By Aijaz Zaka Syed
April 21, 2017
The more things change at the UN, the more they remain the same. The US and Russia, the two superpowers, have been taking turns to belittle and disempower the world body that they both helped create ostensibly to make peace and avoid yet another catastrophic war after World War II. However, the world body has ended up as a plaything in the hands of the world powers. And for all its lofty ideals and principles, it has repeatedly let down Palestinians and the dispossessed everywhere. Indeed, Palestinians and the UN share a long history of betrayals that goes back to 1945.
No wonder words like the UN resolutions, peace process and international community invariably evoke cynicism in the Middle East. The UN has been extraordinarily prompt and effective in dealing with the so-called rogue regimes across the Muslim world but has been totally helpless in the face of real offenders and crimes against humanity.
This is why the calls for comprehensive reforms to make the world body more representative, democratic and effective in dealing with conflicts like the one that has been plaguing Syria for the past six years have lately been growing more and more strident.
In 2011, in an impassioned speech, the late Saudi foreign minister Saud Al Faisal had called for restructuring the UN. While imploring the world body to accept the Palestinian demand for full membership, Saudi Arabia focused on the lopsided and undemocratic structure of the institution that is supposed to be the world parliament representing everyone on the planet.
The Saudi call came at a time when the UN Security Council – the elite club of big powers that runs and controls the world body – was to take up Palestine’s request for statehood which the US pledged to veto. In a statement distributed at the UN, Saud Al Faisal argued: “One of the important (UN) reforms should be restricting the use of veto powers through a commitment from permanent members not to use it towards actions that are intended for the implementation of already adopted resolutions of the Security Council”.
Of course, it is not just the US that has been using veto power to bail Israel out every time. Over the past few years, Russia too has employed this arbitrary power again and again to protect its own friend and ally, Bashar al-Assad – the doctor who has cold-bloodedly presided over the massacre of his own people.
However, this isn’t merely about the use of veto by five permanent members to push their agenda and protect their interests and those of their allies. The issue at the heart of a weak and ineffective UN is its inherently undemocratic nature and structure. “Real reform requires giving the General Assembly a key role in maintaining international peace and security”, the world’s longest serving top diplomat pointed out. “The ultimate goal for any restructuring of the Security Council should be the strengthening of its capabilities in order to effectively play its role in accordance with the UN Charter”.
Perhaps no other issue illustrates the abject helplessness of the UN and other international institutions as the conflict in the Holy Land does. No issue has consumed the world body’s time, resources and energy as the Palestine question has. Hundreds of resolutions have been passed by the UN expressing ‘grave concern’ over the Palestine-Israel conflict and the plight of Palestinians without making any difference whatsoever.
Whenever the world body did seek to check or even ‘condemn’ the Israeli crimes against humanity, the US and its allies quickly stepped in to bail the aggressor out. Using its veto power, the US has blocked at least 40 UN Security Council resolutions censuring Israeli actions.
From 1947 to the end of the cold war in 1990, more than half of the 690 resolutions passed by the General Assembly dealt with the Middle East conflict and all of them were like water off a duck’s back for Israel and its mentor. No one else has defied, mocked and trampled on the UN ideals and principles as Israel has done with the blessings of the country that hosts the world body.
Addressing the UN in 2011, a day before Mahmoud Abbas presented his case for a Palestinian state, US President Barack Obama lustily welcomed an independent South Sudan while slamming the door in the face of Palestinians. Peace cannot come through statements and resolutions at the UN, thundered Obama, ignoring the fact that it was the UN that gave Israel the fig leaf of recognition immediately after a unilateral declaration of statehood by the Zionists on May 14, 1948.
Israel held no negotiations whatsoever with Arabs before it formed its borders at gunpoint. But then Israel and its friends have always had a selective memory. So Washington used its veto power all over again for Israel – defying all reason, common sense and its own ideals – to block even a token recognition of a Palestinian state.
Can there be a worse example of international double standards? Is there no limit to global hypocrisy and duplicity? The blessed institution that was ostensibly created to build peace and resolve conflicts has become a big stick in the hands of big powers. Using it, they run the world as they please. As a result, the UN has become a toothless tiger while the real power rests with the Big Five.
Of course, many UN agencies have been doing an exemplary job of providing aid and fighting poverty, disease and other demons. However, the world body has spectacularly failed in its chief objective, its raison d’etre, of protecting peace and preventing conflicts. The UN has repeatedly failed to deliver because some at the table are more equal than others. The institution formed to promote peace is dictated by the old jungle rule of ‘might is right.’
If this has to change, the UN must reflect the changed geopolitical realities of the 21st century. Isn’t it strange that the largest democratic body on the planet offers no real say to more than half of the world’s population?
The Security Council that runs the show remains restricted to the US, Russia, the UK, France and China – four of them victors of World War II. The Middle East, the cradle of civilisations, home to three great faiths and most of the world’s known energy resources, has no say whatsoever in the decision making process of the world body. A country like India with a billion plus population remains out in the cold. The same applies to Africa where human life itself is said to have begun.
There is no representation for the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims either. Indeed, the entire global South does not find a seat at the table. Why should the UN be the preserve of a select, elite club?
India has been flexing its diplomatic muscles and growing political and economic clout to demand a permanent membership of the Security Council. But it is about time everyone else joined the fight too for a complete restructuring of the world body. It’s time for a new world order and for a fair and just UN. A just and democratic world order is not possible without justice and equality at the UN.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is an award-winning journalist.