UN risks be­ing theater of com­edy


“Deeply sad­dened, frus­trated and dis­ap­pointed” is how Bri­tish am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions Matthew Ry­croft de­scribed last week’s events in the United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil.

And for good rea­sons, since the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil was propos­ing to es­tab­lish an in­ter­na­tional tri­bunal to deal with the shoot­ing down of the Malaysia Air­lines MH17 air­liner over Ukraine ex­actly a year ago.

Most of the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil’s mem­bers agreed that such a tri­bunal should be es­tab­lished, bar one: Rus­sia, which ex­er­cised its veto to en­sure that the res­o­lu­tion failed.

Jus­tice won’t, there­fore, be done for the 298 pas­sen­gers who lost their lives, a per­verse out­come sure to stir the con­science of any am­bas­sador.

The only snag is that although Am­bas­sador Ry­croft’s anger was gen­uine, the stand­off with Rus­sia which so “frus­trated” him was also ut­terly pre­dictable.

Na­tions such as the UK, which sup­ported or pushed the res­o­lu­tion through the coun­cil, knew from the start that Rus­sia was never go­ing to ac­cept it, but still did so in the full knowl­edge their ef­fort would fail.

Welcome to the sur­real world of the United Na­tions, where res­o­lu­tions are tabled for ef­fect rather than out­come, and diplo­mats plan their fits of anger well in ad­vance.

This is a game which risks de­priv­ing the U.N. of its re­main­ing cred­i­bil­ity, just as the or­ga­ni­za­tion cel­e­brates this year the 70th an­niver­sary since its foun­da­tion.

The body’s five per­ma­nent mem­bers — the so-called P5 com­posed of the UK, the PRC, France, Rus­sia and the United States — rep­re­sent a post-World War II or­der that is not only woe­fully out­dated, but also ig­nores the ex­is­tence of ei­ther Africa or Latin Amer­ica.

The Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, its crit­ics claim, is there­fore a plat­form for yesterday’s rather than to­mor­row’s world.

It of­fers no scope for ex­ist­ing big pow­ers such as Ger­many or Ja­pan, or ris­ing ones such as Brazil, In­dia or South Africa.

Once a year each Septem­ber, the body is trans­formed into a ver­i­ta­ble may­hem of all the world’s lead­ers, all jostling for at­ten­tion. Peace is most def­i­nitely out of the ques­tion.

Com­edy Cen­tral at the U.N.

Far from pro­vid­ing co­her­ence, the Gen­eral Assem­bly usu­ally just sup­plies free en­ter­tain­ment.

This is cer­tainly the case with Venezue­lan Pres­i­dent Hugo Chavez, who in 2006 opened his speech to the assem­bly by re­fer­ring to U.S. Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush as the “devil” whose “smell” still per­me­ated the de­bat­ing cham­ber.

Few can also for­get Libyan leader Muam­mar Gaddafi, who in 2009 ex­ceeded the 15-minute time slot granted to ev­ery leader by no less than 70 ex­tra min­utes with a per­for­mance which in­cluded the stunt of tear­ing up a copy of the found­ing Char­ter of the U.N. and throw­ing its loose pages to the au­di­ence.

For a num­ber of years, there was also the reg­u­lar spec­ta­cle of tens of lead­ers os­ten­ta­tiously leav­ing the assem­bly hall when­ever Ira­nian Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad en­gaged in one of his ridicu­lous con­spir­acy the­o­ries about the “in­ven­tion” of the Holo­caust.

But prob­a­bly the most mem­o­rable event in this spe­cial cat­e­gory of U.N. comedies be­longs to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who dur­ing the 1960 Gen­eral Assem­bly yearly ple­nary meet­ing took out his shoe and banged it on the ta­ble in protest against the rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Philip­pines, whom Khrushchev pub­licly branded a “jerk.”

Yet although this litany of com­plaints and far­ci­cal anec­dotes re­mains deeply en­graved in peo­ple’s mem­ory and does noth­ing to en­hance the United Na­tions’ rep­u­ta­tion, they should not be taken too se­ri­ously.

Still Use­ful and Rel­e­vant

A good case can be made that, notwith­stand­ing all the comedies and er­rors, the Gen­eral Assem­bly is still per­form­ing the job as­signed to it when the U.N. was founded in 1945: that of be­ing the par­lia­ment of hu­man­ity, the one and only global plat­form where ev­ery na­tion big or small has the in­her­ent right to speak and be heard.

