Opinion: The United Nations – missing in action

Gustav Dore illustration from Dante’s Inferno
Founded in the aftermath of the Second World War to keep at bay the worst demons of human nature, today the United Nations seems to have lost its bearings (source: dpa)

Dag Hammarskjold was one of the great secretaries-general of the United Nations.

The Swedish economist turned diplomat began work at the UN in 1950, serving as the organization’s second secretary-general from 1953 until 1961. That year, while trying to negotiate a ceasefire in the Congo, he was killed in a plane crash. Questions remain about the circumstances in which this courageous man died.

Today, different questions are being asked about the future of the organization he once led.

Why, as the world confronts so many challenges, is the UN so often missing in action? What can be done to reform the organization so that Hammarskjold’s successors might reconnect with its mission?

A different world

The UN was created in 1945 following the collapse of the League of Nations (1920-46). The world had come through the Great Depression, the Second World War and the Holocaust. In a flurry of hopefulness at the end of these horrors, the international community promulgated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Genocide Convention. It also created a raft of international organizations – all with the avowed intention that international cooperation would prevent such catastrophes occurring ever again.

This was also the era of the Truman Doctrine and the United States government’s astoundingly generous $13 billion Marshall Plan (worth $189 billion today) – although the rationale behind the plan was more than simple altruism.

Truman told Congress that “the seeds of totalitarian regimes are nurtured by misery and want. They spread and grow in the evil soil of poverty and strife. They reach their full growth when the hope of a people for a better life has died. We must keep that hope alive.”

Truman’s world would be one of free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression.”

The UN was created during a remarkable period of enlightened statesmanship


In 1947, U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall had insisted that “it is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health to the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace.”

In parallel, this repudiation of isolationism and xenophobia gave birth to the Bretton Woods principles, which provided an international architecture governing investment, free trade and the flow of money.

This euphoria of internationalism was echoed, in 1951, by the creation of a common market, the European Coal and Steel Community, which would ultimately morph into the European Union.

In 1950, Robert Schuman, the French foreign minister, said the community’s purpose – especially in controlling coal and steel, the main ingredients of war – was to “make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible.”

Taken together, this remarkable period of enlightened statesmanship enabled the regeneration and economic renewal of Europe’s fractured cities and regions.

Truman saw it as the best hope of defeating new forms of National Socialism, creating prosperity on the Western side of Stalin’s Iron Curtain, and offering ways forward for the emerging new postcolonial nations in Africa and Asia.

This, then, was the hopeful climate in which Dag Hammarskjold assumed leadership of the United Nations in 1953.

Road from hell

Profoundly aware of the League of Nations’ ultimate failure, Hammarskjold had a realistic view of what the UN might achieve, declaring that the organization “was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.”

In his Inferno, the 14th-century poet Dante Alighieri depicted hell as nine concentric circles of suffering located within the Earth. This accurately represents the post-Hiroshima 20th-century world in which Hammarskjold’s UN found itself.

Every century and every generation is confronted by those same concentric circles – torments of mankind’s own making. In saving us from hell, Hammarskjold believed tht the UN had to take the international community beyond the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia and the conduct of international relations through the national state. The UN was to be an instrument that encouraged dialogue and cooperation in resolving conflict.

Dag Hammarskjold and Patrice Lumumba meet at the UN
July 25, 1960: UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold (R) meets Congolese Premier Patrice Lumumba to defuse the critical situation in the Congo. Both men were killed the following year (source: dpa)

Today, in a world facing powerful political, technological, environmental and social challenges, the United Nations seems to talk endlessly and at best gets to apply bandages to the world’s wounds.

The hellish intractability of many crises facing the contemporary world is underlined by a cursory look at the issues high on Hammarskjold’s agenda in 1953. These included attempts to smooth relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors; a 1955 visit to China to negotiate the release of U.S. pilots captured in the Korean War; and the creation of an Emergency Force geared to resolving violent crises in countries like the Congo.

Interestingly, and following his belief that if you didn’t understand religion you couldn’t understand the world, Hammarskjold overcame opposition in allowing the Holy See to participate at the UN. He had a profound understanding of the enduring significance of religion in a world where, even today, 84 percent say they have a religious affiliation.

