RICHARD BUTLER. The many risks we run – United Nations (Part 1 of 2)

Mar 23, 2017

The United Nations continues to be vital in the humanitarian field, but is failing in its role of maintaining international peace and security. The continuing abuse of their veto power, by the permanent five members of the Security Council, is jeopardizing the UN itself. This must be resisted.  

Almost a year ago, I drew up a list of 15 major issues in international relations. They were all serious and occurring simultaneously, (Interesting Times, Pearls and Irritations, 18th July, 2016).

None of them has been solved. Indeed, most have worsened, and there are additions. Here’s an update:

  1. This week marks the beginning of the 7th year of the Syrian civil war. It has produced, 500,000 dead, over 3 million refugees. It is, plainly, impossible to tabulate with adequate precision the scale of human harm, which has been done.
  1. Conflict in the Middle East has expanded, not simply at the hand of, or in opposition to ISIS, but it has involved increased participation by external powers: Russia, Iran, Turkey, USA, and Australia is there too. The larger powers are there in competition with each other.
  1. Famine; in Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen. Again, numbers are hard to formulate accurately, but the World Food Programme assesses that some 20 million people are facing starvation within the months immediately ahead.
  1. Both the US and Russia continue to intensify their competition in nuclear weapons: the former through increasing the potency of their submarine launched weapons, the latter through the deployment of intermediate range weapons, prohibited by the INF Treaty. And, each are threatening to do more in response to perceived escalation by the other.
  1. DPRK is building facilities indelibly tied to the development of thermo-nuclear weapons. The US has threatened to stop the DPRK programme in the near future, if necessary by military means.
  1. Israel, heartened by pledges of even further US protection, is expanding its building of illegal settlements on Palestinian land. This pushes even further away the two State solution supported by the international community.
  1. President Trump’s budget proposal to Congress, includes a substantial reduction in US contributions to the UN. (See part 2 of this article)

These recent developments, and the list of July, 2016, by no means constitute a complete description of the current state of international relations. No such description would be complete without underscoring the fact that there are now 65 million refugees/displaced persons in the world. This exceeds the comparable number arising from the Second World War.

Each of these issues is of concern to and under active consideration by the United Nations.

The work of the UN has two distinct parts: the political, covering what is described in the Charter as “the maintenance of international peace and security”, and the humanitarian, spanning the very large spectrum ranging from emergency aid, to assistance for the economic and social development of states.

The performance of the United Nations, in our interesting times, is very mixed, to say the least. On peace and security, elementally, it’s proving to be a dismal failure, to the point of despair in cases such as Syria. On the humanitarian side, it continues to be indispensable, with its main difficulty being the insufficiency of resources.

Secretary-General Guterres has asked the international community for $5 billion to head off the coming famines and mass starvation. It’s not clear that he will get it. It is essential to recognize that this gross food emergency is not simply attributable to drought, for example. Armed conflict is a major cause. So, this is a matter for the UN on the political as well as the humanitarian front.

Although the distinction between the political and the humanitarian roles of the UN are real, in practical and organizational terms, the truth is, everything at the UN is subjected to political competition and preferences. Where, when, and how food aid is supplied, for example, is shaped by the political preferences and relationships of donors.

In the political arena, the role of the Security Council is central. The Charter assigns to it the primary role in “the maintenance of international peace and security”, and makes its decisions binding on all states. It alone, from amongst all UN bodies, has the ability to make decisions which have the force of international law. For this reason most treaties agreed to between states but which need a source of enforcement, assign that role to the Security Council.

The failures of the Security Council during the past 20 years, have mounted and become scandalous. They threaten the whole structure of the UN and the crucial notion that the behavior of states in their international relations can be regulated by an agreed body of law and convention designed to give effect to the Charter’s insistence that: disputes should be settled peacefully, aggression is a crime, and that force can only be used legitimately in self-defense, or at the authorization of the Security Council.

These provisions of the Charter, presumably, form the “rules based order”, which Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has stated is of basic importance to Australian foreign policy. The question of why then have we broken them, for example in Iraq and now Syria, needs to be answered. What or whose interest was it assessed our actions would serve?

Current circumstances in the Middle East, in: Syria, Iraq and Yemen, for example are lamentably distant from those rules. Turkey, Iran, Russia, USA, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Australia, UK, France are all operating militarily inside states of the region, without the authorization of the Security Council and for stated reasons which do not even attempt to advance a justification in international law. And, this is to say nothing of covert operations, obviously being undertaken.

We are back in a period of international relations in which force and national interests are determining conduct. Lip service is occasionally paid to the Charter, to rules, but the gut point is that the five permanent members of the Council repeatedly abuse their veto power. This has driven the UN peace and security mechanism into a deep ditch.

There have been attempts for years to reform the Council. I sat on a reform committee for all of the five years I was Ambassador in New York, ending 20 years ago. There is no lack of reform formulas. For example, Foreign Minister Gareth Evans devised a very sound and equitable one.

The permanent five have repeatedly rejected such reform; they can because their veto also extends to Charter amendment, and they have increased their resistance to any action, by the Council, which does not suit their narrowly defined national interest. So, they have given us the continuation of the Syrian civil war.

They also determine who shall be Secretary General and, not that he needed reminding of this, SG Guterres felt it’s sting this week, thus ordering the suppression of the report drawn up by two distinguished and independent experts in answer to the question posed by the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA): are Israeli practices towards the Palestinian people in breach of international law on the crime of apartheid?

Their answer was that they are. I have studied the reasoning and data presented in the report and it seems objective and convincing.

Guterres’ action was taken as a result of pressure on him by the US and Israel. The Israeli Ambassador to the UN stated that the report was comparable to anti- semitic articles which had appeared in Nazi newspapers.

The head of ESCWA, a person at the level of Under Secretary General of the UN, Ms Rima Khalaf, a Jordanian national, resigned her post.

This event sends a dismal signal, so early in his tenure, about Guterres’ ability to insist that objectivity is a central value in his job.

None of us should need reminding that international politics tends to be a take no prisoners game, indeed too often a blood sport. No less a realist than Niccolo Machiavelli struggled with the role of morality but in the end advised his Prince that policies, which at least appeared to be anchored in moral principles, would gain readier approval for him and be more enduring.

In making this point: that we are today in a trough, a nadir, in terms of the application of the principles of the Charter of the United Nations, I am not proceeding from a position of misty- eyed idealism. Instead, I believe I am calling things by their proper name: national interest, preference for what can be determined by the exercise of power and privilege, is back with a vengeance. Typically such circumstances lead to major war, exactly the outcome the UN was established to prevent, in the words of the Charter: “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”

The General Assembly of the United Nations, which is voting in ever increasing number for reform of the Security Council, needs to stand up to the five permanent members. To see the Charter as having set up a one way street, running felicitously towards the five, does not reflect the whole picture and certainly not popular global sentiment, which wants an effective UN.

Under Obama, the US said that the Security Council needed to be reformed but opposed the various concrete proposals for overall reform, which have been made. There can be no expectation that the Trump administration would countenance any proposal, which might dilute, or even moderate the exercise of, US power.

Where will we stand? Will Ms. Bishop’s review of Australian foreign policy give any priority to reform of the United Nations?

Part 2, ‘The risks we run – the US and Trump’ will be published tomorrow.

Richard Butler AC was Ambassador to the UN and later, Diplomat in Residence at the Council on Foreign Relations, New York, and a Professor of International Affairs at NYU and Penn State University.

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