Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Taking Ownership of the UN’s failings

World leaders are gathering for the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Each leader will get 15 minutes on an international podium to put forward their agenda and mostly air their grievances and I suspect in the case of the some, notably Iran and Libya if last year was anything to go by, settle ‘personal’ scores. Of course the time limit is only a guidance, many leaders go over this time, though few compare to Gaddafi’s rant last year, lasting a whopping hour and 40 minutes only beaten by Fidel Castro who addressed World Leaders at the UNGA in 1960 for four long and no doubt painful for the audience – hours. Unlike the Academy Awards there’s no music that starts to drown them out as they go past their allocated time nor are they escorted away by burly security guards although the thought of Ahmadinejad being tackled to the ground Jerry Springer style for going over his time would provide much needed entertainment at an otherwise dull male dominated talk shop.

With this annual meeting comes the usual UN bashing – let’s face it we all love a bit of that don’t we? Whether you work within the system, would secretly like to work for it or just like sitting on the moral high ground and pointing a finger, everyone seems to have an opinion when it comes to the organisation that is made up of no less than 192 member states. I guess this is to be expected as the UN is a public organisation, albeit an international one so as our taxes go towards maintaining the organisation, we have as much right to scrutinise it as we do our individual country’s public sector. The issue I have is when World leader’s and their representatives talk about the United Nations’ relevance as though they played no part in making the institution what it is today. The worse culprits being those with veto powers who are the very reason the organisation fails to take any real action.

In 2004 former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan commissioned a panel to make recommendations for a reform of the organisation. In 2005 he proposed these ‘bold’ reforms which included expanding the Security Council, setting out rules on when it can authorise military force and reaching an agreed definition of terrorism. Five years later and these reforms are still being debated.

In a document dated 12th April 2010 from the Ad Hoc Committee Negotiating Comprehensive Anti-Terrorism Convention, the issue of how terrorism is defined was still considered contentious. The second question of when the organisation can authorise military force seems to have to been reduced to an academic debate, the only evidence of it still being a live issue is in a paper presented in February at the Annual Conference of the International Studies Association by a student from Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University. The expansion of the Security Council which could be a key issue in real United Nations reform is no closer to being agreed by the five permanent members than it was when first tabled.

I find it somewhat dishonest when the media talk about the United Nations struggling to prove its relevance and cite failed negotiations with North Korea or the Middle East peace process, as though any government on their own or with others have succeeded where the United Nations has failed. Where diplomacy is concerned, I can’t think of a single state’s triumph following UN failure. Its absolutely ridiculous that the Washington Post should refer to the Middle East process in its article U.N. struggles to prove its relevance without quoting its own government’s repeatedly unsuccessful efforts in reaching a deal, which is even more laughable when we consider how ‘closely’ tied the United States is with Israel. If I can’t persuade my own teenager to turn the music down then what chance does my neighbour have?

Where countries have been ‘successful’ (a term used loosely) is in taking military action, something which fortunately the United Nations is a lot more cautious in doing because let’s face it, the last thing we need is another military power that is able to launch ‘shock and awe’ campaigns killing millions of innocent civilians at a whim.

At an individual level, critique is somewhat justified, as I said earlier we contribute to the running of the institution and therefore have a right to question how it run. However this should be done with a dose of common sense; diplomacy which is at the core of the organisation has never been known to produce overnight results. Negotiating with two parties is difficult at best, let alone negotiating with 192 parties, each and every one fighting fiercely to further its own agenda. I think it’s fair to say that there are areas where the United Nations makes a difference, where if it wasn’t there, countries, groups and individuals would run amok. Granted, there is a lot of room for improvement especially where the attitude of a lot of United Nations employees who are no more than paper pushing civil servants, doing the bare minimum while earning a highly competitive salary are concerned. A lot of people enter the system and become disillusioned and unfortunately many of the disillusioned join the lazy bunch and so continues the vicious and very unproductive cycle. I think this is a great shame and one of the biggest flaws of the United Nations. There needs to be better accountability; the seasoned civil servants who sit in offices with no purpose should be gotten rid of. Those who genuinely believe in the organisation’s aim and purpose should continue to work hard and be true to the values they signed up to and themselves. A friend signs her emails off with the following quote from her mother

"If I sweep the front of my house clean and my neighbours on my right and left do the same thing and everyone on the street does the same thing, the whole town will be clean"

If the member states and UN staff members of this extraordinarily broad organisation that is unlike any other, follow this philosophy, surely we will all end up with a United Nations that does what it was set up to do, i.e. facilitating cooperation in international law, international security, economic development, social progress, human rights, and the achievement of world peace. Who then can argue with the relevance of such an organisation?

1 comment:

ade said...

Hey Tamara,

Interesting post on the UN - I guess some of my criticism about the UN is its unwillingness to live up to the purpose it was created for. The UN is the world's response to WW2 and the Holocaust and if in 2010, it can sit on the sidelines as hundreds of thousands die in Sudan, then we have to ask where we have gone wrong?

Personally, I think the UN would be more effective if it had regional bodies for implementation because I think the challenge re effectiveness is the size of the UN. If you imagine a massive army truck trying to make a two point turn on a one way street, you can see how the UN will be challenged as one giant international organisation to affect change across the world. I like the model the World bank have (don't get me started on their issues) of setting up World Bank Africa, World Bank Asia etc