Is the UN serving its purpose?
May 16, 2011 3 Comments
The United Nations has been a symbol of human rights, universalism, diplomacy, cooperation and the effort to avoid wars for over sixty years now, created as it was after the mass destruction and atrocities of the Second World War. The UN has acted as a bulwark against excessive nationalism – a nationalism that helped fuel the two World Wars and many other wars, as well as colonial expansion. It has also acted as a bulwark against a relativism that claims to offer tolerance, but always ends up promoting deliberate or unintentional indifference.
But however much the UN’s founding documents and human rights charters speak of the importance of the “inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family,” as does the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, actually implementing this in a world of power politics and real-politics is a very different matter indeed.
This can be seen by the fact that the five most powerful nations at the end of World War II were given a veto in all decisions of the Security Council, the “executive branch” of the United Nations. It can also be seen by the fact that the United Nations is virtually powerless in demanding that its member states abide by the human rights charters that they have signed. Western Sahara is a good example of the first problem, Swaziland of the second.
Western Sahara is a clear-cut case of decolonisation. Everyone but Morocco, who has colonised two-thirds on Western Sahara for over 35 years now, acknowledges this. And what is equally important, international law acknowledges it too.
The International Court of Justice rejected Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara in 1975. Morocco’s transfer of over 300.000 civilians into Western Sahara in late 1975 was in breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Morocco’s presence in Western Sahara is illegal, a fact that has been upheld by over 100 resolutions in the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly. The Charter of the United Nations states that those nations who are responsible for non-self-governing states, such as Western Sahara, must protect the citizens of such states and take account of their political aspirations, none of which Morocco is doing. And Morocco’s theft of Western Sahara’s natural resources is in violation of the Charter of the United Nations, something that has been reaffirmed by several UN Opinions.
But despite this overwhelming evidence of Morocco’s gross violation of international law for over 35 years and Western Sahara’s right to independence, France and the USA, both permanent member of the Security Council, has managed to veto any attempts at solving the Western Saharan conflict through the United Nations for strategic reasons. France is Morocco’s main trade partner and investor. Morocco was one of the USA’s closest allies in their fight against communism and is one of its main allies in its fight against terrorism.
Swaziland has continued to violate all the human rights treaties it has signed (such as the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women) for decades now without with impunity.
According to Amnesty International, “freedom of association, expression and assembly” in Swaziland “is repressed,” and “excessive force … torture and the unjustified use of lethal force by law enforcement officials” has been reported. Furthermore, Swaziland is “in flagrant violation of its international commitments to women’s rights.” Freedom House speaks of “a major crackdown on oppositionist and prodemocracy groups.”
Swaziland has at least been reported to the African Court of Human and Peoples Rights recently – an institution that makes “final and binding decisions on human rights violations” in regard to the African Charter. According to the Times of Swaziland, Swaziland is being urged to “stop police brutality, arbitrary detentions and torture … [and] amend the Suppression of Terrorism Act and repeal the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act.”
The UN, on the other hand, is mostly talking the talk on Swaziland, not walking the walk. The United Nations Swaziland website states, “in Swaziland the United Nations is committed to enhancing the performance and impact of the UN system in contributing to the development of the Kingdom … We value the promotion and protection of human rights.” Fine words indeed, but not very useful when not backed up any real action.
This is not an argument against the idea of the United Nations per se, or the reasoning behind elevating human identity from the national to the international or global level. The idea of human rights and the United Nations has played a vital role in instilling a sense of a common humanity, no matter how many times it has also failed to act upon this. And it is hard to imagine a world without the United Nations, with its non-partisan agendas on environmentalism, social and political rights or women’s rights.
It is, however, an argument for a global political system that is more generally representative of the people – and lesser so the peoples – of the world. An argument for a global political system that cannot be hijacked by the self-seeking interests of a few powerful countries. An argument for a more global and less international United Nations.
Whether the UN can or will be changed to be more in line with this is debatable, however. Altering the Charter of the United Nations, the foundational document of the United Nations that describes e.g. the purposes of the UN and the role of the Security Council, requires a two-thirds majority vote in the General Assembly and a concurrence (or at least a nonveto) by the five permanent members of the Security Council, who are not likely to vote for changing a system that has served them so well.