Foreign Aid

A shrinking United Nations

(October 24, 2013) Moves by Stephen Harper and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia have diminished the stature of the UN – and deservedly so.

By Lawrence Solomon

This article was first published by the National Post.

Three years ago, in the run up to a United Nations vote that would decide if Canada got a widely coveted seat on the UN’s Security Council, Canada announced new trade talks with Israel, a move certain to offend many Muslim and Arab states. Their votes instead went to Portugal, costing Canada the seat but no tears. The right to hobnob at the UN takes a back seat to trade, Prime Minister Harper was in effect saying, a point highlighted by his repeated refusal to attend the annual opening of the UN General Assembly — this even when he is in New York at the time of the opening, as occurred last month when he chose instead the company of, among others, members of the Canadian American Business Council.

Last week, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah took disdain for the United Nations one step further. To the bewilderment of diplomatic elites, after his kingdom was unanimously elected to the Security Council, Saudi Arabia tossed the invitation back in the Security Council’s lap, slamming “the method and work mechanism and the double standards in the Security Council.”

The decision was a long time coming and — though unprecedented in UN history — should have come as no surprise. Earlier this month Saudi Arabia astonished UN watchers by refusing to address the UN’s General Assembly, long considered an honour. Earlier still, after Russia and China exercised their Security Council vetoes to block action against the massacre of innocents in Syria, King Abdullah stated that the world’s confidence in the United Nations had been shaken. Grimly, he then concluded that Muslims and Arabs could not depend on a toothless UN but would need to develop the capacity to defend their interests by themselves.

This clear-eyed view, which ultimately led Saudi Arabia to snub a Security Council seat, has wide support in the Arab world. Little wonder that Egypt was quick to support “this brave Saudi position,” that Kuwait said the Saudis had sent a message to the world, and that the United Arab Emirates said the members of the Security Council now have a “historic responsibility to review the role of the United Nations, its powers and its charter.” If the UN is unable to protect Arab interests, Saudis and other Arabs wonder, what use is it?

Others, including Croatians, Bosnians, Rwandans, Somalis, Israelis and Christian minorities in the Middle East doubtless also wonder at the value of the United Nations, despite a multiplicity of peacekeeping forces over the decades with names like the United Nations Emergency Force, United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, United Nations Disengagement Observer Forces, United Nations Operation in Somalia, Unified Task Force, United Nations Protection Force, and United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda, most of them distinguished by their readiness to abandon their stations at the first sign of trouble.

The countries best able to use the UN to advantage, in fact, are not the small and vulnerable but Russia and China, human rights violators of the first order. They are among the five countries of the world (the U.S., Great Britain and France are the others) with the God-like right to veto any decision that the Security Council might make. Either Russia or China, in effect, can protect its own narrow and often unsavoury interests at the Security Council by trumping the desires of the rest of the world. Either of these two countries thus has more clout than India, the largest democracy in the world, more clout than Germany, Japan and Brazil, the democracies with the largest economies in Europe, Asia and South America. And each has more clout than the entire Arab world.

That the leadership of Canada and now much of the Arab world relegates the Security Council, the only UN organ whose decisions bind member countries, to second-tier status can only encourage other nations to follow suit — in fact, the United Nations Security Council has been steadily inching to irrelevancy, much as its now-dead predecessor, the League of Nations, which also lacked the wherewithal to act in a crisis.

August-sounding bodies that do little or no good – and that often do active harm – are being served notice that the status quo may not hold. In this Canada under Harper is especially making a name for itself. In 2010, repelled by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency’s ties to Palestinian terrorists, Canada withdrew its funding in favour of giving food aid to Palestinians through the Palestinian government. And in a similar move this month, Harper signalled he would be cutting funding to the Commonwealth and announced that he would be boycotting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka because of “reported disappearances, and allegations of extra judicial killings. It is clear that the Sri Lankan government has failed to uphold the Commonwealth’s core values, which are cherished by Canadians.”

Like the Commonwealth, the United Nations is not about to disappear but neither is it likely to flourish. Aging and decrepit and resistant to change, it most likely will continue to lose the glow of idealism that once infused it, and shrink over time to insignificance. The loss will be Russia’s and China’s.

Lawrence Solomon is a founder of Toronto-based Probe International.

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