The intrinsic limits and contradictions of the United Nations
Peace to be pursued, war crimes to be persecuted: this was the main mission of the United Nations at its birth, this was the great illusion in 77 years of wars. Guterres’ failed attempt at mediation is the umpteenth demonstration of this. What is not working?
The peace trip to Turkey, Russia and Ukraine just concluded by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, predictably, ended in nothing. One wonders why the head of the United Nations has turned into a kind of apostolic envoy in an extreme attempt to remedy a situation that is now beyond the point of no return, when the entire organisation was created specifically after the World Wars as a transnational network with special instruments to preserve and guarantee peace.
Numerous wars, such as in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and Yemen, have taken place in the 77 years since the UN Charter was signed. Many war crimes have gone unpunished, all human rights have been violated. And now we have before our eyes the disaster in Ukraine, all the more scandalous since Russia is one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. What went wrong?
We asked Roberto Savio, a journalist and international politics analyst, who has had much to do with the world of the United Nations since the years when efforts and trust were still being placed in multilateralism.
Why is the UN not capable of maintaining peace even among its member countries?
The UN was created immediately after the end of World War II at a very specific moment in history. The idea of keeping the world at peace had already been attempted earlier in the United States with the League of Nations set up in 1919 on the initiative of the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, a year earlier. However, this initiative was blocked by the US Congress, which did not want to sign up to a multilateral commitment limiting US action. The foreign policy of the United States has always had two opposing souls: on the one hand, the autarkic one of “We are a great country, we don’t need anyone”, and on the other, the one for which America feels it represents the symbol of certain values, the principles and ideals of its Constitution, which should be universally shared and followed to keep the world at peace. One does not want international involvement, the other advocates it.
When the United Nations came into being, it was the victors of World War II who stood as guarantors of peace, assuring the world that there would be no more wars like the one they had just won. Naturally, the then Soviet Union and the United States, which had defeated Nazism, a common enemy, joined the United Nations; China, a great power that had taken part in the conflict against Japan, which was allied with the Nazi-fascists; England, an ally of the United States, joined the United Nations; and France, which had lost the war but had redeemed itself with De Gaulle by siding with the winners. These are the five permanent members of the Security Council and have the right of veto. What strikes an ordinary citizen in 2022 is that among the five permanent members of the Security Council there is only France and not the entire European Union, which has been in existence for 20 years. The Security Council is the only body that can ratify decisions and make them enforceable, unlike the General Assembly. It has 15 members in total, 5 permanent and 10 elected by rotation, but if only one of the 5 permanent members vetoes a vote, any proposal is blocked. The classic case was when Boutros Boutros-Ghali had 14 votes in favour but the US alone prevented his re-election.
So the intervention of the United Nations, as would be provided for in the articles of the Charter in the event of a violation of International Law, is an illusion because all it takes is one vote against, as happened in Syria with Russia’s veto?
Exactly so. We must bear in mind that recent wars are completely different from those before the 1980s. They are wars not just of local fighting forces but theatres in which powers that want to pull their weight intervene. In Syria there were 12 powers. It was a third world war but localised, what Pope Francis calls a fragmented third world war.
In all these years, have attempts been made to change the veto rule that prevents the United Nations from intervening effectively?
We have tried in many ways and in many organisations, but then one of the countries vetoes even the changes and we do not go ahead. The veto is definitive, nothing can be done. The five permanent members of the Security Council should give up their right of veto. One of the many proposals underway is to make it possible for at least two countries to veto a resolution. It has been put forward by Liechtenstein with the support of the United States, which, given the situation in Ukraine, is trying to reopen to as multilateral a discourse as possible. This could change with the next American elections, when Trump or worse DeSantis could win and autarkic America could return. In any case, this process of changing the rules is going nowhere because all it takes is the veto of China or Russia to stop everything.
What power does the secretary-general have to stop a conflict where the UN has clearly been unable to do so?
The United Nations has several bodies: the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council, the Security Council, which, as we have said, is the one that should guarantee peace, and the Secretariat, which did not have clear tasks at the beginning, but has been formed over time. Then there was the body that dealt with decolonisation and finally the various funds that depend on the Secretariat (such as UNICEFF), and the various agencies that are autonomous bodies (such as FAO) were created. Once a year there is an assembly of all the agencies and funds chaired by the Secretary-General to ensure a certain unity of vision. Over time, the Secretary-General of the United Nations has acquired more power because he has become a figure who represents the whole system and its responsibilities.
What changed the destiny of the UN is that at a certain point, with the arrival of Mr. Reagan in 1981, the new American president found himself in a democratic structure in which every country had one vote and wondered why a large country like the USA, the most powerful and important of all, had the same weight as a much smaller and less influential country. The US budget at that time was equal to that of the more than 50 countries of the United Nations put together. Reagan did not accept this equal weighting of decisions by all member countries and that was the end of the United Nations as an instrument of global participation. Since 1981, in fact, the United States has not signed any international agreement, any treaty. They have not signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, they have not signed the Convention on the Law of the Sea, they do not recognise that the international community can make decisions for their country. They have not even ratified the International Criminal Court, neither have Russia and China, so in the case of war crimes they do not participate in the process. In fact, the bizarre thing is that Biden has accused Putin of genocide and war crimes but has no means of prosecuting. With the arrival of Putin, the discourse of “I am worth what I am and I do not submit to global decisions” was born.
Has there been a decline of the United Nations?
