- Rory O'Keeffe
The United Nations Does Not Exist: notes on the UN and humanitarianism for aid workers and other int
The United Nations does not exist. More to the point (though ‘more to the point’ may seem counterintuitive here), the UN Security Council does not exist.
So, very quickly, we should make two points. This piece is the result of some posts and statements made and shared by friends and colleagues of ours. It is NOT intended as a criticism of or attack against them – they are extraordinarily interested in the situation and committed to people’s wellbeing and lives in Syria and deserve an extraordinary amount of credit for this.
However, they did make two complaints related to Syria, the second of which needs to be addressed quite urgently, as most people at present do not seem to understand what the UN is, or how it operates. This is hardly surprising, as first of all, the UN is not fit for purpose and in fairness to it, was never designed to be, and secondly, certain international operators are simultaneously claiming that it has far more power than it in fact has.
As a final note before we begin, we are at no point suggesting – and neither do we desire – the UN's dismantling or disbandment. Quite the contrary: we are arguing that in its current form, and despite the mewls of complaint from some interested states, the UN does not currently exist, and we are calling for it to be restructured and given far MORE power.
So, after the explanations and guidance, we reiterate: the United Nations does not exist. More to the point (though ‘more to the point’ may seem counterintuitive here), the UN Security Council does not exist.
To clarify this sentence a little, it is first necessary to divide the UN into its three major constituent parts – the political, the humanitarian and the research, arts, culture, historical and scientific. In fact, the third designation is rather too large and to an extent demeans some of the UN’s most important international work, but for the purposes of our discussion, in which the third designation is by far the least important, it will suffice.
Earlier this month, aid organisations and other medical specialists (one of which we have recently been working with) announced that they would no longer share the locations of medical facilities in Idlib and Hama, Syria, with the United Nations, because the UN was sharing this information with Assad and Russia, the actors in Syria carrying out airstrikes.
Assad’s regime and Russia, which has the world’s second largest and second most advanced air-force, bombed 25 hospitals in as many days in April and May, and continue to strike similar centres as we write.
The organisations’ response was predictable and understandable. It is not an unreasonable position to argue that because the UN gave the locations of the hospitals and health centres – the bombing of which is absolutely in breach of international law (this is not where we will make a point about the US’ decision to make the use of chemical weapons its ‘red line’ – a red line it has consistently ignored in Syria – even though ALL targeting of civilians and civilian buildings is a war crime) – to Putin’s Russia and the Assad regime in Damascus, and the latter then bombed those locations, one would no longer want to share such information with the UN.
The response from some commentators, however – including some whose work attempting to protect Syrian people’s lives, promote their safety and ensure the world stays fully aware of the horrors being rained upon them by Assad and Putin deserves the absolute greatest of respect, praise and reward – has been a little more concerning.
Many comments have centred on the UN, and it handing the locations of the hospitals and health centres to Assad and Putin, as if this – the act of handing them over – is in itself wrong and in some way ‘the cause’ of the airstrikes.
The reasons this position should be addressed are as follows:
1) Assad and Russia already had the locations of every hospital and health centre in Idlib and Hama which had existed before the Syrian civil war began, and in all likelihood almost all if not all of those to have opened since (if any). Assad was the ruler of Syria. His Department of Health would have had the addresses of health service buildings. He does not need to rely on UN updates for information about (what remains, after his consistent destruction of) Syrian infrastructure. In many cases, his operatives in these regions would have provided updates of any new centres to have opened: the UN handing the information made at most almost no difference to Assad’s knowledge of the locations of hospitals and health centres. More likely, absolutely none at all.
2) It is not as if Assad and Russia have been targeting ONLY hospitals and health centres. They have, since the middle of April (and to a lesser extent since Assad forced those who opposed him into Idlib, where as we and others warned at the time, he intends to slaughter them), been bombing civilian areas almost indiscriminately. They have struck offices, homes, schools, kindergartens, crowded market-places and shops, as well as hospitals and health centres. Indeed, Assad has been consistently targeting civilian buildings for more than eight years; he and Russia have not developed a ‘hospital targeting plan’ based on information handed to them by the UN.
