The United Nations caught between dream and reality
Is the UN designed to be ineffective and maintain the status quo? Alan Song asks.
The United Nations (UN) is seen by many as the arbiter of world peace and the final vanguard against human rights abuses. Many look to the UN to end world hunger, solve international disputes and save the environment. It was meant to fulfil a utopian dream which is yet to come close to reality.
However, particularly since 2003 when the British and US disregarded the UN’s directives on Iraq, the credibility of the UN has been brought into question. But this wasn’t the first time that the UN has had significant problems. Even in Rwanda it was argued that Kofi Annan sat on reports of mass genocide and slaughter. Its record of humanitarianism has been incredibly poor with token gestures here and there that routinely fail to acknowledge structural issues that lead to poverty, human rights abuses and environmental destruction.
What has become more apparent is that the UN is more about representing the interests of certain groups and countries than fulfilling its primary objectives. Nations and special interests jostle between each other, passing the buck, and the UN is not adequate in its current format to deal with the problems. The make-up of the Security Council and the prevalence of big businesses at UN conventions and forums is only part of the problem.
The organization has long been faced with issues over democratic accountability and civil society engagement. It has tried to nullify such critiques by allowing for civil society to have a space at UN forums and conventions. Now NGOs can and do make recommendations for conventions and are able to submit regular reports with suggestions for UN working groups; several NGOs even work directly with working groups on a variety of topics.
However, the way in which NGOs to do this is far from transparent. They must apply for status with the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). This status allows NGOs to participate in forums but obtaining status is incredibly politicized.
Countries who sit on the ECOSOC meet twice a year to decide who is to be approved. Failure to comply with the wants of the nations who sit on the committee means being rejected and or deferred until the next year. This often involves an NGO having to avoid contentious issues regarding the status of other members. Often this means that LGBTQ and minority NGOs struggle to make inroads. In other cases NGOs must use ‘official UN language’ with reference to contentious nations such as Taiwan (which cannot be referred to as an independent or sovereign territory at the UN because of the power of China).
Having attended these meetings and spoken to various diplomats I learned that as long as the goals of the NGO do not conflict with a country’s objectives then the application will ease through. One diplomat was pleased to see that the NGO I was representing was not looking into issues of beheading in his country, which he assured me was nowhere near as bad as it was made out to be!
There is a facade of civil society engagement at the UN; one which is carefully managed by big businesses and states. Powerful nations rule the roost and in particular the 5 who sit on the Security Council – Russia, France, Britain, China and the US. It is these states who often block any progressive reform. There have been countless resolutions passed by the General Assembly against Israel because of their occupation in Gaza and The West Bank, yet the presence of the US in the Security Council has made Israel immune to any punishment or sanctions. In 2013 alone the UN passed 21 resolutions condemning Israel, all of which came to nothing. In 2011 the US used its veto to block a resolution that would term Israeli settlement activity in Palestinian territory ‘illegal’ and demand a halt to all such actions.
These 5 nations have special veto power to block resolutions that they do not agree with. As of 2013 the veto had been used a combined 263 times. Hardly the trappings of a democratic body, but rather a mechanism implanted by the powerful Security Council countries to maintain their primacy.
For the UN to be truly democratic and make strides toward becoming more of a world assembly it has to do away with the Security Council. Yet even if this did occur, those 5 countries would still act in their own interest, knowing that without them, the UN would be unable to implement effective sanctions. The way in which Britain and the US went to war in 2003 in Iraq, without the UN’s consent, was a clear example of where the power truly lies.
States are not the only problem with the UN though; the prevalence of big business is another. The UN’s annual forum for ‘Business and Human Rights’ (surely an oxymoron) is a perfect example of this. Rather than being the place where corporations are held accountable it is somewhere they can go to whitewash their images. It is also worth noting that several companies and special interests (notably extractive industries) have begun manipulating this process by setting up NGO’s so that they can lobby against progressive change under the auspices of civil society engagement.
Major corporations such as Shell and Nestlé were not just in attendance, but had representatives chairing panels on corporate practices without any sense of irony. There is no acknowledgement that capitalism is at the heart of the problem, given that it is incompatible with human rights.
At the 2013 forum, former World Bank economist Joseph Stiglitz said it all when noting that bad practices, ‘have been undertaken … by some of the world’s largest and leading businesses, as they have pursued the goal of profit and value maximization.’
Yet, corporate voices are heard clearly, whilst the voices of marginalized communities such as indigenous people are routinely ignored. This represents the balance of power. States are influenced by corporations who hold the real power in global politics. The way in which the UN is designed gives the veneer of accountability and progress but in reality it often blocks progress and maintains the status quo. Some people and NGOs are working tirelessly at the UN for change, but they are halted at every turn by bureaucratic structures which stifle progress and impede their work.
A version of this article recently appeared in Consented.