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May 12, 2008

Blaming the UN for the World's Failure
Posted by Michael Cohen

In today's Washington Post, Fred Hiatt averts his gaze for a few moments from the rousing success of Iraq to pass judgment on the United Nation's "failure" in Burma:

At a summit celebrating the organization's 60th birthday, 171 nations agreed that they would intervene, forcefully if necessary, if a state failed to protect its own people . . . 

Since then the United Nations has averted its gaze as Sudan's government continues to ravage the people of Darfur. It has turned away as Zimbabwe's rulers terrorize their own people. Now it is bowing to Burma's sovereignty as that nation's junta allows more than a million victims of Cyclone Nargis to face starvation, dehydration, cholera and other miseries rather than allow outsiders to offer aid on the scale that's needed.

Let's be clear as possible on this point: The United Nations does not send troops or use diplomatic suasion in Sudan, Burma or Zimbabwe unless its member states approve such action - and over the past year or so it is the organization's member states that have dropped the ball.

The best example of this came in Darfur when last December Secretary General Bar Ki Moon asked for member states to contribute helicopters to the flailing peacekeeping mission there - it was a request met with resounding silence. Attacking the UN for the failure of its member states is a red herring argument.

And as David Schorr suggests below the notion of intervening in Burma is far-fetched indeed. The right to protect is an important concept and one that I hope receives greater currency in the years to come, but in response to a humanitarian disaster such as the Burma cyclone it is the worst possible test case. The notion that the international community would be able to quickly mobilize a military effort to intervene in Burma is simply not realistic and even in the face of Burmese intransigence would likely do more harm than good.

As Bruce Wallace cogently points out in the Los Angeles Times, an effort along the lines that Hiatt is suggesting is simply fanciful:

Several European Union and U.N. officials have dismissed the idea, saying confrontational tactics encourage the generals to dig their heels in deeper. Others say the idea is flawed for practical reasons.

"Dropping pallets of aid from the sky without teams on the ground is one of the most dangerous things you can do," said an international aid official who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the diplomacy. "It's like dropping cars from the sky. We just have to find a way to convince the generals to cooperate."

As difficult as it may be, diplomacy must win out over the use of military force. And while the right to protect is an important concept casting it aside because the UN could not respond to a natural disaster such as this one is both foolish and short-sighted.

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Comments

It's very funny to see American commenters sneer at the UN this way. We're the ones who got ourselves bogged down in what some will see as a century long occupation in Iraq. Maybe if we were completely overextended we could do something more to help in Burma or Darfur. But it's not cool for us to criticize everyone else in the world for inaction while we remain completely unavailable for non-Iraq related deployments.

Foolish and short-sighted compared to what? One would think that making promises one has no intention of keeping is about as foolish and short-sighted as it gets.

That is where "right to protect" advocates are right now. They love the way their expressions of goodwill and moral resolve sound to them; how they might sound to others, for example people looking for help there is no chance they will get, just isn't part of the picture.

Burma isn't a good test of the "right to protect." Neither is Zimbabwe. Darfur is right out. So what is a good test? Should we expect an appearance by the Right to Protect Fairy to "give currency" to this idea? It seems so, because it isn't going to happen any other way.

Look, everyone feels badly about what happened in Rwanda, almost 15 years ago. It might have been true, in that case, that a display of armed force from interested Western states might have averted a horrific bloodbath in a country with a government too weak to object. But Rwanda was more the exception than the rule; in most cases, if you want to prevent a government from abusing its people you have to be prepared to pay a price. Especially with the American military out of the humanitarian intervention business, UN members states aren't willing to pay that price. This isn't going to change, and that being the case it might be best to dispense with the kind of idealism that proclaims one's resolve to do what one has neither the resources nor the will to do.

Did the Right to Protect apply to New Orleans? The United States declined 54 of 77 recorded aid offers from three of its staunchest allies: Canada, Britain and Israel, according to a 40-page State Department table of the offers that had been received as of January 2006. Allies offered $854 million in cash and in oil that was to be sold for cash. But only $40 million has been used so far [Apr 2007] for disaster victims or reconstruction, according to U.S. officials and contractors. . . .the Department of Homeland Security accepted an offer from Greece on Sept. 3, 2005, to dispatch two cruise ships that could be used free as hotels or hospitals for displaced residents. The deal was rescinded Sept. 15 after it became clear a ship would not arrive before Oct. 10. The U.S. eventually paid $249 million to use Carnival Cruise Lines vessels.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/28/AR2007042801113.html

Besides refusing aid, would the US have allowed foreign militaries to bring aid to New Orleans? Of course not. But Myanmar is.

news report:
A group of US officials led by Admiral Timothy Keating, chief of the US Pacific Command, held a meeting with senior Myanmar authorities when they touched down on the C-130 military transporter on Monday.
http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/World/US_

This is part of the problem, of course. The American faces that foreigners see usually belong to the US military as a result of Pentagon primacy in US foreign affairs. This is the same military that has caused widespread death and deprivation, and four million unassisted refugees, in Iraq, they also notice. And so who can blame them if they didn't allow the US military to enter their country (althouh Myanmar is), especially after listening to The First Lady spout off.

Let's be clear as possible on this point: The United Nations does not send troops or use diplomatic suasion in Sudan, Burma or Zimbabwe unless its member states approve such action - and over the past year or so it is the organization's member states that have dropped the ball.

The best example of this came in Darfur when last December Secretary General Bar Ki Moon asked for member states to contribute helicopters to the flailing peacekeeping mission there - it was a request met with resounding silence. Attacking the UN for the failure of its member states is a red herring argument.

The UN isn't some building in Manhattan. It's also not the Secretariat. Then UN is its member states. If those members states have collectively failed to respond in Sudan, Burma or Zimbabwe, then the UN itself has failed. If the member states have dropped the ball, then the UN has dropped the ball - because the UN and its member states are the same thing. Maybe Ban Ki-Moon and his staff did their jobs. But if nothing happened, then the UN as a whole didn't do its job.

The problem with critics like Hiatt is not that they criticize the UN for its weakness. The UN is unacceptably weak. The problem is that people like Hiatt have no interest in fixing the problem. They do not step up with proposals to strengthen the United Nations. The UN is weak precisely because many have worked to keep it weak. A lot of those people write columns for reactionary nationalist papers like the Washington Post.

Dan, I wrote a paper last year on the structural weaknesses of the United Nations with a view to offer suggestions to strengthen it.

I would go further than you and say that the UN is the sum of the *governments* of its member states and this is a serious weakness if the governments decide it in their interests to undermine the UN (despite opposition from its state's citizens).

The solution to this weakness that I settled on was to replace the ambassador with a directly elected representative (oddly, the UN Charter allows for up to 5 reps per state - all the reps could be elected). This solution addresses or gets around other weaknesses as well (the veto power, 2/3 majority in the general assembly for a change to the charter, amongst others).

The solution does introduce other problems, but it also strenthens the UN, populating the organisation with a group of people with the will and the legitimacy to 1) grow the organisation, and 2) push back against critics.

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