The UN Impasse


For many of the turbulent years that made up the second half of the twentieth century, the United Nations stood as a symbol of global authority, the one entity that could claim to speak for the entire global community. In recent years, the authority of the international organisation has been greatly eroded, and many questions are being raised about its ability to cope with a world that is very different from the one in which it was born. There is a growing sense that the global machinery is inadequate to deal with present-day problems of politics even of economics, as borne out by the sudden breakdown of the markets two weeks ago.

Does this mean that we are inexorably heading towards complete chaos? The term ‘chaos’ has lost much of the terror it once inspired. Today it is regarded by scientists as descriptive of the randomness of elements in nature, as an integral part of the living process, indeed, as a necessary evil. Why not perceive it also as an integral element of present-day politics and economics? This raises the question of just how adequate the present world order is in face of the ever-growing threats of chaos, more specifically, of whether the United Nations, which is at the very heart of our world system, is up to the task of standing up to those threats.

There is no doubt that the UN is no longer in tune with the requirements of these and that it has proved unable to cope with new developments. For a start, it is still based on a formula devised in the aftermath of World War II to consecrate the victory of five powers in the war, the United States, the USSR, Britain, France and China, still the only powers enjoying veto rights in the Security Council. Over half a century after the end of the war, there is nothing to justify why these particular countries should be accorded preferential treatment. After all, the countries vanquished in World War II, Germany and Japan, have risen like phoenixes from the ashes of defeat to become no less powerful than these five powers. Moreover, the USSR has disappeared to be replaced by Russia, and the two are not interchangeable either in terms of authority or ideology.

But whatever the current problems of the UN, the creation of an international organisation incorporating all the states of the world is in itself an outstanding achievement which heralded the advent of the age of globalisation. Even more than its precursor, the short-lived League of Nations, the UN underscored the fact that the nation-state, for more than two centuries the main building block of world order, was no longer the only entity to enjoy sovereign prerogatives and that nation-states could no longer exercise those prerogatives as they wished, including using military force to achieve their objectives. Created after World War I, the League of Nations failed to stand up to the challenge of fascism. It eventually collapsed, and World War II broke out. After the defeat of fascism, the United Nations was created.

But it soon became apparent that the defeat of fascism was not enough to rid the world of the scourge of war. True, the development of weapons of mass destruction (first used by the United States against Japan before the end of WWII) and the threat of mutual annihilation they represented were an effective deterrent against the outbreak of a third world war, but many of the ingredients for such a war built up throughout the Cold War, which ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the bipolar world order — in a way, even, of ideology as the driving force of confrontation.

What has emerged from all this is a world with contradictory features, which are bound to affect world order and the United Nations. A world war is no longer a viable proposition, but then neither is bringing an end to all forms of conflict. We have moved from a bipolar to a unipolar world order which has resulted in the hegemony of one specific state, the United States, and the breakdown of a world order capable of protecting the sovereignty of states from erosion. Hence the emergence of globalisation, that is, a global system in which all states attribute themselves to the same set of values (democracy, the market economy, human rights), instead of two antipodal ideologies, leading some to conclude that we have reached the ‘end of history’!

However, what is institutionalised so far is the United Nations as established in the immediate aftermath of World War II, with veto rights for the five powers considered the victors in that war, and with allegedly the right of every state to enjoy absolute sovereignty. But what is actually being practiced in the real conduct of international affairs is an entirely different matter. State sovereignty is violated every day in a variety of ways. And the Security Council is increasingly bypassed under the pretext of acting by consensus, even if only apparently, thereby avoiding the use by Russia, China, or even France, of their veto powers to block any resolution. This process may not have been evident during the Iraqi crisis, but was blatantly evident during the Kosovo crisis.

In criticising the process, I am not defending Slobodan Milosovic or, for that matter, Saddam Hussein, both of whom are responsible for atrocious crimes against humanity. What I do oppose is the practice of bypassing the Security Council and the entire United Nations machinery, whatever the justification — not in defence of one ruler or another, but to ensure the survival of the world system, whatever its shortcomings.

The main justification for not respecting state sovereignty (and for trying, as a corollary, to circumscribe the veto) is to protect ordinary citizens from violations of human rights perpetrated by tyrants in power. Intervention has occurred in the name of ‘humanitarian’ intervention. This form of intervention, however, has raised critical issues. How can intervention be made compatible with respect for state sovereignty? If the Security Council is to be bypassed, how to reconcile such intervention with the UN Charter, how to give it legitimacy? There are good reasons to believe that ‘humanitarian intervention’ can be used as a pretext for intervention in the interests of one, or more than one great power that is, intervention with its traditional colonial connotations. What criteria can be used to make a distinction between genuine ‘humanitarian intervention’ and the old, colonial, motivation for intervention?

It can be argued that the criteria for intervention should be determined on an ad-hoc basis, according to the reality on the ground. In the case of the genocide of an entire people, as in Rwanda, or the ethnic cleansing of one community by another, intervention is legitimate in accordance with the principles established since the Nuremberg trials of war crimes perpetrated by the Nazi rulers during World War II. These principles of international law have since been developed further by the creation of the notion of ‘crimes against humanity’. However, making the reality on the ground the only criterion for intervention is a highly problematic affair in that it is often difficult to correctly evaluate the facts. It has been claimed, for instance, that Serbia committed an act of genocide against the Kosovar Albanians and that genocide was sufficient justification for NATO’s intervention against Serbia. But non-biased sources of information, such as the prestigious French Le Monde, have denied that a genocide occurred in Kosovo, though admitting that the responsibilities assumed by the protagonists were distributed in a highly complex manner and that a more comprehensive investigation is required. So how can NATO’s decision to intervene unilaterally without a mandate from the Security Council be justified?

Actually, the contradiction between a globalisation process exercised without being institutionalised on the one hand, and sovereignty exposed to erosion and infringements on the other, should be overcome in a manner that leaves no room for ambiguities. The earliest forerunner of globalisation appeared in the 14 principles proposed by former US President Woodrow Wilson in the aftermath of World War I. These principles were later embodied in the League of Nations. But with the breakdown of the League and until the United Nations was created, World War II marked an interruption in the mechanism created to ensure world order. Now we face a similar absence of an appropriate mechanism by which to ensure the continuity of world order. This is a crucial problem with far-reaching consequences for the very future of humankind.

The problem is further compounded by the power of present day technology, which has not only produced weapons of mass destruction but also poses a threat to the ecological balance of the planet, even with respect to the peaceful use of this technology. Humankind is no longer only threatened by conflicts that divide humans, but also by the onslaught of technology on the environment. The ‘confrontation’ between technology and ecology is proceeding along uncharted paths that humans can barely predict, let alone control. Such an unprecedented development can threaten humankind in its very existence.

In essence, the United Nations structure boils down to the veto power of five nations who are the only members of the international organisation with the right to stop any development, anywhere in the world, that they consider detrimental to their interests. Today, in the framework of the prevailing unipolar world order, only one of the five, the United States, effectively maintains that power, and even extends it further by attributing to itself the right of intervention, whenever it decides, in the name of ‘humanitarian intervention’. Thus great power hegemony has expanded still further at the expense of the democratisation of the world system. Is there any way out of the impasse? My next article will be devoted to this question.

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