Despite the failure of the United Nations (UN) since its inception to prevent and resolve wars and conflicts, and its inability to eradicate crushing poverty and prevent climate change on a world scale, many (including those on the political left during last year’s Lebanon war), continue to promote it as a ‘world parliament’.
By Robin Clapp, Socialist Party
We argue that the UN is beholden to the world’s major capitalist powers and cannot play an independent role. Only socialism could provide a framework for genuine internationalism.
Just two months after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan bringing the Second World War to an end at the cost of 120,000 civilian lives, 51 countries agreed on 24 October 1945 to ratify the Charter giving birth to the United Nations.
Unveiling an emblem showing the world in the ‘olive branches of peace’, the Charter proclaimed the intention of member states to strive for friendly relations between nations, maintenance of world peace, the elimination of poverty, disease and illiteracy and the principles of justice, human dignity and the well-being of all people.
Over 60 years have passed since these honeyed words gave hope to war-shattered men and women that a future based on peace and prosperity might at last be built. But these decades have witnessed the growth of an unprecedented wealth gap between rich and poor, the displacement of millions of people forced to flee from war and ethnic cleansing, the threat of fiendish new weapons of mass destruction, the spread of international terrorism, an HIV epidemic that has stricken 2.3 million children and hardly a day of peace across the planet.
Today the UN boasts 192 member states, an annual budget of $4.19 billion and specialised agencies such as the Children Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Programme (WFP). Other agencies carry out work relating to specific fields such as trade, communications, transport, agriculture and development.
Yet despite its expertise in providing aid and humanitarian assistance, like its forerunner the hapless League of Nations, the UN is at best essentially reactive, unable to independently and decisively stamp its influence upon events. This is not accidental. It cannot be an effective ‘world parliament’ nor ‘world peacekeeper’ when its policies and actions are determined by the interests of the main imperialist powers, especially the US ruling class.
Since 1945 America has been the dominant force in the UN. In the Korean War of 1950-1953 fought under the United Nations Joint Command, 90% of all army personnel, 93% of air power and 86% of naval power came from the US.
Washington is supposed to provide 22% of the UN budget, but has often withheld huge sums owed in order to force compliance with its wishes. These arrears currently stand at $1.3 billion.
The five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the US, Britain, France, Russia and China – each possess the power of veto, which means that decisions taken by that body can be blocked by any one. Any spheres of influence enjoyed by these countries is thus protected.
For instance, the UN intervened in the Biafra war in Nigeria in the 1960s but did nothing when US-ally Indonesia annexed East Timor in 1975. The UN remained tight lipped when China annexed Tibet, looked the other way when US President Nixon blasted neutral Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam War and more recently carried on without comment during 1994-1996 while Russia conducted a vicious repression against Chechyna.
None of the major powers will tolerate their fundamental interests being challenged by the UN. When rival states follow divergent paths, the UN is paralysed.
In a capitalist world based on the nation state and private ownership of property there can be no such thing as a stable ‘international community’. Tony Blair blurted this out when he admitted in a rare moment of candour that nations act “in their own self interest”, before hastily adding the qualification that “our self-interest and our mutual interest are today inextricably woven together.”
Despite all the talk of morality and the integrity of international agreements, policy is decided by what is in the imperialist powers’ own interests. A state’s foreign policy is a continuation of its domestic policy. War and military actions are not fought to defend ideals, but undertaken to maintain and expand prestige, power and spheres of influence. To the victor comes the treasure.
Events in the last 15 years have begun however to open the eyes of millions of workers and youth not only to the impotence of the UN, but also the way that the big powers use it to legitimise their various economic and military crimes. America’s military occupation of Iraq has severely undermined the perception of those who believed the UN was a genuinely independent arbiter between nations. The integrity of the UN has been dealt a grave blow, shattering that myth for millions.
All the key world powers have interests in the Middle East and the surrounding region. Sometimes, as in the case of China and Russia, these interests are partly geographical. But this area is particularly vital for them because of oil.
Following the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US believed itself to have recovered from the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ – the military paralysis brought about by nightmares of its defeat in South East Asia.
As an unrivalled military super power the US orchestrated a decisive military victory over Iraq after Saddam tried to annex Kuwait in 1991. Henceforth US imperialism thought it would have a new golden age, in which it would tolerate no objections to its strategic ambitions from other powers or the UN.
