Report card: UN at 70

It’s that time of year when the UN exemplifies its reputation as a talking shop. Within a few hours on Monday, it witnessed largely predictable perorations from a plethora of well known personalities, ranging from Obama, Putin and Xi Jinping to Dilma Roussef, François Hollande and Hassan Rouhani.

Attention was inevita-bly focused on the very different ways in which the Presidents of Russia and the US broached the topic du jour, namely the situation in Syria, with Mr Putin — putting in his first UN appearance in a decade — calling for a broader coalition to combat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS): one that would include not just the Russians and Iranians, but also forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad.

The latter aspect of the proposal is anathema to many Western states as well as most of Syria’s neighbours in West Asia. Mr Putin, meanwhile, has been pouring military aid into Syria with the intention of staving off the ISIS threat, as a US-led force tries to “degrade” the extremists.

At the same time, Mr Putin’s alliance with Mr Assad is problematic, not least because the Syrian President’s forces are accountable for more terror in Syria than the ISIS. On the other hand, efforts by the US to train and equip “moderate” Syrian rebels have been a failure, with much of the material falling into the hands of the Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.

Yes, it’s complicated. However, last week’s American criticism of Russia’s use of its veto in the UN Security Council, with its implication that things could otherwise have turned out very differently in Syria, deserves to be taken with a pinch of salt.

For one, there’s hypocrisy: historically, no permanent member of the Security Council has wielded its veto half as frequently as the US has done on behalf of Israel. Besides, let’s not forget that Russia and China have been wary of permitting belligerent resolutions ever since they were persuaded to endorse a mission in Libya whose purpose morphed from “protecting civilians” to facilitating regime change.

Veto powers unquestionably hinder the UN’s effectiveness, but so does the composition of the Security Council. Today, who can seriously contend that Britain and France are more worthy of a seat at the top table than, say, India or Germany? The non-representation of Africa and Latin America is also a travesty.

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan recently contended that the Security Council risks irrelevance unless it accepts new permanent members. Meaningful reform, however, would entail more than a spot of tinkering. A case could coherently be made, for instance, for empowering the more representative General Assembly to go beyond its present role of passing toothless resolutions, particularly if votes can be weighted to reflect each member-nation’s population.

Looking back on the UN’s 70 years, there can be little question that it has served a useful purpose. In terms of spreading health, education and children’s welfare, in sustaining huge refugee populations, in preserving the world’s cultural heritage and, perhaps more controversially, inserting peacekeeping forces into trouble spots, it has invariably striven to push human development.

There have, no doubt, also been serious shortfalls in most of these spheres. Many of them relate to funding shortages, given that UN agencies rely chiefly on donations from member-states. However, the argument that the UN bureaucracy consumes too large a proportion of its resources cannot be dismissed out of hand — even if it is sometimes made with the worst of intentions.

Dag Hammarskjöld, the UN’s third Secretary-General — whose plane, circumstantial evidence suggests, was shot down by Western allies while he was on a peace mission in Africa 54 years ago — is often cited as saying that the UN “was created not to lead mankind to heaven but to save humanity from hell”. That’s a sensible way of putting it, although even on that criterion the UN hasn’t always measured up: the Korean and Vietnam wars were pretty hellish; the UN’s blue helmets proved pretty ineffectual in Rwanda and Srebrenica some 20 years ago; and one could easily add Iraq and Syria.

On the other hand, if the UN’s report card reads “could have done better”, isn’t that equally true of most of humanity? The prospects for meaningful, progressive reform of the UN may be grim at the moment, but surely, for all its shortcomings, its survival provides cause for reassurance and hope rather than lament.

By arrangement with Dawn

( Source : deccan chronicle )
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