3) We simply cannot say this enough: the people responsible for the targeting of hospitals and health centres and their destruction by air strikes, are not the UN, which has carried out literally no attacks on hospitals and health centres in Syria or anywhere else. They are the responsibility of Assad and Russia which have ruthlessly, shamelessly, devastatingly and without care for human life, international law or simple human decency, been slaughtering people from the air. That is, and we will take a new line to make this clear:
The responsibility for the bombing of hospitals and health centres by Assad and Russia lies not with the UN, but with Assad and Russia. Assad and Russia are targeting hospitals and health centres, slaughtering people who are attempting to get medical treatment.
This does, however, raise the question: why WAS the UN handing the locations of hospitals and health centres to Assad?
The answer is depressing: the UN has a responsibility, or at least a strong obligation, to hand the details it has of all ‘civilian sites’ to recognised and particularly to so-called ‘legitimate’ actors in a war. Now, we might note at this moment that the very idea that Assad is legitimate is an affront and insult to the concept of international law, and indeed to basic human morality, but we will come to this in a moment.
In part, this is so all actors can ensure that they do not attack any of these sites. In part, however, it is also to ensure that should some of these sites, in this case hospitals and health centres, be attacked by any actor, that actor or actors – in this case Putin’s Russia and Assad – cannot pretend not to have known what they were bombing.
That is, if any actor who is issued with this information bombs hospitals, health centres, schools, places of work and/or commerce or people’s homes – a direct breach of international law – they should not be able to claim lack of knowledge as an excuse.
Of course, this does raise some questions. First, how can the UN continue to trust Assad and Putin with this information when both have repeatedly shown that they do specifically target hospitals, medical centres and other civilian buildings?
Second, why doesn’t the UN do something about it when Assad and Putin break international law?
Sadly, the answer in both cases is the same – the one with which we began: the UN, as an independent operator, simply does not exist. Its political arm consists of absolutely nothing more than the combined preference of its individual members, and in fact to a much more meaningful extent, the will of any one of five member states.
We must reiterate, the UN simply is not responsible for Assad and Putin’s shocking and disgusting attacks on hospitals and health centres in Syria: Assad and Putin are.
Unfortunately, we must also note that the UN is far from fit for purpose and that nothing short of an extensive overhaul and the granting of a variety of new powers to it, is likely to avert international catastrophe, including but likely not limited to, the disgraces committed by Assad and Putin in the last eight years against the Syrian people.
An illustration (far from the only one) of this is the following: it has become fashionable among some supporters of Assad to argue that he is the ‘legitimate’ ruler of Syria, as if in some way this can and should prevent opposition to him and his massacre of Syrian civilians, and as if in some way this means that any opponents of his are ‘imperialists’ chasing ‘regime change’ and anyone who supports him is somehow morally correct, anti-imperialist and behaving exactly in keeping with international law.
Now, we can begin by engaging in semantics a little. Because ‘regime change’ is a VERY interesting phrase in this context. In the last 35-40 years, largely due to the West’s desire not to have to describe its – often illegal – activities in more graphic and accurate language, the phrase has come to be seen as something at best extremely unpleasant and morally dubious and at worst actively evil.
But in fact, regime change happens all the time. Every time a ruling family’s last member dies, or a monarchy is replaced with a democratic or other kind of system (whether through violence or peaceful transition), every time one dictator is replaced with another, and to an extent literally every time an election puts a new political party in place, regime change is taking place.
And this is important. Because the thing that is bad about ‘regime change’ is not the change of a regime, but the idea of an outside actor using weapons – effectively using death, mayhem and destruction – to force such a change: the interference and the variety of that interference, is the problem, not the change of regime.