After 9/11, in determination to demonstrate might against ‘terrorism’ and those countries making up the so-called ‘axis of evil’, Bush and his neo-con advisors plotted the downfall of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, an ally in the 1980s whom the US had funded when their preoccupation was to overthrow the Shi’ite regime of Khomeini in Iran. At that time, the west ensured that no action arose from the UN resolutions criticising Saddam’s use of chemical weapons against Iran and Iraqi Kurds.
Iraq was already on its knees as a result of UN-imposed sanctions following the 1991 war. According to UNICEF, 500,000 children perished in the decade following that war due to shortages of medicine and health treatment. At the time the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, infamously commented that “we think the price is worth paying”.
It was alleged that Saddam still possessed weapons of mass destruction. At the end of 2002 the US obtained the passing of Resolution 1441 through the UN Security Council which demanded that Iraq fully comply with UN weapons inspectors. This however was merely a diplomatic ploy. The increasingly bellicose statements coming from Washington caused deep unease among the other major powers, with France and Germany outspokenly cautioning against hasty military action, hoping that containment might achieve ‘regime change’ without war.
Mass opposition to the war drums culminated in demonstrations of 30 million in 600 cities across the world on 15 February 2003. Workers marched demanding ‘No war for oil.’ The UN Security Council was split and there was widespread understanding that Bush, with faithful Blair in tow, was intent on either ‘capturing’ the UN and bending it to his purposes, or bypassing it. When the former tactic stalled, the US acted anyway, laying waste to Iraq in the guise of exporting democracy.
Four years on, the situation is catastrophic and Bush is a chastened president. Over 650,000 Iraqis have perished, more than 4 million have fled their homes, 37,000 civilians are being detained and the chasm between ethnic and religious groups is widening as the big regional powers circle over resources like jostling vultures. A former senior US military official commented: “Iraq’s government is a mobile phone number that doesn’t answer. Iraq probably can’t be fixed”.
There is no easy exit strategy for US imperialism, despite deployment of extra troops and highly-publicised security surges. The entire Middle East has been further destabilised, with the UN envoy for Lebanon-Syria warning: “Now there seems to be four epicentres of conflict in the region with their own dynamics, the Iraqi issue, the Iranian issues, the Syrian-Lebanon issues, and of course the heart of hearts, the Palestinian-Israeli issue”.
After years of deriding and downplaying the significance of the UN, in desperation the Bush administration is expected to take the Iraq question back to the UN General Assembly in September, claiming belatedly that “the UN has great expertise that is badly needed in Iraq”. The US plan is expected to call for involvement in overseeing Iraq’s full transition to a ‘normal democratic state’.
In essence they would like blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers to take some of the bullets. But the only big change under UN control would be that, instead of domination by one occupying power, decisions would be taken collectively by the leading imperialist powers.
Socialists argue that the real alternative to US occupation is the withdrawal of all foreign armies and the right of the Iraqi people to determine their own future.
Keeping the peace?
United Nations’ peacekeeping interventions are often controversial affairs and lay bare the UN’s inability to keep the peace when there is no peace to keep. The Security Council has been forced to explicitly accept responsibility for failing to prevent the 1994 genocide in Rwanda in which 800,000 people were killed.
On the eve of the atrocities most of the 2,500 peacekeepers were withdrawn after the deaths of 10 Belgian soldiers, thereby sending a green light to the killers. Moreover much of the subsequent UN aid was channelled through former Rwandan government officials who controlled refugee camps in Congo. Many of these camp leaders were implicated in the campaign of genocide.
Similarly, the UN was widely criticised for rehabilitating the forces of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, even going so far as to provide them with funds for the 1993 election. This policy suited both the US and China, both of which wanted to shore up any opposition to Vietnam.
Then there is the shame of Srebrenica in Bosnia in 1995, where Serb forces overran a so-called UN safe area, butchering 7,000 men and boys in Europe’s worst massacre since World War Two.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan later wrung his hands and concluded that “peacekeepers must never again be deployed into an environment in which there is no ceasefire or peace agreement”. In a sick postscript, the perpetrators of this massacre, Bosnian-Serb leader Karadzic and General Mladic are still in hiding, having thwarted the UN’s attempts to bring them before the International Court of Justice at The Hague.
As humanitarian crises multiply today, the UN is still often confined to the fringes.
Savage fighting between ethnic African rebels and pro-government janjaweed militia in Sudan’s vast western Darfur region has led to 200,000 deaths since 2003. A beleaguered 7,000 strong African Union force has been unable to stop the fighting and only now does it seem possible that UN troops will be permitted to enter the arena to try and uphold the Darfur Peace Agreement signed a year ago.
