More than 150 presidents, monarchs and prime ministers have converged in New York since Sunday, September 22, for the 68th annual ordinary session of the General Assembly.
In a world where every member of this global body has an equal vote, at least ideally, leaders would choose to bring here a variety of topics touching on the international politics, including, possibly, the International Criminal Court, civil wars, and global economics.
Some, as others have done before, may even use the opportunity to attack their perceived arch-enemies.
History is replete with such, from Bolivia’s Eva Morales — who once asked the UN Assembly to legalise the coca leaf — to the late Muammar Gaddafi — who often arrived with a bevy of imported bodyguards.
At the 63rd meeting, for example, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe used his speech time to complain to the international community over the way the Security Council was using Chapter VII of the UN Charter to target his “small country, which by any stretch of the imagination is no threat to international peace and security”.
Those advancing the sanctions against his country, he said, “are themselves international perpetrators of genocide, acts of aggression and mass destruction”.
This year, Somalia, DRC, the Syrian war and the sore issue of chemical weapons are expected to dominate speeches.
Even though the Middle Eastern country’s refugee churn-out has reached two million people, according to UNHCR, the possibility of an agreement may not be a reached.
SOCIAL PROGRESS FOR HUMANKIND
Yet since its formation in 1945, the UN’s main determinations were to promote respect for human rights, respect for treaties, prevent war which “twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind”, and promote social progress for humankind.
As these countries assemble in New York though, there is a different reality on the ground. “We appreciate the necessity of the UN in the global system,” says Javas Bigambo, a governance consultant with Nairobi-based Interthoughts Consulting. “It has helped to stabilise the world… but it needs to pull up its socks.”
Mr Bigambo’s beef stems from his observation of a series of goofs, mismanagement of conflict situations or disobedience of the laws the UN members put in place, by the members of the UN Security Council (UNSC).
His view is supported by Prof Peter Kagwanja, Director of the African Policy Institute and a commentator on African affairs.
“Look at the way the UN treated the Somalia crisis,” begins Prof Kagwanja. “Somalia is a basic case of abandonment of a member state by the UN, (which) only formally returned to Somalia in June this year.
It has supported various processes, but when you look at UNSC debates from 1995 to around 2000, there was no strong pronouncement on the situation in Somalia.”
Some nations have ignored the Security Council’s advice and violated international provisions.
For instance, when the US attacked Iraq, it brought to the fore an examination into the role of the UN Security Council as this was contrary to Article 24(1) of UN Charter, which calls for “the maintenance of international peace and security.”
There was no clear approval from the UNSC, but the US based it actions on a previous resolution by the same Council.
BUNCH OF OLIGARCHS
Scholars argue have argued that the organisation lacks accountability because there is a lot of power accumulated in a few countries deemed Great Powers at the end of World War II. This lack of accountability is what leads Prof Kagwanja to charge that the UN has turned into “a bunch of oligarchs”.
“It is a victors’ institution. It helped those who won the world wars to put themselves on top of the world. The exception was China, which was roped into the UNSC because of its population,” he argues.
“What we want to see is a more democratised system of governance at global level. Africans currently doubt a sense of justice in the system because there is an element of racism there,” he adds, referring to the International Criminal Court, not a direct organ of the UN but whose functions are supported by the UN Security Council.
For Prof Kagwanja and those in his school of thought, the Security Council has created a cartel-like situation where the power of the veto has flattened the intention of maintaining international peace and security for individual national interests.
For example, in the first decade of the UN, Russia, then called the Soviet Union, made 79 vetoes that arose from a dispute with America’s refusal to admit all of the Soviet Republics as member states of the UN.
That politics has continued to date. Between 1982 and 2012, the US vetoed 32 Security Council resolutions on Israel, a US ally in the Middle East.
But has the UN performed that poorly? Prof David Kikaya, a lecturer of international relations at the United States International University (USIU), says the international organisation cannot be analysed based on one organ.
“Let us look at the various organs of the UN,” he says. “People tend to look at areas of peace and conflict in judging the achievements of the UN, but we would be missing the point if we did that.
There are other important organisations like Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) which has helped to harmonise education in the world. One will have to look at all the organs of the UN before declaring it ineffective.”
When the UN was formed, its founders thought that collective security could only be enforced by the world superpowers, whose interests must therefore be served.
Whether they imagined of it becoming a “sort of global government” is a different thing altogether, but what is indisputable is that it has risen from the initial 51 members to the current 193.
TO WINNERS GO THE SPOILS
Despite this increase, however, the advantages granted to the war victors have never changed.
Article 24 of the UN Charter states that for effective action by the UN, its members should confer on the Security Council primary responsibility for maintenance of international security, while Article 43 requires all members to contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security.
None of these provisions have been fully implemented, but the UNSC permanent members — France, US, Russia, UK and China — continue to enjoy the power of the veto.