(in fact, there are some sensible moral questions to be raised even here: for example, if a ruler is using their state’s military and its might to victimise, persecute and murder some sections of the society they rule, and this can be prevented by outside actors, is there not an argument that they should do exactly that? And what if a state is undergoing an ‘internal’ regime change, but one in which it is clear that what is set to come next will be worse for the people who have to live under it? Is there not a justification for outside actors preventing this? There are sensible arguments on both sides – we do not propose that outside interference is always correct, by any means, but neither is it always wrong. Few people seriously suggest that opposition to Franco’s overthrow of the Spanish republic was ‘wrong’, for example, while the US positively celebrates the French assistance it received in removing British rule, even though the British were not murdering American citizens).
Of course, there are many many examples of states interfering in the affairs of others for reasons other than these, and using such concerns as ‘cover’, but that is not in itself a criticism of ‘regime change’ as a concept, but of lying. One would not, for example, say that because a doctor removed someone’s limb because of sadistic desire ‘proved’ that limb removal was wrong and we must leave gangrenous limbs in place (the extremity of the example, here, is absolutely deliberate).
In actual fact, the issue of ‘outside interference’ and whether – if ever – it is justified is one of the major faults inherent within the Westphalian concept of the ‘nation state’ and ‘sovereignty’, and one consistently used by people who want to perform disgusting and often illegal acts within their own borders.
Our view of this issue is significantly complicated by the fact that we would argue that in reality the very notion of a ‘nation state’ is fundamentally flawed, (these flaws are, in fact, an important part of what we are discussing here) and that even if we accept that it was in some way ‘beneficial’ or ‘worthwhile’ at the point at which it was (often forcibly) promoted, it is in fact an enormously harmful and damaging concept, and one which we must grow out of if we are to advance as a species.
In any case, that may be a topic for a different piece, albeit one that is also important to this one.
Regime change, however, is absolutely relevant to Syria’s situation since March 2011, and is far more complex matter than suggested by those who support Assad and present the Syrian civil war as an effort by ‘outside actors’ to perform ‘regime change’ which is always, in every case, ‘wrong’.
The flaws in this should be obvious to anyone who thinks about it, and are as follows:
1) ‘outside actors’ have quite a long and inglorious record of forcing ‘regime change’ on states they – for whatever reason – feel it should be forced on (for what it is worth, the author’s view is that it, like almost everything else, should never be forced on any state). They also have a remarkable level of success. That is, if ‘they’ – for example, the UK, US and France – wanted to, they could have invaded Syria and removed Assad, as they did with Saddam Hussein in Iraq, or used their air forces as the aerial wing of the Syrian rebellion, as they did in the first Libyan civil war. It is, for the purposes of this point, largely immaterial whether this would have been ‘legal’ (it would not) or ‘moral’ (given what Assad and Russia have done in the absence of this intervention, there is a very uncomfortable debate to be had on that).
The point is, if ‘regime change’ was being ‘forced’ on Syria by ‘outside forces’, who ‘wanted’ it, those forces would have succeeded, and in far less time than the now eight years and three months the war has so far lasted.
Not only that, prior to the war, Assad was in fact a strong ALLY of the US in particular, and an enthusiastic participant in the latter’s ‘extraordinary rendition’ programme in which ‘suspected terrorists’ were taken to Guantanamo Bay to be tortured: there is literally no reason to suggest that the US, UK and France were conspiring to remove an ally, and they have not acted to do so at any point during the war.
2) whatever your view of the participants within the war, there is absolutely no escaping the fact that Russia, as well as Iran and Hizbollah are the literal definition of ‘outside actors.
In fact, there are more than 80 documented militia groups who have been fighting on Assad’s behalf, in Syria, which are not run by Syrians, or based within Syria. Of course, Assad’s supporters argue that they are ‘invited’ while the others are invaders, but this argument, too, depends upon Assad’s ‘legitimacy’ (as well as ignoring the fact that, um, inviting outside militias to kill the people you are supposed to rule, is far from a ‘legitimate’ act under international law) which is of course at the heart of this piece. We shall revisit this in a moment.
That is, the problem appears not to be with ‘outside actors’ but with the fact that Assad’s supporters disagree with SOME outside actors but wish to present their objection not as a matter of opinion or preference, but as one of logically- and legally-supported correctness. It is nothing of the sort.