And that prin­ci­ple is hardly a laugh­ing mat­ter.

The same can be said about the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil. Although its com­po­si­tion is anachro­nis­tic and un­jus­ti­fi­able, the fact re­mains that its P5 mem­bers are all nu­clear pow­ers and that, to­gether, they also still ac­count for most of the world’s eco­nomic might.

En­larg­ing the cir­cle of the ve­to­hold­ers won’t make the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil func­tion bet­ter, but could well paral­yse it for­ever, so it’s a cu­ri­ous ar­gu­ment that sug­gests it is prefer­able for the coun­cil to be more rep­re­sen­ta­tive, even if this means that it is ren­dered far less ef­fi­cient.

Fur­ther­more, it is not the UK or France who are block­ing re­form by cling­ing to their old colo­nial power sta­tus, but main­land China and Rus­sia, who are op­posed to any change in the ex­ist­ing com­po­si­tion of the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil; only last week main­land China scup­pered an In­dian at­tempt to cir­cu­late a fresh re­form pro­posal to the U.N. Gen­eral Assem­bly.

Prob­lem of Veto-happy


Still, the real prob­lems fac­ing the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil are con­sid­er­able. Chief among them is the fact that Rus­sia is in­creas­ingly us­ing its veto — not for the prac­ti­cal pur­pose of de­fend­ing its na­tional in­ter­ests, but as a sym­bol of its prow­ess and great power sta­tus — as a bat­ter­ing ram against the West.

No­body on the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil adopts such an ob­struc­tion­ist ap­proach, and if Rus­sia’s be­hav­ior con­tin­ues, it could spell dis­as­ter for the or­ga­ni­za­tion.

But Western pow­ers also share a heavy re­spon­si­bil­ity for prompt­ing this Rus­sian be­hav­ior.

Since the Cold War ended, the West en­ticed Rus­sia to vote or to ac­qui­esce in the adop­tion of res­o­lu­tions to var­i­ous crises.

All these res­o­lu­tions were ini­tially pre­sented by Western gov­ern­ments as just the­o­ret­i­cally rais­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of us­ing force, and only in ex­treme cir­cum­stances.

But, once the res­o­lu­tions passed through the Coun­cil, they were seized upon by a va­ri­ety of U.S.-led mil­i­tary coali­tions to do more or less as they pleased, with­out ever bring­ing the is­sue up again to the U.N.

That’s what hap­pened in 1995 when NATO went to war against Ser­bia; in 1999 when the U.S.-led mil­i­tary al­liance in Europe un­leashed a war in Kosovo; in 2003 when the U.S. in­vaded Iraq; and in 2011 when Western pow­ers launched air at­tacks in Libya, specif­i­cally promis­ing the Rus­sians that their pur­pose was en­tirely hu­man­i­tar­ian rather than regime change, only to pro­ceed to over­throw the ex­ist­ing Libyan gov­ern­ment.

And now, Western gov­ern­ments are go­ing even fur­ther, by tabling res­o­lu­tions which they know the Rus­sians won’t stom­ach, just in or­der to em­bar­rass Moscow.

Rus­sian of­fi­cials had warned for weeks that they would veto the mo­tion to es­tab­lish an in­ter­na­tional tri­bunal to try those re­spon­si­ble for down­ing the Malaysia Air­lines jet.

But the res­o­lu­tion was still pushed through be­cause of the dis­com­fort this would cause the Rus­sians.

Rus­sia should never be al­lowed to shirk its re­spon­si­bil­ity for the Malaysia Air­lines tragedy. But us­ing the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil as the plat­form to hu­mil­i­ate the Rus­sians for no par­tic­u­lar prac­ti­cal pur­pose amounted to a self-de­feat­ing game.

Ul­ti­mately, it di­min­ished the im­por­tance of the U.N. and of the rule-based in­ter­na­tional sys­tem which the West is con­stantly urg­ing Rus­sia to re­spect.

The U.N. won’t ever be the in­sti­tu­tion meet­ing the lofty as­pi­ra­tions of its founders. And the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil will prob­a­bly never be re­formed.

But at the very least, the world’s most im­por­tant se­cu­rity fo­rum is en­ti­tled to ex­pect fewer child­ish pranks and less of cheap score­set­tling from its per­ma­nent mem­bers.

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