Photo: “This is where our house used to be,” says Bishnu Maya. Credit: UN Women/N. Shrestha

Photo: “This is where our house used to be,” says Bishnu Maya. Credit: UN Women/N. Shrestha - Photo: 2020

Uncertainty Hangs Over the UN Surviving Beyond 2045

Viewpoints by Franz Baumann, Fmr. UN Assistant Secretary-General, United Nations and Christopher Ankersen, Global Affairs, New York University.

This is the second of two rounds of Dr Franz Baumann’s stimulating exchange with Dr Chris Ankersen posted on PAIRAGRAPH – A Hub of discourse between pairs of notable individuals. The first appeared on 8 September 2020. It can be freely accessed here.

NEW YORK (IDN) – The former UN Assistant Secretary-General believes the United Nations “will not be cancelled”, though “a worse fate awaits it, namely fading into the shadowlands of irrelevance”. Dr Ankersen, however, argues: “… it may be possible for the UN to carry on for several more years, that is only because it has been nailed to its perch.”  He is convinced that UN celebrating its 75th birthday this October will not live to see its 100th.

Dr Baumann contends:

The United Nations will not be cancelled. A worse fate awaits it, namely fading into the shadowlands of irrelevance. It is too valuable symbolically and too cheap monetarily for an abolition motion to be tabled. The annual ritual of speaking in the august hall of the General Assembly plays well domestically and enhances the stature of even the most thuggish, embattled and illegitimate despot.

The Organization comes cheap, especially for its major contributors, such as the U.S., the EU, China and Japan: Not more than $2 (two!) annually per citizen for the regular budget and barely over $20 combined – for all programs, such as peacekeeping, development, refugees, health (including reproductive health), human rights, children, humanitarian assistance and whatnot. Pet food sales in the U.S. are twelve times higher than the UN’s regular budget.

So, the plug will not get pulled but, tragically, the UN’s irrelevance will become ever more evident. There are many reasons for that. The main one is that the U.S., China and Russia – and in their shadow others, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt – egregiously violate multilateral norms, including those against aggression and conquest.

The UN Charter explicitly assigns permanent members of the Security Council a guardian role for the world as a whole and implicitly disallows them to use – abuse – their privileged positions to advance national agendas. But this has become routine, as has the Secretary-General’s invisibility in the face of this outrage.

Russia seized Crimea, sponsors fighting in Eastern Ukraine, casually commits war crimes in Syria, breaks the weapons’ embargo on Libya and, as the Navalny poisoning illustrates once again, cavalierly ignores its obligations under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention. A few months ago, Russia was one of the very last countries to ratify the 2015 Paris Agreement, yet has no plans to do anything about decarbonization.

The U.S., having pulled out of several international organizations as well as agreements and treating with disdain various norms of domestic and international civility, is a particular disappointment, given its role in the establishment of the United Nations. It supports Israel’s annexation of land conquered in 1967 and, in the case of the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, from which it huffily withdrew in 2018, the U.S. asserts the right unilaterally to restore the UN sanctions which were terminated as part of the agreement. In early September it announced – as did Russia – that it will not participate in the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access (Covax) Facility, the international effort to help develop and distribute a coronavirus vaccine.

China inflames tensions with India in the Himalayas, ignores the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s decision regarding the South China Sea and, together with Russia, has vetoed numerous Security Council resolutions on Syria. Pretending to be a climate champion, China’s coal-fired capacity under development is larger than the existing coal fleets of the U.S. and India.

Brazen bullying by permanent members of the Security Council weakens the rule-of-law and creates a pandemic of impunity that permeates the international system. Unsurprisingly, no industrialized country is meeting its climate commitment under the Paris Agreement.

The League of Nations collapsed because it could not alter the basis – power rather than justice – of the international system, and since it had no power, providing justice reliably, predictably and consistently was out of reach.

The UN’s founders sought to overcome the quandary that laws are meaningful only if they are enforceable by creating a Security Council with a handful of hegemons, the majority of whom expected to be benevolent. They added the soft-power element of an autonomous Secretary-General.

