“A world organization has already been erected for the prime purpose of preventing war,” Winston Churchill intoned in 1946. “We must make sure that its work is fruitful, that it is a reality and not a sham, that it is a force for action, and not merely a frothing of words, that it is a true temple of peace.”
Churchill’s worries were well founded. The United Nations is anything but a force for action, and the wars it has failed to prevent or end are too numerous to count. However, this isn’t another argument for abolishing, reforming, or withdrawing from the UN. Abolishing the UN is probably not possible and is arguably not in America’s interests. It serves a purpose, if only to expose the world’s rogues to the light. The UN seems past the point of systemic reform—something Washington has demanded and the UN has promised for decades. And withdrawing from the UN would be akin to letting the inmates run the asylum.
The purpose here is to make the case that the UN has failed to do what it was created to do—“promote the establishment and maintenance of international peace and security”—and that responsible powers have other means to work toward that goal.
The actions of the UN and its various organs serve as the strongest case against the UN.
At various junctures, the UN Conference on Disarmament has included Iran, North Korea, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and Bashar Assad’s Syria. Saddam’s Iraq (2003), North Korea (2011), and Syria (2018) have even chaired the conference.
That’s the same Iran that was caught pursuing an outlaw nuclear weapons program; the same Iraq that violated scores of UN resolutions related to disarmament, used chemical weapons against its people, and expelled UN weapons inspectors; the same North Korea that proliferates weaponry, deploys prohibited missilery, and tests nuclear weapons; the same Syria that’s using chemical weapons against its subjects.
According to its charter, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) is “responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe.” Yet China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela sit on the HRC.
That’s the same China that bulldozes churches and “curtails a wide range of fundamental human rights, including freedom of expression, association, assembly and religion”; the same Cuba that “continues to repress dissent and discourage public criticism” through “arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders”; the same Venezuela that’s rounding up opposition leaders by the hundreds and gunning down peaceful protesters by the dozens; the same Saudi Arabia where women have no rights and arbitrary detention is the norm. (The misogynist Saudi regime also sits on the UN Commission on the Status of Women.)
“According to UN Security Council Resolution 2321, a stated objective of this council is North Korea’s abandonment of its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs,” then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told a 2017 gathering of the UN Security Council (UNSC). The Trump-Kim summit notwithstanding, Pyongyang continues to prep missiles and possess nuclear weapons. And the UN continues to dawdle—“resolved to be irresolute,” as Churchill lamented when the Nazis primed for war.
The Nazi comparison is more apt than many would think. In 2014, a UN panel declared Pyongyang guilty of “a wide array of crimes against humanity,” including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture…persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds.” The chairman of the panel pointed to “many parallels” between North Korea and Nazi Germany. Thus the panel urged the UNSC to refer Pyongyang to the International Criminal Court (ICC) or establish a special tribunal.
While a Nuremberg-style tribunal or ICC referral is warranted, the creaking machinery of the UNSC—where Beijing shields Pyongyang from punitive sanctions—prevents such action. Recall that after North Korea sank a South Korean ship, the UNSC condemned the aggression but failed to name—let alone punish—the aggressor.
The problem is worse than bureaucratic inertia and big power gamesmanship. Even when the UN does act, it generally fails to make a distinction between the use of force to stop a wrong and the use of force to commit a wrong.
In 1994, as Rwanda’s Hutu-dominated military launched its machete massacre against the Tutsi population, UN peacekeepers were ordered to stand aside. Doing otherwise would have violated their mandate, which was limited to “monitoring.” Thus, 800,000 people were slaughtered, while the UN monitored the carnage.
To protect Bosnian-Muslim civilians from the Bosnian-Serb militia, the UN created “safe havens” guarded by the laughably misnamed UN Protection Force. Srebrenica was one of those safe areas. In July 1995, Bosnian-Serb forces entered Srebrenica and demanded that women and men be separated. The peacekeepers acceded to the Serbs’ demands; 7,000 Muslim males were then trucked away and murdered. “Here was genocide,” as Niall Ferguson grimly recalls. “Where was the United Nations? The answer is that it was right there; indeed, with grotesque irony, its forces effectively presided over the worst of the genocidal atrocities.”
In an echo of Bosnia and Rwanda, marauding gangs of gunmen have killed dozens of unarmed people sheltering at UN-designated protection compounds in South Sudan.
