May 31, 2006

U. N. Reform: Can the United Nations Return to the Spirit of 1945?

Rodrigue Tremblay


 If the United Nations once admits that international disputes can be settled by using force, then we will have destroyed the foundation of the organization and our best hope of establishing a world order.”

Dwight David Eisenhower (1890-1969), 34th US President


“The heroes of the world community are not those who withdraw when difficulties ensue, not those who can envision neither the prospect of success nor the consequence of failure—but those who stand the heat of battle, the fight for world peace through the United Nations.”

Hubert H. Humphrey (1911-1978), former US Vice President


The question begs to be asked: Is the United Nations on the same path to oblivion as its predecessor the League of Nations?It is important to point out that the United Nations has been an important success: it has survived three times longer than its ill-starred predecessor, it has proclaimed the need to respect fundamental human rights and, during its existence, there has not been a new world war. On the other hand, there have been numerous wars of aggression the U.N. could not prevent, and the current mumbling in certain countries about using nuclear weapons "preventively" is certainly most worrisome and challenges the very spirit that prevailed when the United Nations was created.


One of the greatest and most ambitious humanist documents ever adopted and proclaimed is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted on December 10, 1948. It says that "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." It also says that "Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status."


These human rights and fundamental freedoms include "the right to freedom of opinion and expression"; " the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association;" the right to form and to join trade unions" with the proviso that "no one may be compelled to belong to an association"; "the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion," including the "freedom to change his religion or belief"; "the right to education" and "the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family".


Regarding democracy, the Declaration calls for "periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures"; and proclaims for everyone "the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives."


The main problem with this Universal Declaration is its enforcement. It is only proposed as "a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations," not as an obligation for a country to protect and implement the fundamental human rights in order to be allowed membership in the United Nations.


As a consequence, many countries that belong to the United Nations and which vote in its General Assembly do not respect the fundamental human rights proclaimed by the United Nations. The provisions in the U. N. Charter to deny membership or to expel countries from the United Nations are rarely applied.


A second critique levied at the U. N. is that it has become a bloated bureaucracy that has its own agenda of nitty-gritty projects, (supervising more than 50 supplemental conventions), but that cannot fulfill the principal missions it has been entrusted with, i.e. preventing wars and building a world order under the rule of law, while guarding the world against political and economic anarchy.


A third critique against the U. N. is its inability to have international law respected, especially when veto-yielding nations choose to ignore it. Even though there is an International Court of Justice, and since 2002, an International Criminal Court, their adjudications usually apply only to small or defeated nations. There is no central authority to enforce their decisions. For instance, the USA withdrew from the compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice in 1986, and it accepts the court's jurisdiction only on a case-to-case basis. As for the International Criminal Court, in 2001, the Bush administration rescinded support to the new court which the Clinton administration had previously given. In 2002, the U.S. Congress even passed the American Servicemembers' Protection Act (ASPA), which contains a prohibition on the U.S. providing military aid to countries which have ratified the treaty establishing the court, and permits the U. S. president to authorize military force to free any U.S. military personnel held by the court.


One small step toward reform of the United Nations was recently taken by replacing the 53-member Commission of Human Rights by a new and slimmer 47-member Human Rights Council. The old U. N. Commission had been a source of scandals because many countries sitting on this commission were known violators of the very human rights they were sworn to protect. Lo and behold, last May 9 (2006), countries such as China, Cuba, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were elected by the General Assembly to sit on the 'new' Council, an indication that the change was more cosmetic than real.


In 1945, when the Charter of the United Nations was signed by the 50 nations assembled in San Francisco, the founding nations were pragmatist rather than idealist. They had just come out of the most destructive war in history and they were committed to preventing such a calamity from happening again. That is why they were willing to give up the most important aspect of national sovereignty: the right to wage war against other countries.


The foundation of the United Nations marks the first time that wars of aggression were officially outlawed. Since 1945, there have been only two major wars authorized by the United Nations: the 1950 Korean War, and the 1991 Gulf War. All other wars were waged outside of the legal framework of the U. N. — Many who today oppose the United Nations do so because they want to return to the sovereign right of nations to launch "preventive" wars of aggression against other nations. It is no accident that the two countries where the idea of "preventive" wars is most prevalent—the United States and Israel—are also the two countries where the United Nations is most often the object of vitriolic attacks, some even proposing its abolition, without indicating however what would take its place.