Overwhelmed by demons

More than 60 years on, Hammarskjold would surely question the UN’s effectiveness in addressing the dangers facing humanity today: resurgent nationalism; varying forms of totalitarianism; ideologies hostile to free societies; the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; the abject failure to resolve conflicts, whether in Sudan, Syria or Afghanistan; and the blights of famine, poverty and inequality.

Does the UN remain the linchpin of a rules-based international order? Has it moved us beyond Westphalia, by encouraging cooperative resolution of conflicts?

There has been a failure to understand the role of the great religions in human development and the fight against terror


Why does it struggle so badly to relate its work to religion (with more than 1 billion Catholics and 1 billion Muslims in the world) and fail to understand the role of the great faiths in human development and the fight against terror?

The UN’s effectiveness must be measured against the challenges posed by Islamist terrorism; refugees and mass migration; globalization; nuclear proliferation; digital technology and cyber warfare; and a crisis of confidence in the political elites and institutions that are supposed to meet these threats.

While the demons of hell have been upping their game, it appears that the UN’s angels have been at least temporarily overwhelmed.

Yet, Hammarskjold’s fundamental proposition still holds true: not one of these challenges can be resolved on a national basis, without international cooperation.

Reform or die

Part of the UN’s problem has been an inability to come to terms with a world in which 45 percent of the population is aged 25 or under.

Hammarskjold lived in a pre-internet age and would be amazed to see how cyberspace shapes, for good and ill, our transnational relationships – be they personal, political, social or economic.

For example, recall the role of social media in the Arab Spring, in connecting pro-democracy campaigners in countries like Burma, in cyber warfare, fake news, in hate speech, in coded messages inciting Islamist terror, or in the hands of a tweeting president. The UN’s own narrative seems missing in this dangerous new world.

Mr. Guterres is right about the urgent need for restructuring and renewal


And beyond cyber space, transnationalism has been reinforced by the unprecedented ease of travel. Globalization allows assets and taxable income to be transferred across the world by legal or illegal means, the same way people can be transported by a low-cost airline or a human smuggler.

This is the world that Hammarskjold’s successor, Antonio Guterres, must come to grips with after taking office on January 1. Mr. Guterres set out with three top priorities: peacekeeping, sustainable development, and reform of the UN’s internal management.

The new secretary-general is right about the urgent need for restructuring and renewal – without which the UN may suffer the fate of the League of Nations. If he fails, the Security Council’s five permanent members – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the U.S. – will bear a great deal of the responsibility.

The omens do not look particularly favorable.

Losing America

As Guterres assumed office, a new occupant arrived at the White House.

Throughout his election campaign, Donald Trump had only negative things to say about the UN, describing it as a “club” for people to “have a good time.”

By signaling support for the use of torture, a disinclination to finance the UN’s peacekeeping budgets, lack of support for the International Criminal Court, and an unwillingness to help to fund obligations to refugees, President Trump has set the U.S. on the path of disconnection.

Simultaneously, however, Mr. Trump has understood popular disillusionment with the political classes and their chosen priorities. He correctly identified the misuse of international funds to promote coercive population control and abortion programs.

In the past, UN agencies indirectly aided and abetted China’s grotesque one-child policy. In Africa, politicians complain that UN agencies blackmail recipients of aid by threatening to cancel other programs. That is neither a moral nor a practical choice – and President Trump is right about that.

By behaving like arrogant neocolonialists, unaccountable elites gradually lose public and political support. That can cost an institution dearly, as the European Union, Britain’s Left and American Democrats have discovered.

Affront to values

The reason so many Americans – especially Republicans – are skeptical (and even worse) about the UN is that it appears incapable of resolving big issues while taking up minor causes that affront deeply held American values.

For instance, the overwhelming majority of Americans believe that Jews are entitled to live in safety in their homeland – and that it is a miracle of God's providence that the land of Israel was restored. They therefore find it unconscionable that the UN endlessly criticizes the only pluralist, liberal society in the Middle East – even if it is a deeply flawed one.

The UN General Assembly ended its December legislative session by adopting 20 resolutions against Israel and six on the rest of the world combined

Last December, the UN General Assembly ended its annual legislative session by adopting 20 resolutions against Israel and only six resolutions on the rest of the world combined – three on Syria, and one each on Iran, North Korea and Crimea.