Since it cannot be assumed that the results arrived at in the arena of sovereign states (all pursuing their national interests) are perforce optimal from a global perspective, the Secretary-General, supported by an independent, effective and loyal Secretariat, was assigned special responsibilities as the custodian of the global interest. He (hopefully one day she), more than anyone else, stands for the United Nations as a whole and embodies the principles and ideals of the Charter.

That presupposes someone independent, courageous, strong-willed and charismatic, particularly since he has neither troops to dispatch nor financial resources at his disposal, and because he cannot make binding decisions, levy taxes, enforce resolutions or impose sanctions. Yet, as the incarnation of the global conscience, the Secretary-General has soft power, much like the Pope or the Dalai Lama, which can be used – as some, prominently Hammarskjöld and Annan, have – or not.

The case for a viable and vibrant multilateral system is overwhelming. In a globalized, integrated and complex world, many problems transcend borders and cannot be solved by individual states or bilaterally, but only globally and cooperatively. Humanity’s very survival requires that equitable, effective and smart global solutions are found.

The UN being already on life support, Chris Ankersen predicts it not to last another quarter-century. As a UN patriot and hoping against hope, I wish for the Organization – weakened by abuse, neglect and lack of leadership – to limp along until the tide turns and Kofi Annan’s words to assembled heads of state and government are heeded:

The UN is by no means a perfect instrument, but it is a precious one. I urge you to seek agreement on ways of improving it, but above all of using it as its founders intended: to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, to establish the basic conditions for justice and the rule of law, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.”

Dr Ankersen maintains:

History is filled with a litany of memorable dates, and multilateralists have lists of their own. Each year October 24 is celebrated as ‘UN Day’, commemorating the anniversary of the entry into force in 1945 of its Charter.

A date not commemorated, though, is April 20, 1946, the day the League of Nations officially ceased to be. After being placed into a state of ‘reduced operations’—a euphemism is ever there was one—in December 1939, the League was finally put out of its misery a full four months after the first session of the UN General Assembly.

Despite the date on the death certificate, the League of Nations had ceased to play any meaningful role since at least 1933, a year that saw both Germany and Japan head for the exits. The following thirteen years of the League’s existence were very much de jure rather than de facto.

The life of the UN that Franz describes would make Monty Python’s parrot merchant blush. While it may be possible for the UN to carry on for several more years, that is only because it has been nailed to its perch.

Indeed, what we are likely to see moving forward is the suspended animation of a Zombie institution: not fully alive, but not yet actually dead. We will see a UN limping along, ‘going through the motions’, but not getting much done.

Already we can detect in the faltering 2030 Agenda, the centre-piece of which are the Sustainable Development Goals, the guttural moans of one undead: without serious effort, we are not going to meet the 17 ambitious objectives set out in 2015.

The other global project, an attempt to limit the effects of climate change, also betrays the lack of life in the UN. While valiant attempts were made (the deliberations were extended by two days) the results were disappointing. If the patient didn’t die on the table, it certainly didn’t dance a jig, either.

These two examples (the lifeless response to Covid-19 could easily be added to the list) illustrate that the ultimate cause of death for the UN will be the same as that of its forebear: a lack of commitment by its member states, especially those with the most economic, political, and normative power. Make no mistake: the UN’s passing will be a tragedy. Its demise will leave billions of people grappling with real hardships caused by impoverishment, disease, insecurity, and inequality.

Some may believe that the UN is entering what Gersham Scholem calls a ‘plastic hour’, a time of possibility and renewal. Indeed, some functional agencies may yet survive. But, while some modest recovery may be possible in the short term, time is running out. As the Organization becomes less and less effective, it will first lose its legitimacy, followed by the support of more and more of its constituent countries, and eventually, the people of the world. When that happens, it will take an encore performance of Billy Chrystal’s Miracle Max to fully revive the UN. [IDN-InDepthNews – 17 September 2020]

Image credit: UN.ORG

IDN is Flagship Agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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