The UN is de facto dead

(April 24, 2014) The UN no longer counts in the world. Like the League of Nations, it will thankfully disappear, writes Lawrence Solomon for the Financial Post.

This article by Lawrence Solomon first appeared on the Financial Post.

The League of Nations, established after World War I to maintain peace among countries, formally dissolved in 1946 after failing to stop World War II and numerous earlier conflagrations. Historians recognize that its de facto demise occurred long before its official death certificate was issued.

The United Nations, established after World War II to maintain peace among countries, has not formally dissolved. Historians of the future will recognize, however, that it is already de facto dead.

Last month, just prior to the referendum in Crimea that would lead to its secession from Ukraine, the UN Security Council voted on a resolution to reaffirm Ukraine’s “sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity.” It declared that the coming referendum “can have no validity.”

Thirteen of the 15 Security Council members voted in favour of the resolution, one abstained, and one voted against. The one vote against — Russia’s — defeated the resolution because Russia is one of the five countries able to veto any decision by the Security Council. Crimea then held its referendum and voted to secede.

The resolution was subsequently taken up by the 193 countries of the UN General Assembly. One hundred countries declared the referendum results had “no validity” and “cannot form the basis for any alteration of the status of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea” while 58 abstained and 11 voted against (two dozen deadbeat countries didn’t vote, either because they hadn’t paid their dues or had better things to do than to show up).

In the real world, though, far from the posturing in the UN theatre, the Crimean vote did have validity — Crimea did secede and then joined the Russian Federation. The vote that had no validity was that held in the la-la land of the General Assembly, which is by design a toothless body, able only to proffer non-binding if feel-good sentiments. Only one UN body — the Security Council — can issue binding resolutions, which Russia (or China, France, the U.K. or the U.S.) can unilaterally quash.

The UN gushes a steady stream of proclamations, virtually always to no effect, certainly to no effect whenever a veto-wielding country has an interest in a major military or human rights issue. On the Syrian Civil War, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on Iran’s pursuit of the nuclear bomb, on the war in Georgia and more, the UN has been, at best, a multi-billion dollar debating society, a bystander to history.Advertisement

On occasions when the UN has acted to keep the peace, it tended to do so dishonourably, its peacekeepers either feckless in the face of genocide or opportunists in preying on those they were charged to protect.

Because the UN is so compromised, it is increasingly ignored, even snubbed. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has repeatedly refused to attend the annual opening of the UN General Assembly, even when in New York at the time. Saudi Arabia not only declined the presumed honour of addressing the UN General Assembly, it even refused to sit on the UN’s Security Council, an act designed to show contempt for its “method and work mechanism and the double standards.” With UN human rights bodies populated by the likes of Libya and Cuba, its credibility approaches zero.

Contrary to popular wisdom, the UN is not inherently a force for good that sometimes goes astray. Its very structure tilts the world away from peace. By giving veto-wielding bad actors like Russia and China a veto over the rest of the world, it renders the Western countries impotent when relying on the UN in their diplomacy. To make matters worse, the veto-wielding nations use their veto to shield reprehensible allies such as Syria’s Assad, Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, and the military junta in Myanmar.

Peacekeeping forces cobbled together from disparate nations, as is the case with UN peacekeeping forces, are poorly disciplined, led by foreigners to whom troops have no allegiance, and also not motivated by national interest to perform with honour. Much better for democracies to intervene forthrightly and unilaterally when their interests are at stake, as France did last year in Mali against Islamic insurgents and as the U.K. did in the Falkland Islands in 1982. Those quick successes compare well to the 2011 United Nations-approved intervention in Libya, which is now a failed state.

Today, the important business of the world is increasingly done outside the auspices of the United Nations, by meaningful and manageable subsets of nations. The G7 and G20 nations meet on economic issues of mutual concern while regional meetings on trade and security abound in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas.

Many UN bodies — professional agencies like the World Meteorological Organization or relief agencies such as the World Food Program — can do important work but even these would operate better as standalones, independent of their political masters at the UN.

The UN owes its continual existence to a vague public view that it’s somehow, at some level, necessary. President John F. Kennedy once called it “our last best hope” to preserve world peace. Americans, the UN system’s biggest financial backer at some $8-billion a year, now see it differently. Only 35% believe it is doing a good job, only 25% want to see it play a leading role in international affairs. Support among Republicans, many of whom want the U.S. to altogether pull out of the UN, is even weaker, particularly with the U.S. burdened by crippling debt.

Some day, Americans will elect another Republican as president. Some day, the de facto death of the UN will become official.

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

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