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  • Rory O'Keeffe

The UN: defined by structural flaws

Former Nigerian President Goodluck Joanathan has told the Rhodes Forum that far from preventing wars, the UN has ‘only succeeded in opening new frontiers for wars to be fought.’

He said: ‘The ongoing wars in Syria, Iraq, distressing Rohingya dilemma in Myanmar, as well as a threat of conflicts and wars in other parts of the world, are all signs that the UN is failing the world.

‘In each case, the UN was helpless in resolving the conflicts.

‘That the only road to a peaceful world is through dialogue is also incontrovertible. What then raises a valid contention is the argument over the steps taken by leaders towards realising peace. Are they the right or wrong steps?’

For all his own questionable moments as Nigerian President (as with most leaders of the state, he was fiercely criticised by those who belonged to other Nigerian tribes than his own for the perceived favouritism he showed to his own closest allies and tribal contacts), Jonathan did go on to make a pertinent criticism of the UN.

He said: ‘The security council which is the most powerful UN organ, with “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security”, cannot inspire confidence, because of the way it is presently configured.

‘I believe in the UN as an effective global body that should lead the quest for the peace we desire. I am also convinced that for the organisation to bring about world peace, the UN method and approach to dialogue must be reviewed.’

Criticisms of the UN can often be based upon unrealistic expectations (though the international community did rather set those expectations up, declaring at its creation that the UN should be a tool for world peace) and upon a misunderstanding of how the UN in its current iteration is forced to operate.

But Jonathan’s point does touch on an important shortfall in UN activity, and Syria is a good example of how the UN’s structural deficiencies actively prevent it from doing its job.

Because the member states of the UN are inclined (perhaps understandably, but not helpfully) to guard their sovereignty jealously, they reserve the right to refuse UN entry into their states should they wish to do so, and have built into the UN’s operating model that it may not enter without permission, except in the case where that permission is deemed unnecessary. This is particularly true in situations in which a peace-keeping force (made up, after all, of troops donated by governments all over the world) might be deemed necessary. That is, exactly the ‘world peace’ situations to which Jonathan refers.

In Syria, where Bashar al-Assad openly attacked Syrian people within their own state – the state he governed – there was a clear need for a peace-keeping force to step in.

But Assad was (and is, as we shall see) the ‘legitimate’ ruler of Syria, meaning that the UN could not enter the state except at his agreement, and even then, he would be able to choose which agencies were allowed to enter, and where they could operate.

Standard practice in situations like that in Syria is for the UN to remove ‘legitimacy’ for a leader killing their own people (the UN can do this because ‘legitimacy’ does not come from a democratic vote, or else all non-democratic rulers including monarchs would be denied legitimacy; it comes from the recognition of the international community – one reason why Israel wishes that ‘Palestine’ should not be recognised. Not only because of the state itself, but because that would mean that the international community would have to recognise its (in this case democratically-elected) governments Hamas and Fatah, which Israel claims are both terror organisations), which then enables peace-keepers and other UN bodies to enter.

But because of the UN’s structure, its five permanent Security Council members – the UK, US, France, China and France, can veto any decision suggested by the UN as a whole. That is, even in a case of a unanimous vote from the 188 states outside the council, any one of these five can totally derail the will of the international community.

This is always an awkward arrangement, but in the case of Syria one of its most important flaws has been starkly highlighted.

Because the UN has three times voted to remove international recognition from Assad, but on each occasion Russia has vetoed the decision. And Russia is an active combatant in Syria, which uses Assad’s ‘legitimacy’ – legitimacy which exists SOLELY because Russia has vetoed every effort to remove it – to justify its presence in Syria, and its air force carrying out airstrikes on cities across the state.

Of course, Russia might argue that it believes Assad to be a just and kind leader (it also has clear strategic reasons for propping Assad up – its own access to the Mediterranean, as the only alternative is being allowed access through the Black Sea, on which NATO member Turkey also sits; a friendly and powerful Middle Eastern ally. The US certainly also has reasons for being involved, not least the denial to Russia of both these things), but that does not alter the fact that its actions have unilaterally-opposed international will (itself only the product, however, of the prevailing political wind blowing the world’s governments – a far better way for the UN to operate would be as a global legal body, setting and enforcing international laws and codes of behaviour), and have unilaterally prevented the international community from ending the Syrian Civil War, and delivering aid to where it is needed. There are a number of people responsible for the deaths in Syria so far: Russia, Assad, Iran, the rebel groups including the SDF, the US, UK and France, and IS. But only one – Russia – has enabled Assad to prevent the war from ending or being ended by the United Nations.

In the case of the Rohingyan genocide, the UN itself has consistently called for access to Myanmar/Burma, but been denied it by its ‘legitimate’ government. In this instance, there has as yet been no measure proposed to remove legitimacy from the government (in part, perhaps, because Myanmar/Burma is still pretending that its military is involved in a ‘policing’ of a violent terror group, rather than the systematic extermination or ejection of a racial group from the state), but it is precisely because the UN cannot act against the wishes of an individual head of state as long as they have ‘legitimacy’ that Myanmar/Burma can refuse access without fear of reprisal.

It is harder to criticise the UN for the Iraq war, because the war itself was ruled illegal by the UN. But even here, this was only because France vetoed its permission. Though this is an example of the ‘structure’ working, it is hardly a reassurance of its strength, merely that on the day of the vote France chose – because of its particular proclivity – to oppose an illegal invasion, rather than to approve it.

Equally, the war did go ahead, and not one of its prosecutors has been brought to trial – or even received international criticism – for the flagrant breaking of UN regulations.

As noted above, Jonathan himself is not without fault. But he is correct to note the UN’s weaknesses and how they cause its failures.

A restructure is vital, as in fact is a strengthening of the United Nations. At present, it is a place where states meet to make decisions based on their immediate preferences, which can then be vetoed by any one of five extremely powerful states, all of whom have been involved in at least one invasion in recent history.

Instead, it needs to become an international body, with some state representation, but which meets independently of individual states, which controls its own peacekeeping force, and which sets and enforces international law.

Jonathan is correct: the UN is flawed. And because it is flawed, it is failing. The solution is not, as some including Russia and the US would prefer, to reduce its (already low level of) power, but to increase it

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