Last week the United Nations still had no staff at Banda Aceh airport, which is the focal point for the tsunami relief effort in Indonesia. What could more graphically illustrate the miserable inadequacy of this once great body than its failure to act decisively following the Boxing Day disaster? It lagged behind the Americans and the Australians in bringing aid to the devastated areas and was slow to coordinate the activities of international NGOs.
Only four years ago in the Millennium Declaration the UN was described as ‘the indispensable common house of the entire human family’. Yet today it is mired in controversy. Corruption in the oil for food programme, administrative incompetence, rampant cronyism and sexual harassment of staff are among the welter of accusations it faces.
Freedom-lovers might accept a plea in mitigation for all the other sins of the organisation if it at least acted to protect the oppressed. Yet, sadly, it has not. The grim record speaks for itself. In the 1990s the UN was a craven bystander in Angola, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Bosnia Herzegovina and Kosovo. More recently, its troops in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been slated as poorly equipped, badly trained and lacking in commitment. UN soldiers are accused of abusing vulnerable refugees. A thousand people are still dying every day. To cap it all, in Darfur, western Sudan, described by the former UN humanitarian affairs co-ordinator for the region as the ‘worst humanitarian and human rights catastrophe in the world’, the UN has imposed no sanctions on the Sudan government and sent no troops. Equally disgracefully, the UN Security Council has never done anything about Burma, whose brutal military junta savagely violates human rights every day.
In 2003, in the aftermath of the Iraq war and conscious of the crisis of confidence in the UN, Kofi Annan appointed a high-level panel to consider the UN’s response to threats, challenges and change. It has produced a thoughtful report. Many of its findings are sensible. Yet the report is nonetheless long on naval-gazing analysis and short on necessary prescriptions. Nowhere is this more true than in relation to the application of the UN Charter, the composition of the UN Commission on Human Rights, and the criteria for humanitarian intervention.
The report laments the fact that the UN General Assembly ‘has lost vitality and often fails to focus effectively on the most compelling issues of the day’. That’s all well and good, but it is hardly the stuff to make tyrants quake in their boots. Surely the priority should be to enforce the Charter and kick out those states which repeatedly flout it? Article 4 of the Charter refers to the need for a ‘common standard of achievement of human rights by all peoples’. Article 6 makes it clear that a state which persistently violates the principles of the Charter may be expelled from the organisation. In the 1970s South Africa was expelled. In the 1990s Liberia, Haiti, Cambodia and Sierra Leone were shown the door. In 2005 Burma, Sudan, North Korea, Zimbabwe and Uzbekistan, to name but five bestial oppressors, are still full members of the club. If the UN seeks respect from the world, it must show respect for itself. It must stop appeasing rogue states and start confronting them. If that means parting company with a large number of its members which are either not democracies in the Western sense of the term, or are not democracies in any sense at all, so be it.
The report states that ‘the Commission on Human Rights suffers from a legitimacy deficit that casts doubts on the overall reputation of the United Nations’. This wins the gold medal for understatement, but we know what the authors mean. This deficit surely has something to do with the fact that in 2001 the US was temporarily ousted from the Commission and in 2003 Libya served as its chairman. However, the panel draws the wrong conclusion. Instead of making membership conditional upon good behaviour, it suggests that it should be an automatic entitlement for every member of the United Nations.
There are now 53 members of the Commission, including Sudan, Zimbabwe and Saudi Arabia. Extending it in this way would admit a further 138 countries, including such noted champions of human rights as Uzbekistan, North Korea, Burma, Iran and Uganda. It is hard to see what more cowardly counsel the panel could offer. Allowing universal membership is so transparently absurd as to deserve no further discussion. If the UN is serious about wanting the Commission to regain respectability, let alone legitimacy, it should stipulate that membership of the Commission will depend upon states respecting the human rights of their own citizens.
The report sets out five criteria for judging the validity of military interventions: seriousness of threat, proper purpose, last resort, proportional means and the balance of consequences. These are all reasonable enough but how will they be made effective? Under the ‘seriousness of threat’ criterion, a threat must be sufficiently clear and serious, such as genocide or large-scale killing. Yet the Security Council has spent the last few months quibbling about whether the situation in Darfur constitutes genocide. In the case of the ‘last resort’, peacekeepers are desperately needed in Darfur now precisely because the Security Council failed to explore the non-military options, such as robust sanctions, which could have brought the regime in Khartoum to heel. It did not even consider the naming and shaming of those countries and companies that are propping up such a sadistic regime. The international community should be prepared to unite and apply remorseless pressure, both economic and political. Squeeze the tyrannies until they burst.
Let us begin with Burma. That there is not a case for military intervention is no excuse for impotent hand-wringing. Let the members of the Security Council show a bit of gumption. There must be vocal criticism of China’s continued support for this barbaric regime. States should apply an arms embargo, impose targeted sanctions to bring down the junta and thereby hasten the process of democratic change. Furthermore, they should work for a motion to expel Burma from the UN if it does not radically improve the treatment of its citizens. The door could also be shown to Iran, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Cuba, Colombia, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Burundi, Eritrea, North Korea and Belarus. The expulsion of China might not be feasible, but responsible members of the UN, notably within the EU, should be denouncing its human rights record instead of chasing filthy lucre through reckless arms sales.
A demand for the UN to implement a fundamental change in its outlook and policy invariably prompts two lines of attack. One is along the lines of ‘Oh my dear chap, it can’t happen.’ This is the lazy argument that something like the present is inevitable. It should be rebutted every time it raises its ugly head. The other, that most people around the world who do not live in democracies have no desire to do so, is unforgivable. As Chris Patten put it, ‘Democracy has a universal validity and should not be withheld either on grounds of cultural specificity or economic weakness.’
The UN has a choice: reform or die. It is decision time.
John Bercow is Conservative MP for Buckingham.