3) we have already looked at ‘regime change’ as a concept, and from every angle, it is certainly compromised (though this means that pretending that it is always ‘wrong’ is as unsustainable a position as claiming that it is always correct or justified), but we can link it to who is attempting to ‘change’ the regime, and how.
Because the fact is that the people who demonstrated against Assad literally WANT regime change: it was their stated aim, from the start. They are Syrian people, not ‘outside actors’ and while there certainly ARE Syrians who support Assad, the indications (including the Assad regime’s announcement that it would prefer ’10m loyal Syrians’ to the 21m people who lived there before the war) are that the majority desired that regime change. Equally, they did not set out to use violence: they were fired on by Syrian troops and responded to that.
We might note here, briefly, that the ‘outside actors’ who ARE regularly in Syrian airspace and on the ground in the state are acting for a variety of reasons. Both Iran and Hizbollah fear (with some justification) that should the Syrian rebels succeed in removing Assad, this would lead to a Sunni government in the state (the majority of Syrians are Sunnis) – or, at best, the removal of an Alawite who is far more sympathetic to Shi’ite regimes than Sunni states.
This is understandable: both Lebanon (internally one of the most complex states on Earth) and Iran (the world's major Shi’ite state, and in direct competition with Saudi Arabia and its allies) would be severely affected by such a change in regional power. But we should not fool ourselves into thinking that they are acting in the ‘interests of’ or ‘according to’ international law. They are acting out of self-interest. Not only that, they are effectively stating that their interests are more important than the systematic torture and murder of Syrian civilians (which are, of course, against international law).
Russia, however, is more complex. Syria is its only real ally in the Middle East, and to lose it would realistically end its influence there. Equally, it has clear treaties with Syria, and it is important from its perspective to ‘prove’ that it takes such agreements seriously (to an extent, this links to its support for Brexit: the more ‘western’ nations which refuse to honour their treaties, the greater the ‘moral’ position of Russia in doing so).
Some commentators have argued that Russia is also using Syria to guarantee itself a place at ‘the top table’ of international activity. It’s easy to see why some might draw that conclusion, but if that IS the reason (and we do not believe it is) Russia has not succeeded: what it has done, is present itself as a state prepared to dismiss and break international law in order to support a man who has and is still massacring people to cling to power, and the palaces and cash that come with it. It has unarguably damaged the UN – though not by setting up the ludicrous ‘Astana agreements’ which have in fact demonstrated Russia’s absolute inability and lack of desire to bring peace to Syria, but instead by highlighting the UN’s lack of power and inability to act according to international law.
The latter may, in future, increase Russia’s capacity to act, but it has so far hardly increased its own power – and far less its own reputation – in the international community.
Far more relevant are Russia’s own imperialistic aims. Because far from the US, UK and France, which have ‘taken’ literally no inch of Syrian soil, Russia has built permanent military bases in Syria (as the US has done in Iraq, for which it is rightly pilloried by the exact same people who overlook Russian activity in Syria), has been handed in perpetuity all Syrian oil and oil infrastructure, and now has ‘permanent lease’ of three Syrian ports. This is absolutely imperialism in action.
At the heart of all this, however, is Assad’s position, and its ‘legitimacy’. After all, Assad gave the oil, and the ports, and invited Russia, Iran and Hizbollah to prop him up against his own people, who he has massacred with the help of the outside actors.
If we dismiss the idea – as we should, because it is nonsense, for the reasons we have outlined already – that ‘outside actors’ are attempting to force regime change in Syria, we must still address the matter of Assad’s ‘legitimacy’ in the eyes of international law, and the UN’s enforcement of it.
This piece was partially inspired by Russia’s decision this month to block a UN statement expressing ‘grave concern’ at Assad and Russia bombing schools, hospitals and other civilian buildings and locations in Idlib, and fears that they will lead to a humanitarian disaster in Idlib.