For example, in the combat of international terrorism, the UN has failed to strike a balance between securing the world against terrorism on one hand and need to protect rights of individual suspects on the other.
“There is need to rethink the powers of the permanent members,” says Mr Bigambo. “They are just too powerful. We need to lower their powers. This will help give a voice to non-permanent members.”
Various attempts to change the Council have failed due to strong disagreements among UN members, particularly on the issue of enlargement.
The High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change in 2005 proposed two ways for enlarging the Council from 15 to 24 members.
The first proposal advocates for six new permanent seats without veto power, while the second model envisages no new permanent seats but eight four-year renewable-term seats.
There was also the proposal to introduce a system of “indicative voting” in order to make members establish explicitly their positions on a proposed action.
Prof Kagwanja suggests that whichever method is adopted should not rest the powers on states, but to regions.
“Veto powers should be expanded and distributed to various regions in Africa. In fact powers should not reside on states, but in regions like the EU and AU.” This way, he says, countries would stop abusing veto powers because each regional body would decide who gets them on a rotational basis.
It is not clear what justified the selection of the current Big Five in 1945 — population, influence, wealth may be factors — but however much we may view it, we may not tell how long this aging system will hold.
HOW THE UN FAILED IN AFRICA
The Congo Crisis
It began 53 years ago as Belgium handed independence back to Congo and ended when Mobutu Sese-Seko seized power.
What was first a mutiny of soldiers rebelling against the Belgian remnants in the army escalated to the level where, a month after independence, the then Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba requested UN intervention.
Under Resolution 143, the UN Security Council called on the Belgians to remove their troops and for the UN to provide military assistance to the Congolese forces.
Patrice Lumumba wanted the Belgians out immediately and threatened to call on the Soviet Union, a timely threat during the Cold War.
Immediately, the UN established a mission of operations in the Congo (ONUC). However, Lumumba disagreed with the then UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld over the mandate of the UN Forces.
Lumumba wanted the blue helmets to subdue the rebel forces, but Hammarskjöld argued that was an internal matter of a sovereign nation.
Later in Resolution 146, the UN Security Council allowed UN Forces into the troubled Katanga region which had announced its independence from Congo.
But the UN was overwhelmed. Given their mandate was not to stop the rebellion, the forces found themselves often attacked, leading to Lumumba’s decision to involve the Soviet Union and, later, his assassination.
The Soviet Union later blamed Hammarskjöld for Lumumba’s death, but he refused to resign. Russia, France and Belgium even refused to pay part of the $400 million needed to sponsor the operation.
Under Resolution 161, the Council authorised measures to prevent civil war, which included use of force as a last resort. It was not clear on military force, but UN Forces started attacking civilians.
Hammarskjöld offered to personally intervene in the crisis to negotiate for a peaceful solution between the government and the secessionist grouping of Moise Tshombe.
He died in a plane crash while on his way to Ndola for talks, but the exact cause of the crash is unknown to date. The fighting ceased when Mobutu seized power but the problem in Eastern Congo continues to date. Last year, Time magazine termed the UN involvement in the DRC as that which had “graduated from incompetent to dangerous”.
Somali hunger crisis
The 2011 hunger crisis in the Horn of Africa was one of worst in recent history as far as loss of life, displacement and general suffering are concerned. At least 100,000 people, most of them women and children, died from April 2011 to September of that year. At the height of the crisis, the UN declared famine in six regions of Somalia as well as areas of northern Kenya, parts of Ethiopia, and Djibouti. It was estimated that more 13 million people urgently needed relief aid in the region.
Yet the crisis had been forecast early enough by warning systems run by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit for Somalia (FAO/FSNAU) and the USAID-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET).
By the end of April 2011, about US$6 million had been disbursed, but the UN erred in acting late, according to a FEWSNET report at the time.
The exact picture of UN failure in Rwanda was recorded in an independent commission of inquiry headed by former Swedish Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson, which termed the genocide as one “of the most abhorrent events of the 20th century”.
It identified errors of judgement by Kofi Annan, then in charge of UN Peacekeeping Missions, in refusing to deploy sufficient peacekeeping forces in 1993.
Annan issued a personal apology for the genocide, saying “all of us must bitterly regret that we did not do more to prevent” the killings.
But blame should go to the UN Security Council too. When later attempts for more peacekeepers were made, both US and UK vetoed the decision.
When a Canadian Peacekeeping commander in Rwanda, General Romeo Dallaire informed the UN about imminent attacks, the office of the Secretary-General dismissed him.
This warning had in fact been brought to the attention of the Security Council in 1993 when the UN Human Rights Commission wrote in a report about militia groupings.
After the killings, the international community realised that the Great Powers had interests, and they also had “un-interests.”
Moreover, it showed that that the UN collective security in the Security Council had not departed from the Cold War mentality.