By John Roberts
Several popular myths about the UN are regularly uttered and heard and these indicate not only certain failures to understand recent history, but also tend to prevent action to reform the international system in necessary ways.
1. “It’s not the United Nations that has failed: it’s the members that have not had the will to make it work”
2.”There’s nothing wrong with the Charter, it’s the members that don’t make it work properly.”
3. “The United Nations is democratic because all the nations of the world are represented.”
4. “The veto is a problem but it was essential to get the countries to accept the new organisation.”
5. “There isn’t any alternative to the UN so we have to make it work.”
These enshrine several of the most frequently expressed misunderstandings about the United Nations, often expressed dogmatically by defenders of the institution. Together they represent an attitude which has done little or nothing to ensure since 1945 that the world has progressed towards peace and justice, which are the ideals that the Charter proclaims and which were the aims of some of the Organisation’s founders.
1. The UN was established in such a way that it could not work, at least not work in a way that would fulfil its chief objective, the maintenance of international peace and security. Nation state sovereignty, which traditionally has meant primarily the right to wage war, was fundamental to it. As a consequence, there have usually been, by some estimates, three wars going on each year since that time. No amount of will among the members could compensate for the defects, weaknesses and omissions of the Charter and the institutions that it set up. Unanimity was required, something that no human societies can expect on all occasions.
2. The Charter is flagrantly contradictory, flawed in its philosophy and intended to delude the public into the idea that it would offer peace and security through a working institution, even though the leading framers knew very well that it could do no such thing. It speaks of the sovereign equality of the member states, which is said to be the basis of the organisation, but goes on to privilege five states above all the rest and give them the most important function of all. It is a dolled-up version of the failed League of Nations, without any attempt to remedy the chief defects of the League, except the lack of power to enforce its decisions, which attempt was frustrated immediately by failure to specify the working arrangements of the Military Staff Committee.
3. The supposed democracy of the UN is a figment, since representation in it is of governments, no matter if they are oligarchies, autocracies, totalitarian dictatorships, or democracies of varying values and degrees. The Charter talks of “peoples” but no people have any democratic right to vote for any part of the government of the organisation. It is supposed to united “nations” but of the several thousand nations in the world, fewer than 200 governments are represented in the membership. Some like Turkey spend a great deal of time and money in repressing the nation of Kurds who make up a large section of the country.
4. The veto was said to be necessary in order to ensure that the Security Council would take no decisions capable of causing war between the leading powers. Instead it ensured that the most important body in the UN could only work during times of more or less complete agreement about all matters of any seriousness or complexity. This was a recipe for failure to act, which has been a constant feature of the Council at all times of crisis and made it impotent during most of the occasions when it had to handle the problems for which it was originally designed. It has ensured that the United States has at almost all times been able to frustrate action, even on the less important matters where it was assumed the veto would not be used.
5. Two of the outstanding creations of the post-1945 world show this to be false. The European Union has been created independently of the UN and unlike that house of cards, it has already shown its enduring power, despite including several half-hearted participants. Unlike the UN, it is not based on the sovereignty of the nation state, but upon the pooling of sovereignty and the rule of law. The other, more recent creation, is the International Criminal Court, which, despite sabotage by the US, bids fair to show the way to an international system also governed by the rule of law and one in which international law is on the way to being transformed into world law by its application to individuals.
Since 1945 the money lavished on weapons and war-making, if applied constructively through effective global institutions could have ensured the ending of world illiteracy, poverty, hunger and lack of clean water. Those were aims of the United Nations, which it has totally failed to achieve, because it has failed in its main task. In the future, the United Nations in all its sprawling untidiness, will continue, but its chief, and unfulfilled function, that of maintaining international peace and security, will have to be undertaken by other means as the urgency of the human predicament becomes ever more obvious.
John Roberts is Chair of the Trustees of the One World Trust. He writes here in a personal capacity. This article was first published as World Citizen Letter 447, and represents the opinions of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.