Sunday, October 29, 2006
# Posted 2:21 PM by Patrick Porter
I do agree that many of its humanitarian programmes are benign and good things. Long may they thrive. And that the Genocide Convention, the declarations of rights and some of the foundational ideals are inspiring.
And I say this as unerotically and in as manly a fashion as possible, Taylor's interest in human security and in the development of better norms of international law reflect this more civilised aspect to the UN as an institution and as a set of ideas.
I can't agree, though, that the UN played a primary role in preventing World War III. I would attribute the absence of a major global hot war more to nuclear weapons, the restraints placed on apocalyptic conflict by the Cold War (though not on terrible wars in Vietnam, El Salvador or Afghanistan), and the actual horrific experience of World War 2 itself. The existence of the UN during a period where there was not World War III does not automatically mean that there is a causal relationship, or at least, it needs to be argued through rather than assumed.
On an occasion where World War III looked alarmingly possible, the Cuban Missile Crisis, its true that the UN functioned as an important forum for debate and accusation and as a place where both sides appealed to world opinion. But the crisis itself was alleviated primarily by concrete (and partly secret) diplomacy, where President Kennedy agreed to remove American missiles from Turkey in return for the withdrawal of the Soviet missiles. The UN was arguably not the essential element in the prevention of a world war.
And there are a few weaknesses that surely are disappointing. The UN has recently proven too often to be overly bureaucratic and corrupt. And just in case you think those two allegations are coming from rightist UN-haters, well no, they are coming from Hilary Benn, (Britain's Labour international development secretary), and a Human Rights Watch representative.
There is also the faintest suggestion that accountability for these kinds of failures could be improved.
The UN leadership has also at times been a disappointing actor in several crises Kofi Annan's intervention to forestall even the suggestion of pre-emptive action against the Rwandan genocide. Romeo Dallaire, the UN commander, was actually rebuked by UN senior figures for even proposing to attempt to seize the Hutu militia's weapons caches.
In other words, against the claims of those who dismiss criticisms of the UN on the basis that it is just the sum of aggregate national interests, the UN through its representatives is actually an agent in itself, and must therefore be held to account.
It also has a doctrinal flaw: in its commitment to the sovereign integrity of states, it recognises illiberal, nondemocratic states as equally legitimate and admits them on an equal basis. So large states that butcher their own wield veto powers, and Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe was elevated to a place on the UN Commission on Human Rights. Humanitarian interventions, for example in Kosovo, have sometimes had to take place outside the formal imprimatur of UN agreement.
The UN's dogmatic commitment to a posture of neutrality in civil conflicts has also sometimes led the UN to fail to identify aggressors when it intervenes in civil wars, as in the Balkans where the largest massacre on European soil took place under its nose at Srebrenica, with the commander of UN forces in the region refusing the request for air strikes to halt Serbian aggressions against the Bosnian Moslems.
As Nick Cohen argues:
It is a club without membership restrictions. Genocidal states aren’t suspended from the UN or expelled. While they perpetrate crimes beyond the human imagination, their ambassadors remain honoured figures at the UN headquarters in Manhattan.Not all of these problems can be easily solved, and partly it might be in the nature of trying to put together an international organisation of states which include some bad bad regimes.
On the positive side, long live UNICEF!
(3) opinions -- Add your opinion
I've got an unintentionally hilarious tape from 1949 extolling the virtues of the UN. The 3 great victories, according to the program? 1) permanent end to Palestinian/Israeli conflict; 2) permanent end to India/Pakistan conflict; and 3) I don't quite recall, as I haven't listened to it since last week, but I believe it's forever protecting the world from the possibility of nuclear proliferation. The WHO and UNICEF are well-praised, though.
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