10° 40' N, 61° 30' W

Sunday, February 16, 2003

What is The United Nations?

In a post criticising the impact of the United Nations small arms initiative, Glenn Reynolds writes:

The United Nations — despite all the “never again” talk after World War II — is not an international body aimed at promoting justice or human rights. (If it were, perhaps its delegates would be elected.) It is, instead, a world leaders’ club in which corrupt thugocracies wield just as much influence as legitimate states. (Libya now chairs the Human Rights committee, after all, and Iraq is slated to take over the Committee on Disarmament. What, North Korea wasn’t available?) And the United Nations bureaucracy doesn’t want to rock the boat.


Such views have been echoed by other bloggers and commentators, which leads me to ask: what do these people think the UN is?

The United Nations, or at least what it does, is inseparable from its member states, and in this, among other issues, the membership that counts is the G-77--in other words, developing countries. The 134 members (the group was formed in 1967, when there were fewer developing countries) don't have that much leverage in the Security Council--the current focus of Iraq war deliberations--but they outvote everyone in the General Assembly, which has power over two things--the UN's Budget and its administrative structure. When people attack the United Nations, they're really atacking the Third World states that voted Libya's ambassdor to chair the Commission on Human Rights, or who allowed Iraq to chair the Conference on Disarmament. The reason the UN has taken up a small-arms initiative is that these counties, like Jamaica, wanted it to. Disagree with this if you will--I actually think America's position is reasonable--but it must be recognised that the "UN" did not take it upon itself to do this.

Reynolds is, in a sense, exactly right, especially given that the UN spends most of its money on economic and social matters, even though it is it is not as well suited for this as are some other agencies. A "North-South" tension exists at the UN, which is far from the monolithic body people claim it is. (For more on this North-South tension see Chapter 10 of John Micklethwait and Adrian Woodridge's book A Future Perfect.)

Take Reynolds's post on Nelson Mandela's comments about "white" Israel vs. "black" Iraq. Now Mandela was factually and morally wrong to say this, but people who have been involved in the Non-Aligned Movement knew exactly what he meant. Palestinian solidarity is a major cause celébre of Third World leaders (the UN has an office dedicated to the "question"), especially veterans of left-inspired struggles of liberation, as Mandela was. If there is an explanation for why Mandela considers Gaddafi his friend, this is it--Gaddafi supported the struggle against (perceivably western-supported) Apartehid years before the US and Europe came around to doing so. These people have long memories, and Gaddafi is investing a lot in African solidarity at the moment.

The trouble I have is with the use of the term "the UN". In this post, for example, Reynolds calls on the US to "Declare the U.N. irrelevant, go to war, then set up a parallel organization of, you know, legitimate governments". How do you decide waht governments are legitimate? A "community of democracies" has been proposed, pace Madeline Albright's Warsaw Declaration. There is one huge answer to this, namely China--nobody is proposing to stop dealing with them. Unlike the claims of some warbloggers, "regime change" is unlikely to be a long-running US policy, and a repudiation of the UN makes this more unlikely.

It also fails to deal with the practical intergovernmental organisations that the US probably does not want to repuduate--mundane things like the International Civil Aviation Organisation or the World Intellectual Property Organisation--which are specialised agencies of the UN. While the World Trade Organisation is not, strictly speaking, a specialised agency, the Doha round of trade negotiations depends for its success on the G-77--the Group will veto any deal that does not include substantial concessions on agriculture, and is unlikely to take kindly to any repudiation of the UN--a de facto repudiation of its membership.

In reference to peacekeeping, there have been reports of rapes in Bosnia and Sierra Leone by "UN" troops. Why not condemn the countries that sent the troops in question (Pakistan, in the latter case)? After all, the US has contributed to peacekeeping missions, and its soldiers have been guilty of transgressions in foreign countries. No, the organisation is condemned for it all.

Much commentary is on the disintegration of NATO and the irrelevance of the European Union and the UN. Criticism of he first two organisations focus on the behaviour of France and Germany, has merit. Similarly, regarding the UN, It would be better for Reynolds and others to be more transparent and condemn Third World (and other) countries directly, rather than attack the United Nations in particular. It would, at minimum, be more honest, recognising the UN for what it is.