The Least Bad United Nations

21 September 2003

The Least Bad United Nations

By Gwynne Dyer

Just as democracy is the least bad political system, given the alternatives, so is the United Nations the least bad international system. It’s a lot better than anarchy at one extreme, or an overbearing and unsustainable world government at the other — which is a thought to cling to as the UN proceeds to covers itself with something very far from glory at the annual General Assembly session that opens this week in New York.

The presidents and prime ministers will be there in their dozens, but nothing much will change. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will make his case for reforming the Security Council to reflect the distribution of power in the real world more closely, but everybody knows that isn’t going to happen. Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, with Annan’s strong support, will make a pitch for a new UN mandate to go in and protect people from slaughter in failed states, but nothing will be done about that either.

The United States will get some sort of resolution through the Security Council offering lukewarm support for its efforts to stabilise Iraq, but it won’t give the UN the kind of authority there that might persuade other countries to send troops. Weasel words here, a deft side-step there, and everybody goes home with no new commitments. The cynics are having a field day — but if international politics were about peace, love and understanding, nobody would have bothered to invent the United Nations in the first place.

The reason they did invent it in 1945 was because fifty million people had just died in the worst war in history and the victors wanted to prevent another one, especially given the likelihood that it would be fought with nuclear weapons. So the five victorious great powers of World War Two gave themselves permanent seats and vetoes on the Security Council — and though the world has changed a lot in the subsequent two generations, it’s very hard to change that now.

Even powers that aren’t really great any more, like Britain and France, will fight to preserve a veto that is their main remaining claim to great-power status. Adding more veto-wielding powers could paralyse the Security Council entirely — and besides, who would they be? Do Germany and Japan get permanent seats because they are so powerful economically, thus increasing the dominance of the industrialised countries?

Does India get a permanent seat, much to the displeasure of many other Asian countries? Who will decide whether South Africa or Nigeria gets a permanent African seat? Security Council reform is vital for the long-term health of the UN, but at the moment nobody is willing to take on the mountain of difficulties that stands in the way. It just doesn’t seem worth the effort.

Well, then, how abut that Canadian idea of defining exactly when the United Nations has a right and duty to intervene in a sovereign country to stop massive human rights abuses like genocide. The UN has actually done that recently in places like Bosnia and Sierra Leone — but in other cases, like Rwanda and Kosovo, it either didn’t act at all or only ratified the actions of a ‘coalition of the willing’ after the fact. Writing clear guidelines for when it should act sounds pretty sensible.

Unfortunately, since the Canadian-sponsored commission began looking into this, the United States has attacked Iraq, variously claiming the danger from non-existent weapons of mass destruction and/or its deep concern for Iraqi human rights as a pretext for the invasion. The great majority of UN members see the US action as thinly disguised aggression, but they cannot figure out how to write a rule on humanitarian intervention that could not be exploited by the great powers to justify neo-colonial interventions, so it’s better not to write it at all.

On the other hand, nobody wants to defy American power openly, so some sort of resolution on Iraq will make it through the Security Council in the next month. It will make no reference to the legality or otherwise of the invasion — thus deepening the cynicism of those who think the UN is timid to the point of uselessness — but it won’t contain the kind of wording that would impel other countries to send their troops to Iraq and pull America’s chestnuts out of the fire either. So what earthly use is the talking-shop on the East River?

Not much at the moment, to be frank. The whole question of global governance has been put on hold while everybody waits and hopes that the biggest member of the system, the United States, can recover its balance after being blown severely off course by 9/11. But then the UN wasn’t a great deal of use during the Cold War either, when the entrenched hostility between its two largest members paralysed the Security Council most of the time.

During the decade in between, however — 1991-2001, say — the UN was shaping up to be quite useful. All the great powers were cooperating, and though some horrors were ignored others were successfully addressed. The UN seemed so relevant that people even wanted to update its rules on humanitarian intervention and to reform the Security Council. Nobody is willing to invest in that sort of effort right now, but it will be quite a while before we know whether the current lurch into unilateralism in Washington, potentially lethal to the UN, is a permanent factor in world affairs.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Even…effort”)