IN the baroque cavern of the San Francisco Opera House, 60 years ago, delegates assembled from the 50 nation-states that founded the United Nations. After several months of horse trading, amid comprehensive snooping by US agents, the screening of Hollywood movies, a live performance by Josephine Baker and the detonation of atomic bombs over Japan, they duly signed up to the UN Charter.
Received wisdom at the time was that the UN’s older sibling, the League of Nations, had gone to a premature grave because it had failed to stop the Second World War. This had happened, it was felt, in large part because the world’s emerging superpower, the US, never joined the League. Now it would be different. The UN would make peace with power, and with the US in particular. The fact that the architect of the UN in the US State Department, Leo Pasvolsky, was Russian-born, and the acting UN Secretary-General, Alger Hiss, was later accused of spying for the Soviet Union, may have helped to promote the enduring American folk myth of the UN as Communist Plot. With more reason, it was seen as the final legacy of US President Franklin D Roosevelt himself, who died shortly before the San Francisco conference opened.1
Received wisdom was, however, strangely misleading. After all, it was just as well that the Second World War had indeed been fought. What the League had failed to stop was the advance of militant, genocidal fascism. And the reason the US had never joined was not because the League was too feeble - far from it. The US Congress had decided - despite the enthusiasm of President Woodrow Wilson - that membership would conflict with the national interest of the United States.
The birth certificate of the UN, its Charter, illustrates the confusion of its parentage.2 ‘We, the peoples of the United Nations,’ proclaimed the Preamble, when what it really meant was: ‘We, the governments of one sort or another who were smart enough to join the Allies in time - or got an invitation.’ They vowed ‘to ensure… that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest’, while handing over the common interest to someone else - a ‘Security Council’. They undertook ‘to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples’, when the economic machinery of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) had already been installed elsewhere by the Bretton Woods conference.
Article 2 announced ‘the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members’ - a principle that would, incidentally, permit de facto governments of almost any kind to belong - in the General Assembly. But Article 23 made some Members more equal than others. The self-appointed Permanent Five - the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, China and France - would control the entire set-up in perpetuity through their individual right of veto at the Security Council, which would be free to ignore the General Assembly altogether. That, among other things, duly reassured the US Congress that this time the overwhelming power of its own national interest would always prevail over the UN.
The result was an organization stood very firmly on its head. Rather than establish its principles and then the appropriate means to achieve them, it began with the prevailing disposition of power and adjusted its principles to fit. So the UN became one of those unfortunate organizations where the sum of its parts adds up to rather less than the whole. When the sum of national self-interest amounts to nothing, then so does the UN. This inversion was then frozen into place by the Cold War.
Nonetheless, the missing sum could not be ignored altogether. That sum was, after all, the common interests of all humanity, after a global conflict that had made their existence all too clear. Eventually, in 1948, the General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: an infinitely superior document that would supplant the Charter atop a United Nations turned the right way up.3
Into such space as was left by the prior claims of power - to ‘security’ and the interests of nascent corporate globalization - stepped the quasi-autonomous ’ humanitarian’ agencies of the UN, like UNICEF, the World Health Organization and the UNHCR. There followed what now looks, in retrospect, like something of a golden age. Albeit under the shadow of madness - Mutually Assured Destruction - urgent and often fruitful efforts were made to attend to the pressing needs of common humanity.
These are the very stuff of life: wholesome food, pure water, shelter from the elements, education, good health, freedom from oppression, all the shared attributes of the human predicament.
‘Belief’ in the UN, the passionate advocacy of its cause, the ‘idea’ without which no organization can thrive: all these rest very heavily indeed on its humanitarian aspirations, which endure with only faintly diminished vitality today.
They are, however, constantly under threat from the sclerosis of the Charter. Even if it were not overwhelmed at every critical point by the sheer weight of officials from powerful countries, an organization that acquires immunity to reform is more likely than most to tolerate arrogance or condescension in its servants, and thereby to prescribe false cures for misdiagnosed ills.