The impasse in Israel-Palestine is one of the clearest examples of the UN’s inability to resolve complex crises. Despite first proposing a two-state solution in 1947, today the situation seems more intractable than ever.
In 1967 the UN drew up its famous Resolution 242 calling upon Israel to return the Palestinian occupied territories taken in the Six Day war. Nothing happened. In 1974 the UN General Assembly reaffirmed in grandiloquent terms the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination, national independence and sovereignty, and to return to the homeland from which they had been deposed in successive waves since 1947.
Now the UN pursues again a vision of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side within secure and recognised borders. But what forces can translate these words into deeds? Not the representatives of the world’s imperialist powers and Israeli capitalism.
The outgoing UN Middle East envoy Alvaro de Soto has castigated the role of the US. “There is a seeming reflex, in any given situation where the UN is to take a position, to ask first how Israel or Washington will react rather than what is the right position to take.”
The UN’s reputation is at a particularly low point after being sidelined in the Iraq war. The growth of the anti-capitalist movement, World Social Forums and the outpouring of aid from the pockets of millions of ordinary people following the Tsunami in 2005 all underline a growing struggle to refashion our planet and to build links across continents that can challenge the hegemony of the capitalist class.
The struggle against the disastrous effects of climate change has ignited worldwide movements. Climate change is a global phenomenon requiring a global solution. Harmful gas emissions in the US grew a staggering 18% between 1990 and 2004 and remain the highest in the world in per capita terms.
It is the dominant economic agencies – the World Bank, IMF, World Trade Organisation and World Economic Forum – all of which serve the interests of the rich and the oligarchs, that are standing in the way of producing a climate change treaty that can reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 80% before 2050.
The UN may threaten Iran with new sanctions if it continues to defy demands to stop uranium enrichment and can wave resolutions at North Korea unless it closes down its nuclear facilities. At the same time the capitalist UN has no mechanism to tell the big powers how to behave, as it is controlled by them.
To really change the world and protect it for future generations means abolishing capitalism. That is the job of the working class acting internationally. Then, and only then, will we have a real uniting of peoples across the planet.
UN admits to failing in the fight against poverty
At the United Nations in 2000, eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were agreed by 147 countries. These range from halving extreme poverty to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing universal primary education, all by the target date of 2015.
However, a recent progress report published by the UN indicates that these MDGs will not be met for sub-Saharan Africa – the poorest region of the world. And worldwide, despite some progress, other MDGs are falling short.
In summary, the UN report states:
* In sub-Saharan Africa one in 16 women still die from treatable and preventable complications of pregnancy and childbirth.
* The target of halving the proportion of underweight children will be missed by 30 million children.
* The number of people dying from AIDS worldwide increased to 2.9 million in 2006, and prevention measures are failing to keep pace with the growth of the epidemic.
* Half the population of the developing world lack basic sanitation. The world is likely to miss the target by almost 600 million people.
* Widening income inequality is of particular concern in Eastern Asia, where the share of consumption of the poorest people declined dramatically between 1990 and 2004.
* Most economies have failed to provide employment opportunities to their youth.
Emissions of carbon dioxide, the primary contributor to global climate change, rose from 23 billion metric tons in 1990 to 29 billion metric tons in 2004. Climate change is projected to have serious economic and social impacts, which will impede progress towards the MDGs.
With a masterly understatement the report says: “To some extent, these situations reflect the fact that the benefits of economic growth in the developing world have been unequally shared.”
Therein lies the problem. The ruling classes in the most advanced capitalist countries (ACC), while pontificating on the plight of the world’s poor, continue to pursue a ‘neo-liberal’ agenda – ie privatisation, ‘free trade’ (while subsidising industries and exports in the ACC), labour market deregulation, unrestricted movement of capital, etc – that results in sucking wealth out of the poorest countries and swelling the assets of the big corporations and the super-rich.
To facilitate such arrangements the world’s big powers often cultivate local capitalists and corrupt politicians in the ex-colonial countries. And within the ACC the wealth gap between the social classes is also widening to an extent not seen for generations.
The move towards equality will only happen when the workers and small farmers who produce the wealth take over the economy, nationally and internationally, and run it democratically under a socialist plan of production.
The aim of the super-rich capitalists is to accumulate more and more personal wealth. The objective of the majority under socialism will be to create a better life for humankind as a whole.