Tuesday, February 12, 2008

UN - 60 years old and deeply flawed

The United Nations was founded by the United States 60-years ago. Now as it turns sixty in my opinion its time to ask how the fundamentals of its structure defined in the post-WW2 period will ever be re-examined?

Officially the UN came into being in 1945 but many nations were heavied into joining the alliance against Germany, Japan and Italy purely because they worried about being excluded from the forthcoming world club. The fundamental issue of the day was the obvious conflict between the Comintern and the rest of the world. While it was hoped this son-of-the-League-of-Nations would be stronger than its predecessor history has amply demonstrated that it has been every bit as weak and unrepresentative as the League ever was.

There is a lot of nonsense written about how the United Nations differs from the League of Nations. Wikipedia - ever a good source of nonsense replicates much of it in its critique of the League. Namely

  • The League, like the United Nations, lacked an armed force of its own and depended on the Great Powers to enforce its resolutions, which they were very reluctant to do. (for example see anything to do with Israel)

  • Economic sanctions, which were the most severe measure the League could implement short of military action, were difficult to enforce and had no great impact on the target country ( for example Iraq)

  • The British Conservatives were especially tepid on the League and preferred, when in government, to negotiate treaties without the involvement of the organization (substitute US Republicans)

  • The League's neutrality tended to manifest itself as indecision (Bosnia/Rawanda)

  • Another important weakness of the League was that it tried to represent all nations, but most members protected their own national interests and were not committed to the League or its goals ( see UNFCCC)

Today the issues confronting the world are very different to the ones that existed in 1945. Today the two main issues are environmental degradation (including climate change, and food provision) and migration (including refugees, terrorism and war). The threat of nuclear annihilation while lurking in the background is nowhere near as real as it was a mere twenty years ago. As such we need to ask ourselves whether the structure of international relations is as representative as it ought to be.

Indeed it was at a post-Bali briefing where I came to the conclusion that the UN's response to the global climate change emergency has been to put hundreds of lawyers in a room representing diverse national interests. The histrionics over what would eventually be a bland set of sentences that committed nobody to anything much can only be described as one of the most expensive wastes of time ever committed by national Governments. And frankly this is all one can expect from the UN. It is a plenary for discussion - it is not a preliminary to world government.

The biggest problem with the United Nations is that like the League it largely reflects a world defined in Europe. Consider these questions:

  1. When will EU Members surrender their UN seats in favour of the EU? (answer: never)
  2. When will China's provinces - each every bit as large as European nations get representation at the UN (answer: never)
  3. When will the States of the US or India ever get represented at the UN (answer: never)
  4. Why are the borders of African nations still those defined by the European colonialists at the Berlin Conference in 1884? (answer: because it suits their largely corrupted rulers)

The fact is the only democratic redistribution of UN representation occurred with the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Even then there is still the question of whether Prussia will ever be revived as a Baltic state.

What I am trying to point out here is that while the United Nations may look perfectly normal to European eyes - to everyone else in the world it is a strange distortion of political reality. As such who it represents is very much open to question.

I am not about to propose any solutions to this institutional dilemma partly because I don't have any, but largely because it wouldn't matter if I did. All I think is important is that we begin to ask ourselves, as citizens of this planet, when this institution will ever change to better reflect the very different world 2008 is from 1945.

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