Better a broken UN than no UN at all

March  15, 2010

CALGARY, AB, Mar. 15, 2010/ Troy Media/ — When an organization falls short of expectations, there are two options: try to fix it, or cut your losses, and scrap it altogether. Critics of the United Nations argue it has fallen so short of the objectives set out in its original charter it would be better to dismantle this discredited organization than to try to make it work.

But scrapping the UN in favour of an uncertain future would be a reckless move in a world where conflict is spreading, corruption is rampant and nuclear proliferation continues unabated. Flawed as the UN is, it is still the only means the world has to keep nations talking to each other.

There is no question that the ambitions for the UN were high when it rose from the ashes of the Second World War. It was to patch the holes exposed in the hapless League of Nations. It was to provide both peacekeeping and humanitarian relief that would finally put the world on a more enlightened path.

But, in the ensuing years, there has also been “mission creep” for this well-meaning institution. Somewhere along the way, it was also commissioned to be a peacemaker, willing to intervene in a nation’s affairs at even a military level if conditions warranted. In the minds of some, it became the prototype for world government, the policeman that would only intervene in crises where the state failed to protect its population – things like genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.

It is this mission creep – chasing these unrealistic expectations – that have saddled the UN with an impossible mandate. It has, in effect, been set up for failure.

A faulty record

No question, when it comes to military punch, the UN has consistently failed when it mattereds most.

Ask Romeo Dallaire.

The Canadian General who headed up the UN mission in Rwanda witnessed first-hand the genocide of Rwanda’s Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Every step of the way, Dallaire was stymied by his superiors in his plea to step in and stop the slaughter.  It was in the soul-searching that followed that 1994 disaster that the UN’s expanded mandate found its shape.

In his exhaustive analysis of the circumstances leading to the slaughter, Canadian Gerald Caplan (author of Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide) wrote:

“Time and again in the months prior to and during the genocide, the Commander of the UN military mission to Rwanda (Dallaire) pleaded with the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations in New York to expand his very limited mandate. The only time his request was ever approved was in the days immediately after the Rwandan president’s plane was shot down, triggering the genocide. UNAMIR was then authorized to exceed its narrow mandate exclusively for the purpose of helping to evacuate foreign nationals, mainly westerners, from the country. Never was such flexibility granted to protect Rwandans.”

A history of failure

Similarly, the UN has been severely criticised for its failure to intervene in the Second Congo War, the 1995 Srebrenica (Bosnia) massacre, failure to help feed the starving people in Somalia when that country’s government effectively disappeared and failure to cut short the genocide in Dafur.

In the wake of the Rwanda slaughter, the African Union urged the UN to embrace the concept of the Responsibility to Protect (R to P). Canada’s government established the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2000, and a year later that body laid out the R to P concept, arguing the international community has the duty to intervene – by military force, if necessary – when a sovereign government lets its own people down.

But the world body continues to drag its feet. After discussions in 2005 and 2009, the UN General Assembly went no further than to committed itself to further debate on R to P.

The fundamental issue for countries of the world, however, is how much of a mandate to give the UN. For all that it was intended to be when it was established, it was not intended to be a world government, nor do its 192 member states agree that such an outcome would be either possible or desirable.

When it comes to Security Council resolutions, especially on matters of military intervention, agreements are at best difficult, and often impossible. Rather, it manages, as it must, by consensus – an often devilishly elusive challenge. As a result, even issues that pose no threat to a nation’s sovereignty – take global climate change as an example – are vexing in their complexity.

The immense political morass that is the norm at the United Nations sees its payout in its bloated bureaucracy, its glacial pace of action and, in spite of Canada’s admirable UN. record, a sorry spate of scandals that have tainted the image of its peacekeepers: They’ve been accused of child rape, sexual abuse and soliciting prostitutes during various peacekeeping missions in the past decade. Meanwhile, it is frequently cited for its bloated bureaucracy and glacial pace of action.

Not all bad

Yet, for all that scandal, the UN has many successes to its credit, as well. One can fairly ask what horrors might have unfolded between the Greeks and Turks on the Island of Cyprus, had the UN not sent peacekeepers there in 1964 and kept them in place between the two protagonists. Less measurable are the countless times when international dialogue would not have occurred at all, given some leaders’ tendency for intemperate but ultimately harmless grandstanding – like the notorious shoe-pounding of former Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev at the General Assembly during the height of the Cold War in 1960.

The UN deserves credit not for what it has failed to do, but for what it has managed to prevent in the 65 years since the second great clash of superpowers. Somehow, through decades of turmoil, xenophobia, nationalism, thuggery and slaughter, the world has seen many small disasters, but not the cataclysmic clash anticipated by the emergence of the nuclear age.

It’s hard to measure how much credit belongs to the UN for the things that haven’t happened. But, whatever thosea member countries’ grievances, they should stop to ponder what a world without a UN at all might have looked like. A cumbersome UN may be a lot better than no such body at all.

The UN. can achieve no more than its mandate permits. Unless and until that mandate is revised, the world’s nations must bring their expectations into line. We should stop asking the UN to be a world government, when it was never intended to be one.

Doug Firby is former Editorial Pages Editor at the Calgary Herald.

Counterpoint: United Nations costs more than it’s worth

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