet boycott (never repeated) in one case, and a rare abstention by China in the other.
Otherwise, little else of serious import gets passed — or even discussed. Russia and China shield Iran from serious sanctions over its illegal nuclear weapons program. China and Arab blocking of action over Sudan’s depredations in Darfur, which have killed hundreds of thousands over the past decade, prevents any movement there.
Even when the Security Council decides on something — like disarming Saddam Hussein — action to achieve this aim can still be frustrated by subsequent vetoes.
Other UN bodies, like the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), reflect these adverse conditions. Established in 2006 to replace the corrupt and ineffective Human Rights Commission, the HRC has proved no better, and is arguably worse.
Non-democratic African and Asian regimes exercise an unbreakable controlling majority of 26 of its 47 seats. It is these dictatorships that set the Council’s agenda and determine its vote. In four years, the HRC has closed off investigation of the worst human rights abuses in Belarus, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.
In these circumstances, democracies can change the UN only so far. The Reagan administration, for example, pressured the UN through the purse-strings by withholding dues, and withdrew from corrupt bodies like UNESCO. But such efforts need to be sustained when the UN reverts to worst practice. In any event, joining the jackals, as if that could somehow tame their appetites, is worse than useless. It merely lends legitimacy that would have been better denied. The Obama administration took the U.S. into the HRC last year in the declared hope of effecting change. It didn’t. One month after the Obama administration joined the HRC, it terminated investigation into human rights abuses in Congo. In May, Libya joined the HRC. The Obama administration’s objections were simply ignored.
There is another way. The U.S., which provides a quarter of the UN budget, should consider some options. It could hold the UN to performance standards before disbursing funds. It could withdraw from irredeemable bodies like the HRC. It could back a new caucus of democratic nations. It could reallocate funds to external initiatives that actually do some good.
But who expects the Obama administration to do any of these things?