Comment: The UN is unfit for the 21st century

A satirical cartoon commenting on Saudi Arabia's role in the UN. Photo: Twitter/Hillel Neuer

By Joe Cook and Catherine Lally

Increasingly, the United Nations has come to be seen as an outdated institution. While it celebrated its 70th anniversary this week, more reports emerged questioning its relevance, level of bureaucracy and credibility in 21st century affairs. As hundreds of thousands of people die in Syria, the UN has made no distinguishable effort to find a diplomatic solution to end the war; with any attempts at a solution vetoed by the Security Council. Despite Saudi Arabia consistently being condemned for medieval executions and human rights abuses, they have been rewarded by being elected chair of a panel of independent experts on the UN Human Rights Council. When rape and sexual assault on refugees by UN staff is reported by whistleblowers, it is the whistleblowers that lose their jobs and face legal action. How is it tolerated that the UN – a body founded to end conflicts and promote human rights – be so dysfunctional in a time when war and human rights abuses are both so prevalent?

Photo: danieljmitchell.wordpress.com
Photo: danieljmitchell.wordpress.com

To understand how the UN has descended into such a state of disrepair, one must return to its creation in 1945. Born out of WW2 and the failure of the League of Nations, it was set up in an attempt to keep world peace. 51 nations came together in San Francisco to draw up the UN Charter and create the UN as we know it. The ‘winners’ of WW2 (including Britain, France, America, the Soviet Union and China) were appointed to the Security Council and given veto power over any resolution. The Security Council is where the facade began to crack.

The Security Council is on par with the least democratic world authorities. It is made up of 15 members, with only five being permanent. However, what the 10 other members feel is irrelevant towards resolutions, as the five permanent members have veto power over any resolution. This has resulted in a number of infamous cases: such as the failure to act in the Syrian Civil War – due four vetoes from Russia – as well as the US shielding Israel from any consequences of their Palestinian Occupation. For example, the resolution put forward to refer the Syrian regime to the International Criminal Court (for killing and torturing 11,000 in their custody) was supported by 65 countries and 13 members of the Security Council. Yet Russia and China vetoed the resolution, with blatant disregard for the 55,000 photos depicting the atrocities. With over 220,000 dead and 11 million forced to leave their homes due to the Syrian war, it is unforgivable that a few countries put their own gain above the lives of innocents.

Photo: The Daily Dose
Photo: The Daily Dose

There has been no shortage of requests to reform the council’s five permanent members. Just this Saturday, Germany’s Angela Merkel announced that she was meeting with Brazil, India and Japan to discuss their bid for reform. While there has been support from Britain and France, the US has been more cautious in advocating for change. China, and to a lesser extent, Russia, have flat out opposed it. Sadly any change to the permanent members would have to be agreed by not only the General Assembly and Security Council but also by the governments of each permanent member meaning change is far off. However, even Samantha Power, the US Ambassador to the Security Council, warned that Russia’s use of the veto was jeopardising the legitimacy of the council and would lead to countries bypassing it. She told the Guardian in an interview: “It’s a Darwinian universe here. If a particular body reveals itself to be dysfunctional, then people are going to go elsewhere.”

Photo: infideltaskforce
Photo: infideltaskforce

Unfortunately, it is not only the Security Council that contains questionable members. Last week, in a story one would only hope to find in The Onion, Saudi Arabia was elected to become chair of an ‘independent’ panel of experts on the UN Human Rights Council. This was ‘welcomed’ by the US and coincided with the news that Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, who was arrested 3 years ago at the age of 17, will be crucified and beheaded in Saudi Arabia for encouraging pro-democracy protests using his Blackberry. Bear in mind Saudi Arabia has beheaded more people than ISIS this year. The news of their appointment was also denounced by Ensaf Haidar: the wife of pro-democracy blogger Raif Badawi who was sentenced to 1000 lashes in Saudi Arabia for blogging about free speech. There have also been reports of Saudi Arabia pledging $1 million to the Human Rights Council before it gained membership in November 2013. When a country such as Saudi Arabia – who has employed systematic torture, continually violates women’s rights and eradicated free speech – is head of an ‘independent’ human rights panel, one questions whether the UN is holding fast to its founding principles.

Photo: Washington Post
Photo: Washington Post

The UN has an extremely questionable record with regards to whistleblowers in the organisation. Part of the problem stems from the fact that the ethics office (created to ensure staff members behave with integrity) is independent in name only and reports to management, rather than member states.  The Guardian published statistics from the Government Accountability Project (designed to protect whistleblowers) revealing that “the UN ethics office had received 447 approaches up to July 2014 from those alleging they have faced retaliation for exposing wrongdoing.” Only 4 of these cases were found by the ethics office to involve retaliation against the whistleblowers (hardly an encouraging figure). Cases of corruption are rife within the UN. This July, the UN was found to have renewed the contract of a Russian aviation company (UTair) in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in despite of allegations (kept confidential by the UN) of sexual abuse of local people. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has gone on record condemning countries that keep peacekeepers guilty of sexual abuse anonymous, instead of putting them on trial. Such cases have happened repeatedly in Sri Lanka, Mali, the Central African Republic and the DRC. One such case prompted Caroline Hunt-Matthes to begin a 9 year legal battle. Working for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as a senior investigation officer, she disclosed several cases of corruption: including an inadequate investigation into the alleged rape of a UN staff member in Sri Lanka and the unlawful detention of refugees. She later was ostracised by the UN and was ousted when on medical leave. In 2006 she filed a request for protection with the ethics office but was told the retaliation against her was not due to whistleblowing. Eventually, the United Nations Dispute Tribunal ruled in her favour in 2013.

A member of the UN-African Union mission in Darfur. Photo: Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images
A member of the UN-African Union mission in Darfur. Photo: Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images

Another topic of contention is the UN’s overarching bureaucracy. It is well known fact the UN is one of – if not the – most bureaucratic organisations in existence. With over 85,000 bureaucrats, many of whom have eye watering daily expense allowances, the cost of administering the UN has more than doubled in the past two decades to $5.4bn. Couple 85,000 bureaucrats with more red tape than is found anywhere else in the world and one starts to understand why the pace of change is so slow. There is an eye-wateringly large number of redundant staff, due to the number of separate bodies with crossover, creating an inefficient and wasteful organisation. However, with 192 member states, any large scale streamlining seems unlikely.

It is a well known fact that the UN is slow to act.
It is a well known fact that the UN is slow to act.

While it must be recognised that the UN has achieved much in the past 70 years, the anniversary also gives it a chance to reflect on its many failures and wonder where we could be if it had been more successful. Hopefully it will adapt to the 21st Century and become more transparent and efficient; although we wouldn’t hold out too much hope…