(We should make a note here about Idlib. Idlib is a region of north-western Syria, in which before the war, 1.2m people lived, and where between three and four million are now living. The reason for the increased population – an increase with which the region is struggling to deal – is in large part because each time Assad has attacked a region of Syria, including notably Aleppo and Ghouta, he has offered those he has ‘liberated’/conquered, a choice: stay and be loyal to him, or leave for another location – Idlib. Idlib was the latest of the chilling ‘de-escalation zones’ Russia invented in the Astana ‘peace’ accords, literally all of which have been bombed by Assad AND RUSSIA. Those of us who were paying attention warned that this would be what happened to Idlib, and it is: effectively, Assad has herded his opponents into one location and is now slaughtering them)
The bombings are disgustingly inhuman, immoral, and are a gross breaking of international law, but Russia – an active combatant in the Syrian civil war, and which is literally taking part in the bombings – blocked even ‘criticism’ of them by the UN.
That is, Russia prevented not action, but even a statement of concern, against Assad, by the United Nations.
Nor is that the only matter on which Russia – which we must again stress has since 2015, been an active combatant in the Syrian civil war, and was before that supplying Assad with cash and military equipment – has ‘intervened’.
On 13 occasions, Russia has vetoed at the UN Security Council, efforts to remove the legitimacy of Bashar Al Assad.
That is, the ‘legitimacy’ used by backers of Assad to justify his slaughter of close to one million civilians (not to mention the 14 episodes of chemical weapons use by the dictator) rests not on his means of having gained power, nor how he has retained it. It does not even rest upon international law, which he has undeniably broken an almost uncountable number of times. It rests simply on this: that one UN member state has, on a number of occasions, vetoed every effort by the UN to remove his ‘legitimacy’.
We should note, here, that Russia is far from the only state to do this. The US consistently vetoes measures to criticise and censure Israel for its undeniably illegal acts regarding Palestinian people and the land they own, while also this month, China and Russia used their vetoes to prevent the UN speaking or acting against Sudanese armed forces who have seized control of the state after a public uprising against its former leader Omar al-Bashir, and who have killed 500 people (1,000 more are still missing), injured 723, arrested 650 and raped 54 of those protestors (the reasons for China and Russia’s stance on this are as yet opaque, though several states have been jostling for ‘influence’ in military and trade terms, over Sudan in the last five years).
In any case, here is why this is important: Assad is breaking international law, by slaughtering civilians, targeting civilian buildings (including but not only hospitals and schools). Under normal circumstances, this would lead to the UN removing his ‘legal legitimacy’, a) because he has broken international law and b) in order to enable UN humanitarian organisations to enter Syria and attempt to deliver aid to the men, women and children who need it, as well as its security forces, who might be able to deliver a ceasefire, or even peace.
Instead, Russia – an active combatant in the Syrian war – has prevented this removal of Assad’s legitimacy, to directly block the due process of international law, and to prevent the international community from responding to and stopping the massacre Assad (and let’s not pretend otherwise, also Russia) is carrying out.
The reason it can do this, and the real point of this piece, is that, despite what many people would like, and what would absolutely be best for the world, the UN does not exist. It is not a political body which safeguards and upholds international law, and neither is it a body which acts as or for the will of the world, or even the laws set to keep it safe. It very seldom rules a state – at least a powerful state – has acted illegally or plans to do so, and it is even more unusual for it to act against that state (or its allies) when it actually does so.
The UN does not exist. What does exist, is a collection of nation states, which all too often, and all too predictably, vote not according to international law, but according to their own interests, and their own desires.
The UN does not exist. All that exists are the nation states. The UN does not uphold international law, because in practice it – the UN – does not exist, so how could it do so? What exists instead are a collection of nation states.
When we talk about ‘the UN’ we mean sometimes one nation state (we shall come to this) or several. But NEVER ‘the UN’.
Because the UN is not an independent body, above nation states, but the collected will of those states. Criticism of ‘the UN’ for individual actions makes absolutely no sense under such circumstances, because the UN is designed to safeguard international law, but its member states are not, and often oppose it when it contradicts their own wishes and desires.