In April 2016, the UNESCO Executive Board in Paris adopted a resolution that ignored Jewish ties to its holy site of the Temple Mount and the Western Wall area in Jerusalem's Old City. It referred to the Temple Mount area solely as Al-Aqsa Mosque/Haram Al-Sharif, except for two references to the Western Wall Plaza that were put in parenthesis. This just makes UNESCO look anti-Semitic.

Not only are these decisions unjust, they make the UN irrelevant in the eyes of Americans – whether they are Democrats (a party with a historically strong Jewish constituency) or evangelical Republicans. Ignore religious sensibilities and you become a waste of time for decision-makers in Washington.

The UN should never forget that it relies on assessed and voluntary contributions from member states. It should never forget why it was set up – principally to maintain international peace, to promote security, to champion human rights, to encourage sustainable development, to safeguard the world’s environment and heritage, and to provide relief where natural disasters, famine or violent conflict occur.

If it wants to retain support, it should stick to its day job, not try to peddle an ideology.

Root and branch

As part of a fundamental reform, the UN needs to examine how secretaries-general are elected. The point is to find contemporary Hammarskjolds – men or women of talent – rather than rotating through the usual suspects.

There is a great deal to be said for a seven-year, nonrenewable term of office.

The current arrangement of reelection after five years, perhaps by design, makes the incumbent more susceptible to pressure from those with the power to propel or block his or her candidacy (so far, it has always been “his”). Secretaries-general should have better things to do than canvassing for votes.

Leadership positions at the UN should be based on qualifications and the ability to do the job. The 17 members of the Geneva Group (the UN’s major funders) should be driving forward this urgently needed reform. Many posts will come vacant during Mr. Guterres’ first term, presenting an opportunity to do things differently.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks
New Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, a seasoned diplomat and former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, faces the impossible task of getting member countries to agree on a root-and-branch reform of the creaky institution (source: dpa)

The UN seeks to halt our slide into hell through its main organs –the deliberative General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council, the Secretariat, the International Court of Justice – and through its agencies, which include the World Bank Group, UNESCO, the World Health Organization, the World Food Programme and the Human Rights Council.

These agencies have a very mixed record.

In Nairobi, for instance, I challenged an indifferent UN official about funds that had been embezzled from phantom projects for much-needed water catchment dams and reservoirs in northern Kenya.

In the Congo and South Sudan, I protested about the role of so-called UN peacekeepers whose actions had ranged from incompetent to illegal.

Policing the peacekeepers

Mr. Guterres would do well to examine the recommendations of the Westminster Committee on Sexual Violence in Conflict, which called for an international jurisdiction to root out and hold to account peacekeepers accused of sexual violence against the people they were supposed to protect. Such misconduct brings peacekeeping into terrible disrepute.

At present, responsibility for dealing with these matters rests with the countries contributing the troops. Some – among them Uruguay, Pakistan and South Africa – have court-martialed soldiers charged with offences on peacekeeping missions, but these actions have only scratched the surface.

Nor does any of this come cheap.

The UN spends more than $8 billion a year to deploy 86,000 troops. With civilian employees, the total personnel on peacekeeping missions is around 120,000.

It is not unreasonable to demand that UN peacekeeping missions deliver value for money and better outcomes


President Trump’s proposal to cut $1 billion in funding from UN peacekeeping work would jeopardize these operations. It is not unreasonable, however, to demand value for money and better outcomes.

In assessing the future role of its blue helmets, the UN should also place greater emphasis on training them to prevent conflict in the first place.

When Dag Hammarskjold was found dead in his plane, in his briefcase was a copy of Thomas a Kempis’s Imitation of Christ. He would have been familiar with Jesus’s admonition: “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

The UN should be putting more resources and time into making peace and preventing conflict rather than keeping peace and boots on the ground. This also points to the need for the secretary-general to open channels to non-state actors such as the free Kurdish cantons of northern Syria.

Failure to do this will bring new horrors. Consider the world’s newest country, South Sudan, where civil war has produced a catastrophic famine, entirely man-made and wholly avoidable.

Confronting inertia

Here we must say something about the Security Council. More than any other arm of the UN, its success or failure will determine whether we slide into the abyss.

At the end of the Cold War, it was rather naively assumed that the Security Council would overcome the incapacitating effect of the veto (often by Russia), which had frequently stymied coherent and coordinated action.

