Saro Thiruppathy looks back at the failure of the UN to fulfil its mandate over 71 years

ca-uvh-nov16On a chilly morning in October 1979, I visited the United Nations (UN) Headquarters in New York as a rather naïve teenager, and took the visitors’ tour that included peeping into the General Assembly hall. I stood in awe; and my heart was beating fast, as I stood on what I believed was ‘hallowed ground.’

Perhaps, my opinion of the UN reflected the romanticised version that former UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld presented, when he said that it “was created not to lead mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.”

In fairness to me and the UN at that time, the institution was yet a respectable and respect-worthy body, which appeared to be invested in keeping peace in the world, developing friendly relations among nations, helping countries work together and improving the lives of the poor, as well as conquering hunger, disease and illiteracy, and encouraging respect for each other’s rights and freedoms, by being a centre that facilitates countries to achieve these goals.

Disenchantment has since replaced awe.

It seems that the goals set out in the UN Charter, which was ratified on 24 October 1945, have been cast aside, as the five permanent giants – viz. the US, the UK, Russia, China and France – have established an undemocratic process in the Security Council (SC), with their power of veto.

As the permanent five fight it out as to who is ‘bigger and better,’ the 10 non-permanent members – who are elected from the UN General Assembly (UNGA) every two years, possibly to offer the SC a veneer of democracy – are barely heard. No one is certain who they are, unless you search the Internet.

The tight rein on the UN by the permanent members of the SC, and the power they wield over its actions, determines its journey… or lack thereof.

KEEPING THE PEACE The word ‘peace’ is heard, these days, mainly during Christmas… in the lyrics of carols. The Middle East is burning – its people dead, dying and fleeing – and the UN is unable to do a thing about it. Its permanent members are fighting each other in Syria, and destroying people and places with gay abandon.

In September, an EU- backed resolution calling for an independent inquiry into human rights violations in the war in Yemen was withdrawn at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), and a weakened text adopted instead, which is believed to be to please Saudi Arabia. The Saudi kingdom, which has friends in the SC, is leading a coalition of nine Arab nations to fight the Houthis – a rebel group – at the behest of Yemen’s ousted leader Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.

The failure of the UN to prevent genocide in Rwanda will forever be etched in the collective memory of the world. In January 1994 (three months before the genocide began), the head of the UN peacekeeping unit in Rwanda had sent a secret cable to UN officials, warning them about the impending killing spree.

However, Kofi Annan – who was, at the time, Under Secretary-General of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (USG DPKO) in New York – apparently didn’t want to upset the status quo, and did nothing to prevent the genocide. During a span of 100 days between April and July, the majority Hutus massacred 800,000 Tutsis. Eventually, the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) gained control through a military offensive in early July that year. Then, two million refugees (mainly Hutus) fled to neighbouring Burundi and Uganda, resulting in a major humanitarian crisis.

Under Annan’s stewardship, the UN failed again in July 1995, when it allowed the Bosnian Muslim ‘safe area’ of Srebrenica to be invaded by Bosnian Serbs, who promptly massacred nearly 8,000 Muslim men and boys.

In 1997, the SC rewarded Annan’s callous disregard for human life, by appointing him Secretary-General of the UN.

OIL FOR FOOD This was a programme facilitated by the UN, in 1990, to soften its own sanctions on the Iraqi people, by permitting the sale of a limited amount of oil, under supervision. However, instead of buying food, medicines and so on for his people, Saddam Hussein enriched himself and others.

Investigations revealed that under the UN ‘supervised’ programme, the Iraqi leader had been free to choose his clients, and use the proceeds from the sale of oil to reward pro-Iraq people, corporates and countries. The scandal reached far and wide, and threatened the reputations of the UN, its Secretary-General and his son Kojo Annan.

It has been alleged that between US$ 10 billion and 21 billion dollars went unaccounted for under this programme, and had been directed to Saddam and his cronies, in the form of kickbacks and oil smuggling.

Moreover, the UN refuses to be transparent, one feels. Only one of 54 audits on the programme has been made public. The committee of inquiry – headed by Paul Volcker, former head of the US Federal Reserve – revealed that 2,253 firms, from 52 countries, had made illegal payments amounting to 1.8 billion dollars to the Iraqi government.

UN PEACEKEEPERS In 2010, Haitians fell from the frying pan into the fire when, after losing nearly 150,000 souls to a devastating earthquake, cholera-infected UN peacekeepers (believed to be from Nepal) brought the disease to Haiti.

Even though cholera claimed nearly 10,000 lives and infected thousands more, the UN refused to accept responsibility for this man-made disaster. However, in a sudden change of heart, in August this year, the UN finally acknowledged its role in the disaster – but it continues to claim diplomatic immunity from claims for compensation brought by the families of victims.

It seems that the UN peacekeepers have been up to much more than spreading disease. They have been accused of rape and child sexual abuse in Haiti and Sudan. Yet, the UN is finicky about taking action against its violators.

EBOLA EPIDEMIC When Guinea confirmed, on 22 March 2014, that the Ebola virus was spreading and 59 deaths had been reported thus far, the UN did nothing. Finally, nearly five months later, on 8 August (a few days before the death toll topped 1,000), the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Ebola an ‘international health emergency.’ By the time the virus had run its course, 11,310 people were dead.

REFUGEE CRISIS The UNGA failed to arrive at a concrete refugee resettlement target in August this year. Instead, a watered-down negotiators’ statement, which had omitted a promise to move 10 percent of refugees to the developed world, was prepared. Nevertheless, members of the UNGA praised the principle of shared responsibility.

JOBS FOR THE BOYS This seems to be a full-time activity for member states. All of them want jobs for their countrymen and women, irrespective of their skills or capabilities. The big five have their own special territory – viz. the US has UNICEF and the World Food Programme, while China manages the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, and Britain’s fiefdom lies with the head of humanitarian affairs.

HOBNOB AT UNGA Possibly the only good thing that takes place at the opening session of the UNGA, every September, is that heads of state of smaller countries without any clout in the UN have a chance to hobnob with the big boys.

Since resolutions passed by the General Assembly are not legally binding, the presence of member states in that great hall is mostly limited to chinwagging at the expense of the public purse. But the UN is still the only forum where 193 countries come together at least once a year.

SEVENTY-ONE YEARS ON So what does the United Nations have to show, after spending close to half a trillion dollars since its inception, with 17 specialised agencies, 14 funds and a secretariat with 17 departments employing 41,000 people?

Its peacekeeping efforts cost the taxpayers another nine billion dollars annually, with 120,000 peacekeepers deployed mostly in Africa.

While it is undeniable that many UN specialised agencies have contributed in no small measure to the world through food, medicine, education and technical knowledge, so have other non-UN agencies and non-governmental organisations – with much less wastage and bureaucracy, it has to be said.

The UN needs to revisit its original mandate, and honestly review its journey over the past 71 years, identify its manifold weaknesses and correct them. Otherwise, it will continue to drain money away from the needy, encourage cronyism and sit tight while proxy wars break out between superpowers… and ultimately fail to “save humanity from hell.”