As early as 1968 the Australian diplomat Sir Robert Jackson reported on the UN’s ’ development’ work with unusual frankness. What he described as ‘the machine’ was already ’ probably the most complex organization in the world’. It looked ‘unmanageable in the strictest sense of the word… incapable of intelligently controlling itself’. It was ‘becoming slower and more unwieldy, like some prehistoric monster’. He concluded that ‘the UN system has more than its fair share of “experts” in the art of describing how things cannot be done’.4
Despite managerial adjustments, and some talk in recent years of ‘co-ordinating’ the UN agencies’ jealously guarded autonomy, much of what Jackson described still applies today. A High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change has made recommendations for ‘a more secure world’ and changes to the membership of the Security Council, but not to the veto or to what is really at issue - the Charter itself.5
In 1989 the Cold War thawed. The world waited to see what kind of ‘peace dividend’ might trickle down. Suffice it to say that by 2000, confronted with a grotesque exaggeration of all forms of human inequality, the retreat of universal healthcare and education and the persistence of mass poverty, the UN felt impelled to launch the very modest Millennium Development Goals, to be achieved by 2015 (see Missing the Millennium Development Goals).
When the sum of national self-interest amounts to nothing, then so does the UN
What was singularly missing, however, was a change of heart. Any ‘innovative’ measures, like a ‘Tobin’ tax on financial speculation, or a fundamental shift in the prevailing orthodoxy of debt, finance and trade - which ’ belong’ to the IMF, World Bank and World Trade Organization - have so far been studiously avoided. Everyone knows that the Goals cannot be reached without a change of direction, or there would have been no need for them in the first place.
What if they are not reached? Would a reputation that survived such a failure be worth having? Is the UN to be likened to a work of art, merely revealing to us how things are? What kind of a world is imaginable another 60, 120, 240 years down this particular track?
The trends in the ‘security’ and ‘peacekeeping’ functions of the UN since 1989 are not reassuring. In Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, the Balkans, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Liberia, the UN proved unable or unwilling to restrain mutual slaughter and genocide on a massive scale. Humiliation became a way of life. In the Democratic Republic of Congo there are currently 150 allegations of sexual abuse against UN civilian staff and soldiers.6 In Haiti the UN stands accused in some quarters of endorsing the overthrow of an elected government and singling out its supporters for persecution.7
In November 2004 the Security Council decamped to Nairobi to address the violence in Sudan. It tried to broker yet another deal on the long-standing confl ict in the south (where one Security Council member, China, is the main customer for oil), but confined itself to contemplating whether the word ‘genocide’ applies to the continuing slaughter and displacement of millions of the civilians of Darfur.8
In Iraq a tipping point has been reached. After going to war in 1991 and overseeing the massacre of untold thousands of Iraqis, the UN became complicit in the slow deaths of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children, as well as the studied destruction of the ’ cradle of civilization’, through the enforcement of its economic embargo against Saddam Hussein.
Since 9/11, the ‘War on Terror’ and the occupation of Iraq, a truly calamitous drift of events has accelerated. Even as UNICEF bewails the worsening fate of children in Iraq since the occupation, and the Red Cross condemns the ‘complete disregard for human life’ on all sides, the UN has been paying Halliburton $18 million, Bechtel $7 million and Nestlé $2.6 million, through its Compensation Commission. All told, more than $21 billion of Iraqi oil revenues have been quietly handed over to Western oil corporations since 1991. ‘This is the first time, as far as I know,’ comments Claude Aimé, who headed the Commission until 2000, ‘that the UN is engaged in retrieving lost corporate assets and profits.’9
Who will compensate the Iraqi people? Who will protect them from killing machines that don’t even stop to count more than 100,000 civilian dead? Scarcely the freelance thugs whom the UN has endorsed in the guise of ‘sovereign’ interim government. What is the point of the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, declaring the occupation of Iraq ‘illegal’ if there are no consequences whatsoever? How much, finally, has been gained from making peace with power?