Instead, communism gave way to the Vladimir Putin era, and the tensions and divisions within the Security Council have continued.

Most recently, in February and April 2017, Russia used its veto to block UN sanctions over the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons. An effective response was left to President Trump, who ordered a missile strike against the Syrian airbase from which the chemical attack was launched.

The UN has failed to end the war in Syria, failed to protect civilians, and failed to bring the perpetrators to justice


In dealing with an evident war crime, the UN was again found missing in action. Its statisticians, however, have been very active – counting the dead.

They estimate that some 400,000 Syrians have been killed and more than 5 million have fled the country since the war began in 2011. Another 6.3 million people are internally displaced.

The UN has failed to end the war, failed to protect civilians, and failed to bring the perpetrators to justice. What does the agony of Aleppo say about the impotence of the UN and the collective shame which this war has brought on the international community?

It is not only the colossal loss of life and the vast displacements of people that shame us, but also the UN’s failure to set in motion Nuremburg-style trials for those responsible for crimes against humanity and genocide.

Scourge of genocide

This scandalous failure to provide justice – or even to establish mechanisms for trying those responsible for mass executions, sexual slavery, rape and other forms of gender-based violence, torture, mutilation and the enlistment and forced recruitment of children – shames the UN and its members. That is, all of us.

Genocide – as the UN itself has declared - is never a word to be used lightly. It is not determined by the number of people killed, but by specific genocidal intent.

In 1948, in the wake of some of the worst atrocities in history, the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

The culmination of years of campaigning by the Jewish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, it laid upon the signatories a moral and legal duty to “undertake to prevent and to punish” genocide – the crime above all crimes.

In our own times states have been reluctant to accept their responsibility to prevent a recurrence of genocide


Once it is recognized that genocide is being committed, serious legal obligations follow, but in our own times states have been reluctant to accept their responsibility to prevent a recurrence of this “odious scourge.”

Notwithstanding resolutions by the European Parliament, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the British House of Commons and the U.S. Congress identifying atrocities against Christians, Yazidis, and other minorities in Syria and Iraq as genocide, the UN has conspicuously failed to act.

The Security Council’s failure to refer evidence to the International Criminal Court (ICC) – or for any other court to act ­­– has become a scandalous circular argument. Some 124 states are signatories to the ICC’s Rome Statute, but the Court’s authority is fatally undermined when great nations do not demonstrate their belief in the rule of law. Already we see some states withdrawing from the ICC.

Who’s to blame?

The West says that Russia will use its veto to prevent any referral on atrocities in Syria.

The same diplomats say that China will use its veto if an attempt is made to bring North Korea before the ICC.

This comes after a UN report in 2014 found that North Korea’s violations of human rights and crimes against humanity make it “a state without parallel.”

The Commission of Inquiry called for the ICC to bring to trial those responsible for “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”

On reading the report, it is difficult to identify any of the 30 articles comprising the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that are not violated every day in North Korea.

Yet, three years after the report’s publication (and as the world watches nervously while Pyongyang contemplates a sixth nuclear test), the regime wallows in impunity – making a mockery of the UN’s proclaimed doctrine of a “duty to protect.”

Veto versus duty

Not to act is to act. It sends a very dangerous message that state and non-state actors can behave as they wish, since international institutions are incapable of holding perpetrators to account.

Changing the veto powers of the Security Council’s permanent members is no simple business. Such a step would be resisted by those who wield the veto, and it would require amendment of the UN Charter. But Mr. Guterres needs to consider the question, and perhaps referral of crimes to the ICC could be exempted from the veto.

It is true that the permanent members are unlikely to take measures to curb their own influence. Gaining a two-thirds vote in the General Assembly will not be easy, either ­– but this is not an issue Mr. Guterres can dodge if he wants to fundamentally reform the UN.

Imperfect and indispensable

Dag Hammarskjold was not naive about the UN’s capacity. As he once said: “We should … recognize the United Nations for what it is – an admittedly imperfect but indispensable instrument of nations working for a peaceful evolution towards a more just and secure world.”

He also had some hopeful words that Mr. Guterres might want to pin above his desk: “Setbacks in trying to realize the ideal do not prove that the ideal is at fault.”

The UN may be missing in action, but it is not in our interest to confirm reports of its death.

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