Presently, the 191-member United Nations General Assembly is nothing more than a debating body with no real political clout to implement the grand principles proclaimed at the origin of the United Nations. Despite Article 2.2 (chap. I) of the Charter which says that "All Members, in order to ensure to all of them the rights and benefits resulting from membership, shall fulfill in good faith the obligations assumed by them in accordance with the present Charter," and even if Article 6 (chap. II) establishes that "A Member of the United Nations which has persistently violated the Principles contained in the present Charter may be expelled from the Organization by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council," in reality, many countries continue to belong to the United Nations, even though they are in direct violation of its most fundamental principles.


Contrary to the Security Council which can take concrete steps to have its resolutions respected, the resolutions passed by the General Assembly belong more to the world of wishful thinking than otherwise. [By the way, considering that Israel has refused to abide by a dozen U. N. resolutions, what was the U. N. Secretary-General doing at the gala centennial dinner of the American Jewish Committee, last May 4, 2006?]


The issue of having the United Nations’ resolutions implemented is a thorny one, even for those adopted by the Security Council. This is because the question deals directly with the sovereignty of member nations. In practical terms, the United Nations would not only need a system of credible sanctions against delinquent governments, but should also rely on some sort of permanent force of intervention. To maintain peace, for example, the U. N. would need a permanent airborne police force, well structured, organized, equipped and trained to deal with short notice emergency situations, such as the genocide in Rwanda or the one unfolding presently under the world's eyes in Darfur, Sudan.


Judging by the behavior and declarations of certain members of the U. N., some countries are more than reticent toward delegating to the U. N. such a capacity of intervention.  However, things can change in the future and such issues should be studied and debated.


Another focus of fundamental reform of the U. N. centers on the role and composition of the U. N. Security Council, which presently detains most of the powers invested in the United Nations and whose permanent, veto-wielding members are still the five victorious great powers of 1945: the United States, Russia, France, Great Britain and China. This is a vestige of World War II: France has a veto, but not Germany; as is the case for China, while Japan is excluded. And what about India and Brazil?


From the start, Canada, through its spokesman Lester B. Pearson, argued against the veto of the War War II powers because it could make the U. N. powerless and irrelevant. —This feature was proposed by Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union. Even though the veto has remained, the “Uniting for Peace" Resolution, in 1950, offered the possibility that when a war of aggression comes up for consideration and the Security Council is prevented from operating by the veto of one of the great powers, the General Assembly can be convened at forty-eight hours' notice. This is a provision that reduces somewhat the effect of the veto of a great power bent on a war of aggression (as was the U. S. S. R. against Hungary, in 1956, against Czechoslovakia, in 1979, against Afghanistan, in 1979, and the United States against Iraq, in 2003).


One line of reform would be to go farther than the “Uniting for Peace” Resolution and allow the General Assembly to be able to overcome the veto of one of the great powers with a two-thirds vote. For the time being, this is dreaming in color, considering the lack of political will and leadership in certain quarters regarding any proposal to increase the role of the United Nations in world affairs. Nevertheless, such an idea could be revisited after the experience of a large international cataclysm, such as the unlawful use of nuclear weapons by one country.


Politically, the principal spokesman for the U. N. is the Secretary-General who heads the U. N. Secretariat. His principal task is to give visibility and clout to the U. N. —However, the world is so vast and diverse that this is undoubtedly too big a task for a single individual.


One important institutional reform advanced by the current Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, would be the establishment of a cabinet-style decision-making mechanism, to assist him in managing the Organization and in dealing with the governments of its 191 members. This is a reform that is worth supporting, because it could greatly improve the U. N.'s efficiency. For example, a U. N. cabinet of ten ministers could comprise a minister of Finance, a minister of Peace-building Missions, a minister of Economic Affairs, a minister of Social Affairs, a minister of Scientific Affairs, a minister of Human Rights Affairs, a minister of Human Resources, etc. Other international organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank, could inspire the rules for designating and electing these officers.


In conclusion, the reform of the United Nations is of paramount interest and importance for the entire world. However, the task is rife with obstacles and difficulties. In such circumstances, a step by step reorganization is more realistic than attempting to achieve everything with one big reform. Some order of priorities among reforms must be established if realistic advances are to be made.



Posted by Rodrigue Tremblay, May 31, 2006, at 6:00 pm


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