Viewpoint by Dr Palitha Kohona
This is the first of a two-part article by Dr Palitha Kohona, Former Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations, Former Chair of the UNGA Sixth Committee and the Former Co-Chair of the UN Ad Hoc Committee on BBNJ.
COLOMBO (IDN) – As the United Nations enters its 75th year, faded photographs stare down at corridors emptied by Covid 19 and ageless memorabilia faintly glisten in the semi darkness. Almost a sad reflection of the lofty dreams and aspirations of its founders not fully realised.
Three quarters of a century at its Charter mandated tasks, of saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war, reaffirming faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, establishing conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and promoting social progress and better standards of life “in larger freedom…” , it has been legitimately asked, as we toast our diamond jubilee, whether the UN has been a success so far. It is certainly time to honestly take stock and review our performance and assess whether we have done justice to the hoary expectations of our creators.
The UN Charter, which was signed on 26 June 1945 by 50 states, encapsulated the hopes of a world devastated by war and it honestly aspired to avoid future wars and make the world a better place.
The right-wing media, in particular in the West, has tended to focus the spotlight on the UN’s failings and its cost.
Unusually this year, the deadly menace of the grim reaper, Covid19, hangs over the world with its vicious scythe reaping hundreds of thousands of lives.
After the creation of the UN, we went through a Cold War when the two superpowers of the day confronted each other in deadly earnest but did not fire their weapons and run the risk of mutual nuclear annihilation. The use of well-functioning conflict management mechanisms assisted in avoiding a mutually devastating catastrophe. More due to the efforts of sagacious diplomats working in foreign ministries and visionary leaders rather than the efforts of the world body itself.
But the UN and other mechanisms provided the fora for a range of patiently negotiated disarmament and arms control initiatives, despite the difficulties posed by the times. The world witnessed the conclusion of a nuclear non-proliferation treaty in 1968, a biological and toxin weapons convention in 1972, a chemical weapons convention in 1993 and the comprehensive test ban treaty in 1996. The arms trade treaty was signed in 2013. Not insignificant achievements, given the circumstances. In addition to the multilateral agreements, significant bilateral arms limitation and disarmament treaties were also concluded and the international community gratefully blessed them.
Eventually, one superpower forced the collapse of the other through sheer economic pressure. During the period of the Cold War, the UN could play only a low-key role, if any at all, in resolving the bloody conflicts and proxy wars instigated by the superpowers, as the resolution of most required their concurrence and people perished by the thousands. It was, nevertheless, convenient to blame the UN for the carnage.
The end of the Cold War restored the faith that the world body would be able to make more purposeful progress through genuinely cooperative efforts. Sadly, today we are witnessing a worryingly full-blown confrontation between the emerging power China and the US, the global hegemon for the almost a century. The confrontation spans military matters, trade, technology and even food, and is almost a replay of the 1980s when the US confronted the Soviet Union. The gauntlet has been thrown at China by the remaining superpower, the US, which was curiously its strategic partner since 1972. China is now designated the newly emerging strategic challenger to the US, economically, politically, technologically and militarily.
The Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy has identified Russia and China as revisionist powers seeking to undermine US global interests and is rapidly disengaging itself from China in multiple ways, including militarily, in trade, and diplomatically. While the increasing hostility between the two powers has encouraged some countries to side with the US for possible gain, the majority of the countries of the West Pacific and Indian Ocean regions will be required to balance their positions with tremendous sensitivity as the giant ships of state of the confronting powers send surging waves of instability crashing on to their shores.
Again, we are likely to witness a UN that is rendered impotent due to the Veto wielding two giants and the Russian Federation being unable to agree on many of the contentious issues. The hope of collaboration for the benefit of humanity has almost evaporated in a torrent of hostile actions and vicious comments rarely seen in diplomatic exchanges.
With regard to human rights, one could contend that although the aspired utopia of 1945 has not materialised, the world is a much better place today than in those dark days of the first half of the 20th century, largely due to the efforts of the UN.
The horrors of the Holocaust are behind us and we have persevered through the Gulags of the Soviet Union, the brutal suppression of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, the drenching Agent Orange rain in Vietnam, and the bombing of neutral Laos. Afghanistan and Iraq and other places where thousands of civilians were simply collateral damage are still with us. Massacres, genocides, deprivations, occupation of others’ lands etc. continue to occur but not on the same scale as previously.
On many occasions, the UN has been reduced to ringing its hands in mainly feigned anguish as the big powers restrained it.
The UN has been the convenient punching bag on many intractable global political issues such as the still unfinished business in the Korean Peninsula, the morass that was Congo, its impotency in Vietnam, the paralysis in Rwanda, its inability to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as old as the UN itself, to an end, its ineffectiveness as the Member State of Iraq was invaded, in the face of valid legal objections raised by many, the agony visited on Yemen, largely as a result of non-cooperation by the Veto wielding powers.
Nevertheless, the general acceptance of the common standards since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, is more widespread and violations happen less blatantly. (Some may disagree with this assertion).
Most people live in lot less fear today than in the inter war years, certainly in the West. The economic and cultural and civil and political rights of individuals, the rights of women and children, of refugees and migrants, of indigenous and differently abled persons and of workers are more advanced today than ever before.
History’s main violators have become the champions of the UN adopted standards. But credibility is still a long way away as the selective and politically motivated application of global disapprobation has robbed the UN standard setting instruments of their legitimacy. Sadly, human rights remain a political tool rather than a goal for making the world a better place.
Hunger and deprivation still plagues humanity. But to a lesser degree than before. It is unlikely that we will again be confronted by a deliberately created famine like in 1943 Bengal but still many, mainly children and women, die due to the lack of adequate sustenance and from avoidable diseases. However, UN agencies such as the FAO, have played a seminal role in augmenting global food production and staving off hunger. The UNDP also has contributed to alleviating poverty while the UNICEF has been a vital cog in the UN system addressing the educational and health needs of children.
The world body adopted the Millennium Development Goals in 2000 and the much more comprehensive Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. While the ambition demonstrated was commendable, the difficulties in achieving those goals have been highlighted by many, especially following the devastation rained on by Covid19.
The environment, especially on climate change, has been a major focus of the UN and under its auspices, has been adopting standards to arrest its decline since the late 80s. There is consensus that the UN sponsored measures with regard to the thinning ozone layer have been particularly successful.
Responding to UN standard setting, Europe and Japan have mainstreamed environmental issues and it is a rare politician in Europe who will challenge the overwhelming consensus on climate change. Even the major polluters in the developing world, China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, have been moving in the right direction. While the US has been the major dissenter to the evolving global consensus, it is hoped that it also will join the global mainstream.
It was under the auspices of the UN that the law on the seas and oceans has been codified. The oceans are a much more clearly regulated space than ever before. Two protocols to Law of the Sea Convention have been brought in to force and a third on biological diversity beyond national jurisdiction is now being negotiated. [IDN-InDepthNews – 12 August 2020].
Photo: A view of the Secretariat Building, with Members States’ flags flying in the foreground, at United Nations headquarters in New York. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas
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