Welcome to New York!’ grinned US President Bush with pointed disrespect at the UN General Assembly in September 2004. ‘Go tell them it’s not about us,’ growled Vice-President Dick Cheney when asked about US behaviour at the UN over the invasion of Iraq. ‘It’s about you. You are not important.’10 And all the while the US presidential elections were watched by the world as if its fate hung upon the outcome, though it had no vote.
What, then, can be done? ‘Reform’ has run through the bloodstream of the UN from the outset, to the point where the drip-feed just adds to the sclerosis. It might well be better if the headquarters of the UN were not in Manhattan, or if the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization were accountable to an Economic Security Council. It might well be better if the General Assembly were not so abject, and if some sort of ‘People’s Assembly’ were to open its airways. It might well be better if someone, sometime, were expelled from the UN for ignoring such decisions as it has been able to make. It might well be better if Brazil, India, Japan, South Africa or even the European Union were on the Security Council, and if more countries, or no countries at all, had a veto. But, as Sir Robert Jackson’s experts would doubtless have felt bound to advise, anything that threatens to make a real difference won’t happen. Starting with any threat to the Permanent Five’s veto, it would be vetoed. So there really is no point in discussing it. In any event, the world would surely be worse off without the UN, even as it is - and who is seriously prepared to risk losing it altogether?
Linda Polman, in her brilliant book about the realities of UN peacekeeping, laments: ‘It was widely thought that the epic destruction of the World Trade Center would change everything, including the UN’s role in international politics. It did not. Certainly not the Member States’ pursuit of their own national agendas. 9/11 has provided yet another excuse for this pursuit to continue unabated.’11
None of this is, of course, strictly the fault of the UN itself. It was born that way. Blaming the UN for every confl ict on earth ignores the causes, and makes the next one more likely. So, if we are not to stand idly by, waiting for the diplomatic pack to be shuffl ed once again by the next global confl ict - and this one, if it is not upon us already, could well prove fatal - we must look elsewhere.
The real hope lies in the spontaneous and direct engagement of the world’s people with ‘global’ issues since 1989. Self-evidently, they no longer need manifestos to tell them what to do. The anti-globalization movement springs up unheralded, fragments, elides into the globaljustice movement, merges with the antiwar movement, coalesces with the environmental and human rights movements, collides with the labour movement, takes to the streets and crowds the world’s gathering-places. Wayward and slow this process may be. But, in the mere twinkling of an historical eye, it has started to fill the void of legitimacy beneath the UN.
There’s never been anything quite like it. Nor has the search for a means of expression by six billion and more people - the essential conundrum - ever been more urgent. As conundrums go, this is by no means the most impenetrable. For the first time in its life, the UN now embraces every country on earth. Who knows? As the people of Asia or Africa or Latin America come alive to their part in the world - and they are, after all, a large majority - the process of discovery might even turn the UN the right way up.
- Stephen C Schlesinger, Act of Creation - The Founding of the United Nations, Westview, 2003.
- The UN Charter is easily readable in 'About the United Nations' at www.un.org
- The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is also easily readable in 'About the United Nations' at www.un.org
- 4 Quoted in Edward C Luck, Reforming the United Nations: Lessons from a History in Progress, Academic Council on the United Nations, 2003.
- UN News Centre, Press Release, 1 December 2004.
- http://news.bbc.co.uk 23 November 2004.
- A useful source of information is the Haiti Support Group
- Eric Reeves, Darfur, Sudan: The Dying is Only Just Beginning, http://freeworldnow.blogspot.com/
- Naomi Klein, 'Why is war-torn Iraq giving $190,000 to Toys R Us?' in The Guardian, 16 October 2004.
- Quoted in Bob Woodward, Plan of Attack - The Road to War, Simon and Schuster, 2004.
- Linda Polman, We Did Nothing - Why the Truth Doesn't Always Come Out When the UN Goes In, Penguin, 2004.
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