Samantha Power, President Barack Obama’s UN ambassador, noted in 2014 that UN peacekeepers in Congo “routinely fail to protect civilians,” citing a UN report that concluded “in 507 attacks against civilians from 2010 to 2013, peacekeepers virtually never used force to protect civilians under attack. Thousands of civilians likely lost their lives as a result.”
The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon was charged with ensuring that “no authority other than that of the Government of Lebanon” exerts control over the territory of Lebanon and the “disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon.” Yet the Foundation for Defense of Democracies reports that Iranian-backed Hezbollah has “tripled the size of its arsenal, building almost 1,000 military facilities, including more than 550 weapons bunkers” in Lebanon.
UN agencies dismissed reports that the Islamic State (ISIS) perpetrated anti-Christian genocide in Syria and Iraq, even as the European Parliament declared ISIS guilty of “committing genocide against Christians” and documented how Christians had been “killed, slaughtered, beaten, subjected to extortion, abducted and tortured” by ISIS.
Indeed, since 2012, UN organs have passed dozens of UNSC resolutions, presidential statements, HRC documents and secretary general reports related to Syria. Yet the UN’s barrage of paper has done nothing to protect Syria’s civilians from barrel bombs and chemical weapons. Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon aptly described Syria as a “gaping hole in the global conscience” and proof the UNSC is “incapable of taking collective action.”
The Assad regime began deploying chemical weapons in December 2012. As the US prepared to respond militarily to Assad’s gassing of Ghouta in 2013, Russia proposed a deal whereby Syria would place its chemical arsenal under international control in exchange for assurances Washington would not launch punitive military strikes. The deal was implemented by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), an “autonomous international organization with a working relationship with the United Nations.” Proof of the deal’s failure is everywhere. The Atlantic, February 6, 2018: “Assad Is Still Using Chemical Weapons in Syria.” The New York Times, April 4, 2017: “Worst Chemical Attack in Years in Syria; US Blames Assad.” The Washington Post, June 20, 2015: “Barbarism with Chlorine Gas Goes Unchecked in Syria.”
Ban reminds us that the UN’s chemical weapons failure was a sideshow to its wider failure in Syria. “The vast majority of the killing and atrocities have been carried out with conventional weapons,” he observes. Some 500,000 people have been killed in Assad’s war. And the UNSC not only failed to stop the butchery but failed to try. One permanent member of the UNSC (Russia) even collaborated with Assad. By mid-2017, Carla del Ponte had had enough. A leading member of the UN commission cataloging Syrian war crimes, del Ponte resigned, explaining, “I was expecting to persuade the Security Council to do something for justice. Nothing happened for seven years… We are going nowhere.”
Those who like the UN-OPCW disarmament efforts in Syria must love the UN-blessed nuclear deal with Iran, which allows Tehran “under a secret agreement with the UN agency that normally carries out such work” to use “its own inspectors to investigate a site it has been accused of using to develop nuclear arms.”
This is the UN, where Iran and Syria police themselves, serial human rights violators sit on a human rights panel, those pursuing the goal of disarmament sit alongside the world’s most notorious weapons proliferators, Srebrenica is called a “safe haven,” and Aleppo, Kigali, and Sarajevo turn for help but receive only Pilate-like excuses.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. According to the UN Charter, the UNSC’s responsibility is “the maintenance of international peace and security.” Yet there were at least 80 wars between the UN’s founding in 1945 and the end of the twentieth century, dozens more this century. Of these, the UNSC authorized concerted collective action—not condemnation or concern, not observation forces or no-fly zones—arguably on just two occasions. Of course, UN authorization for the defense of South Korea was a fluke, thanks to Moscow’s decision to boycott the UNSC, and UN authorization for the liberation of Kuwait was a post-Cold War aberration.
It’s not fair to blame the UN for the fallen nature of man, but it’s fair to blame the UN for failing to live up to its own mission—often failing to try. “Countries look to the United Nations to exercise moral authority,” former UN official Valerie Amos observes. “Time after time, they are disappointed.”
Count the United States among the disappointed, which we will discuss in part two of this series.
Photo Credit: Microphones at the United Nations headquarters in New York on July 20, 2018, when US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and US Permanent Representative to the United Nations Nikki Haley hold a joint press availability. State Department Photo.