Steven Walker says the latest conflict between Palestinians and the Israeli state highlights the impotence of a failed global organisation
As Palestinians suffer more deaths and persecution by the Israeli state, one striking fact has emerged among the fog of war. The United Nations has proved yet again that it is a toothless, ineffective defence against a powerful nation backed to the hilt by the United States. But this is not a random example of a failure of international statecraft: it is inherent in the structure and politics of the organisation, evident from the day it was created.
The UN is the child of the ill-fated League of Nations created just over 100 years ago in January 1920. It began with four permanent members: Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan, with the notable absence of the United States. The League proved ineffective right from the start in the 1930s. It failed to act against the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1933. It also failed against the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, initiated by Fascist leader Benito Mussolini. When world war broke out in 1939, the League closed down, admitting it failed spectacularly in its core mission to act as honest broker in deterring aggressors and preventing armed conflicts between nations. In the post-war settlement, the United Nations was formed. The new body soon succumbed to US/Israeli lobbying and, in November 1947, the General Assembly approved a resolution to partition Palestine and create the state of Israel – sowing the seeds of over 70 years of conflict.
In 1991, the UN authorised a US-led coalition against the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait which presaged the later full invasion of Iraq, leading to the birth of Daesh and 30 years of bloodshed. Brian Urquhart, Undersecretary-General from 1971 to 1985, later described the hopes raised by the UN interventions as a “false renaissance” for the organisation, given the more troubled missions that followed.
In the last decades of the Cold War, the UN began to receive criticism in America and Europe over mismanagement and corruption. In 1984, US President Ronald Reagan withdrew his nation’s funding from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) over allegations of mismanagement, followed by the UK and Singapore. In the early 1990s, the UN faced a number of simultaneous, serious crises within nations such as Somalia, Haiti, Mozambique, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia. In each case it failed to prevent massacres and genocide.
In 2013, an internal review of UN actions in the final battles of the Sri Lankan Civil War in 2009 concluded that the organisation had suffered “systemic failure”. Acting under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 in 2011, NATO countries intervened in the Libyan Civil War. Libya has since descended into armed civil conflict, tribal power struggles and external influence from Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia using the country as a proxy conflict zone.
The Millennium Summit was held in 2000 to discuss the UN’s role in the 21st century. The three-day meeting agreed a commitment to achieve international development in areas such as poverty reduction, gender equality and public health. Progress towards these goals, which were to be met by 2015, was an abject failure. In addition to addressing global challenges, the UN has sought to improve its accountability and democratic legitimacy by engaging more with civil society and fostering a global constituency. This is window dressing from an organisation which derives most of its income from the United States. There is no democratic involvement by UN citizens in the election of the supreme post of Secretary-General or other highly paid senior staff. In an effort to enhance transparency, in 2016 the organisation held its first public debate between candidates for Secretary-General. Soon after, a highly placed official exposed the sexual abuse of children by UN peacekeepers in the Central African Republic, Haiti and Sudan.
On 1st January 2017, Portuguese diplomat António Guterres, who previously served as UN High Commissioner for Refugees, became the ninth Secretary-General. He promised to reform the organisation and improve peacekeeping effectiveness. Yet his warm words and platitudes have delivered no tangible successes. Three years ago he meekly called for an investigation into Saudi Arabia’s murder of civilians in bombing raids which still continues today, and which has added to mounting humanitarian crises in the region. Guterres condemned the persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar and called for a stronger response to the crisis – all to no avail. In 2019, human rights groups criticised Guterres for being silent as China sent ethnic Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities to the Xinjiang ‘re-education’ camps. Human Rights Watch chief Kenneth Roth said that Guterres “has been notably silent on one of the most important… most brazen human rights abuses… because he is worried about upsetting the Chinese”.
And this is the crux of the matter. The UN was established with high hopes and goodwill from a world that had witnessed 20th century mass genocides, more wars than at any time in modern history, global inequalities, and millions killed, made homeless or consigned to refugee camps like the Palestinians. It is an impotent organisation used cynically by the superpowers as a forum for disingenuous, geo-political manoeuvring disguised as good intentions.