To criticise ‘the UN’ for failing to act on matters which involve its member states (and all matters do) makes no sense whatsoever (this does not mean we cannot or should not criticise UN agencies on occasion – albeit that those agencies can only do what the UN, which itself can only do what it is told by member states, tells them – just that holding ‘the UN’ up as if it is an individual actor is an absolute category error: it does not exist as such. All that does exist are the states the UN is supposed to ‘police’).
And, in fact, it is very much worse than that.
Because at least ‘the UN’ as a body, the sum of its member states, can sometimes come to a conclusion by a majority vote.
This system is wildly flawed, and always involves large, rich, powerful states effectively bribing or blackmailing smaller, poorer, less powerful ones to vote the way the powerful states would prefer, by offering or threatening to remove ‘investment’ or ‘development aid’ (cash).
It’s literally a system in which government is run by blackmail, bribery and bullying, or – in the case of breaches of international law – a legal system in which the poor are always guilty and the rich are always immune from the law, because the former cannot afford to bribe or harm others, and the rich can and do. We would not stand for it within a nation state, so we MUST not stand for it being done BY nation states. It must be changed immediately.
But at least it is a system. At least at some points it is possible for ‘the UN’ to come to a conclusion, to pass a resolution, to agree to act.
What makes it worse is that in almost all proposals to act, the action the UN votes for (when it does), can only take place when the proposal is ratified by the UN Security Council.
And here’s the thing. The UN Security Council has five permanent members: Russia, the UK, France, China and the US. Each of those has a veto on every matter brought before the council.
That is, not only does the UN not exist, on the rare occasions on which the individual states of the world vote in unity with one another, any single one of the five permanent members of the Security Council can prevent the action they demand from happening.
To put it another way, in terms of Syria, there is – and has been since 2013 – no UN. There is, quite literally, only Russia, a state which is actively fighting in the Syrian civil war.
It is Russia which has prevented the war from ending, Russia which has ensured the only way aid can enter Syria is if Assad says so, and under rules he has set (which means almost no aid delivered by the UN has reached civilians living in places rebels control, and has instead been distributed amongst friends of his regime – we must note that there ARE humanitarian organisations delivering vital aid to Syrian people in rebel-held areas, but they are not there at Assad’s acceptance), Russia is ITSELF massacring Syrian civilians and Russia is maintaining the absolute falsehood of Assad’s ‘legitimacy’, even as he breaks international law in the most horrifying, despicable and disgusting ways.
As far as the Syria conflict is concerned, the UN does not exist. The only thing which exists is Russia, and its veto.
(We should note, also, that to a certain extent, what has happened with Syria is that Assad and Russia have played a game of brinkmanship with the US and some other states, in which the latter have shown their absolute refusal to act. Obama claimed that the use of chemical weapons was his ‘red line’, but not only has Assad used chemical weapons 14 times in the last eight years, with only one small response from the US, we must also remember that international law says that targeting civilians with ANY kind of weapon is a criminal act. Obama had no RIGHT to say the ‘red line’ is using a particular type of weapon: the LAW says targeting civilians is the red line).
Now, this piece is already long, so we will not go too deeply here into the potential solutions to this.
As a very swift note, we should suggest that first of all, the UN must end all vetos held by and never again grant a veto to ANY of the world’s most powerful states, which have all, at some point or another, proven their capacity and desire to simply ignore international law.
We would add that we must go much further: the UN MUST stop simply being a group made up of the representatives of individual nation states and their interests, but must instead be a body set above the petty interests and desires of those states, as a guide on international crises and a guardian and enforcer of international law.
The UN must actually exist, and have the power to act, rather than being at best a shop for bribery, blackmail and coercion, and at worst, one self-interested state and its veto.
These points can be made more strongly and detailed in another piece.
But here, we would note something else. Syria has shown that the UN, far from being fit for purpose, does not really exist.
It also poses an extraordinarily-difficult question:
Given that Assad and Russia have consistently broken international law, and openly and deliberately flouted the international system to do so, how can we ever get back to ‘normal’ – a situation in which civilians are not massacred without punishment of the murderers, and in which chemical warfare is absolutely legitimate in all but words?
The UN does not exist. But it MUST. The alternative is everlasting horror.
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