The slow decline of the United Nations started when the big powers began to take all the power away from the organisation. Different mechanisms were put in place that made the UN marginal. First the G7 was created, then the G8, meanwhile the World Economic Forum was held every year in DAVOS. The coup de grace was when trade was taken out of the UN.
Let me explain. Globalisation, which started 30 years ago after the fall of the Berlin Wall, has two engines: finance and trade. Finance has never been part of the United Nations because it was born out of a different process, that of Bretton Wood, which created multilateral financial bodies (the Monetary Fund, the World Bank, etc.) outside the United Nations. Trade, on the other hand, was initially protected by UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development), which, according to UN philosophy, had the function of protecting citizens. However, it was later superseded by the WTO (World Trade Organization), which does not belong to the United Nations and only protects companies.
Now that they no longer deal with finance or trade, the UN is left only with social activities (children, health, human rights), which are considered useless from the point of view of Washington’s consensus logic, which is what led with Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to the development of globalisation. “Anything that does not produce income is not useful”, so Reagan came out of UNESCO, he had a very precise vision of a world based on the market and he wanted to abolish the ministries of health and education…
This world has remained, it is still there today. For example, the European Union was born and developed on the principles of the Washington Consensus, the so-called Bolkestein Directive, which says there must be free competition. So far, the European Union has been very active on the market level, but very weak on the social level. The pandemic has forced us to review our globalist approach.
The United Nations, therefore, has been progressively emptied of strength and power, and there is even the concrete case of the Secretary General who is basically appointed by the United States, as they have more weight by giving 25% of the budget and the UN headquarters in New York.
It is said that when Ban Ki-moon was appointed, the United States chose the less “smart” one on purpose because in general they don’t want a strong secretary who could become an alternative of power and hinder their plans.
Why did Guterres’ mission fail?
Because of the consequences of this whole process that has led to the current situation. Guterres, paralysed by a Security Council divided and split between China, Russia and the USA, at first made declarations against the war, then stood still for two months and now has gone to meet Putin via Erdogan, who at the moment has the greatest capacity to mediate with Russia. Two autocrats. Erdogan can do nothing and Putin has treated Guterres badly too. Thus the multilateral system, a system founded on the idea of cooperation as the basis of international relations, continues to be marginalised.
If there is no cooperation, there can be neither development nor peace. This is what we are seeing in a world where everyone now wants to have a power game. Turkey, China, India, Hungary, Brazil, as well as Russia and the USA. The result is that the world is extremely fragmented with varying alliances depending on what happens and what suits us. Sooner or later we will get to a third world war and at that time perhaps there will be talk of reconstituting the United Nations. But history teaches us that the victors do not feel obliged to do anything because they have won the war, and so it is difficult for them to make a speech that is for the good of all. It is always about a peace that they impose after their victory.
I speak as a citizen: that being the case, why should my GDP go to an organisation that is gradually being emptied and weakened?
Because a very small part of its GDP goes to the Secretariat. Most of the GDP goes to the funds, to the agencies. We can discuss whether the United Nations is needed or not, but no one can doubt that UNICEFF or FAO, UNHCR, UNESCO are very important. These technical agencies, as they are called, actually have a very important political activity, they are very useful. The whole debate is about the Secretariat, which is a victim of the Security Council. The real problem of the United Nations is the Security Council, which was born in a precise historical context and has been the main problem until today.
Isn’t it incredible that two of the very countries that founded the UN to guarantee the world peace are now facing each other, because in a way the US is behind Ukraine?
At that time the US did not want wars because it dominated the world. The Russians also dominated their part of the world. China counted for very little, France and England were testimonial countries but they were not important players. So there was a peace that was American and everyone was ‘happy’. Then, of course, there was the Cold War between Russia and the US, and the “non-aligned” movement was created, i.e. those who did not want to be with either of the two blocs. A situation was created whereby the momentum of 1945 changed, a new world was born not based on multilateralism but on self-interest. Populist movements, sovereignists, autarchists and nationalists have emerged.
Is there a relationship between the weakening of the United Nations, this testosterone-fuelled confrontation between the US and Russia and the arms industry, which is known to play a major role in the development of wars?
The arms industry is a very powerful lobby and in fact Eisenhower, when he made his closing speech, denounced the fact that a military industrial lobby was in charge in the United States. Today, the United States is the world’s leading arms exporter and the Russians are the second largest. Now, of the 350 billion that we have to spend in order to reach 2% of military spending in Europe, plus what has been spent so far on armaments in Ukraine, which is in fact a test bed for new weapons, I was saying that of the 350 billion, 72% of the profits go to the Americans. And now Japan has decided to increase its military spending to 2% of GDP. That’s at least 100 billion. And total spending on armaments in 2021 has exceeded 2 trillion dollars for the first time. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council are responsible for producing and selling 80% of the world’s armaments.
The five members of the Security Council, who are supposed to ensure peace, are the producers of the weapons with which war is waged.
We have lost the capacities of a multilateral world, we are in a multi-polar world that has completely disintegrated and where a spark for a world war can be ignited at any moment. All we can do is despair, thinking how many of humanity’s problems could have been solved with two trillion dollars. The fact that instead these resources are going into instruments to destroy us shows that we are in a phase of our history that could be called the suicide of reason.
*Italian-Argentine journalist, Roberto Savio is the publisher of OtherNews, adviser to INPS-IDN and to the Global Cooperation Council. He is also co-founder of Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and its President Emeritus.