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What is the UN there for?

January 25, 2014 at 6:00 am

Article 1, paragraph 1 of the Charter of the United Nations says that the purpose of the organisation is “to maintain international peace and security”. On that level, the UN has to be an abject failure, although that’s very unfair of me; the UN is only as good as the collective abilities of its members and it is the member states which create international insecurity through their wars and conflicts with each other. The UN Secretary-General called recently for “much more global cooperation”, but on that level, the “international community” is a mess.

This is inevitable in a world where “national interests” often override international and transnational ideals. Nowhere is this more obvious than when it comes to international laws and conventions, especially on human rights, UN resolutions and the articles of the UN Charter itself. Resolutions are mandatory if passed by the Security Council and advisory from the General Assembly. Recent events at the UN regarding the Palestinian application for recognition of an independent state suggest that there could be a case for all UN resolutions being mandatory for member states to implement.

Such a move would not be without some serious obstacles to overcome, not least the influence of the stronger states on the outcome and wording of resolutions. The right to veto would have to be removed from the permanent members of the Security Council (or perhaps left at the discretion of the country holding the rotating chair). It would also help, I believe, for the UN to maintain one headquarters building, in neutral Geneva, and shut-down its New York operations. If the US president had to make more than a short hop to attend a UN session, he might take it a bit more seriously and the world might hear something a little more thoughtful and balanced from the person who is supposed to be world’s most powerful politician. That point notwithstanding, if the White House opted not to attend General Assembly meetings in Switzerland, would the rest of us be any worse off?

Maybe then member states would start to take the UN seriously; under the present set-up countries can and do cherry-pick which resolutions to accept and which to denounce and ignore. The United States would no longer be able to protect the state of Israel by its use of a veto. This would have the effect of allowing the term “international community” (it’s a troublesome description, I know) to mean more than the USA, France, Britain, Russia and China collectively or individually. It would also reinforce the requirement for UN member states to be sincere when they sign up to the claim that “the [UN] Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members” (Article 2, paragraph 1).

Right-wing US politicians and diplomats have boasted that America is the UN’s biggest contributor (at 22% of the core budget) and that the organisation could do nothing without their support. However, the USA is also the UN’s biggest debtor; at the start of 2009 America owed the international body more than $1.5 billion. Such apparent disdain for the UN is reflected in the number of Security Council vetoes used by the US to ensure that resolutions remain unenforced, giving the organisation a toothless reputation in its peacekeeping role, especially in the Middle East.

It is clear that the UN is used and abused by some member states almost at will. When Saddam Hussain invaded Kuwait in 1990, the UN Security Council “was variously bribed and intimidated by the United States into giving nominal support for US policy”. This dictated that a US-led coalition should go to war to force the Iraqi president to leave the small Gulf state. No such pressure from the Americans has ever been imposed on the Security Council to force Israel to fulfil its obligations to withdraw from the occupied Palestinian territories and other Arab land occupied by the Zionist state. This probably says as much about Israeli control over US foreign policy than the UN Security Council.

Nevertheless, Israel has ignored dozens of resolutions requiring it to withdraw from occupied territory, allow Palestinian refugees to return to their land, and so on; all with US complicity and cover at the UN, resulting in dozens more draft resolutions vetoed by America in Israel’s favour. The General Assembly is dismissed frequently by Israeli politicians because of what they perceive as an inbuilt anti-Israel bias. And yet it is to UN General Assembly Resolution 181 dated 29 November 1947 (which proposed the partition of the British Mandate territory of Palestine) that Israel looks for its international legitimacy, although then as now a GA resolution is not mandatory. In addition, membership of the UN for the nascent state of Israel was made conditional inter alia upon it allowing the return of the said refugees to their homes and land. This is rejected by Israel but its seat at the UN has never been questioned or challenged because of its failure to fulfil that crucial condition of membership.

Resolution 181 provides an ironic backdrop to President Obama’s claim at the UN during his speech on the Palestinian recognition proposal that “Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the UN”. That’s true, but it’s a good place to start and having international support for treating both parties to a conflict as equals has to be something positive. One gets the impression that some politicians believe that the UN exists to support or dismiss entrenched positions, depending on their whims or the interests which drive them. Referring to Syria, Obama called for the Security Council “to sanction Syria” because of the Assad regime’s violent response to the Syrian people’s “dignity and courage in their pursuit of justice – protesting peacefully, standing silently in the streets, dying for the same values that this institution [the UN] is supposed to stand for.” The question for us is clear, said the President: “Will we stand with the Syrian people, or with their oppressors?” We know the answer, and we know that the UN was said by Barack Obama to be the tool to tackle the “oppressors”. No such luck for the Palestinians, though, who are also pursuing justice but find that the US stands four-square behind their oppressors, the Israeli government and its decades-old military occupation. America, claimed President Obama, will always stand up for the universal human rights endorsed by the UN. But not, apparently, if you are a Palestinian seeking UN support for those rights.

The world can’t have it all ways; the UN is not there to be all things for all people and it cannot be a tool of the more powerful states. It is there to uphold international standards and laws to enable all people to live in “peace and security”. If member states can’t or won’t live up to those ideals, they should withdraw or be suspended until they feel that they can and will; indeed, suitable sanctions – as Obama called for against Syria – should be applied until they do. Domestic political considerations and external influences over foreign policy should not take precedence, as they appear to have done in Washington, with Obama pandering to the Israel Lobby with his eyes fixed firmly on his re-election campaign and the need for votes and funds. Israelis and their supporters bleat that the country is taken to task when and where the actions of other countries are ignored. “Why pick on Israel?” they cry. We’re not; we just feel that Israel should be held to account in the same way that Syria, for example, is being chased (rightly, albeit hypocritically) by Israel’s “unshakeable” ally the USA.

While various agencies such as the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) and UNICEF, for example, continue to do excellent work in their specific fields – often despite serious funding deficits – the overall position of the United Nations is a cause for concern. Unless and until the UN is given the status and respect it deserves, and member states are prepared to abide by all of its resolutions, the organisation will remain an irrelevance to be wheeled out when it suits powerful states to do so. In the meantime, the rest of us will suffer as hypocrisy and double standards dominate to the detriment of the founding principles of the UN. We have to call time on the cherry-picking days and stand up for the “universal human rights endorsed by the UN”. Barack Obama could do us all a favour by being the first US President to do so in deed as well as word.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.