One Question
United Nations
(Part Two)

One Question
United Nations
(Part Two)

One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month we ask:

Is the United Nations still relevant?

Due to the number of responses we have received, we have split them into two parts. This is part two. Click here for part one.

Part two responses from: Karim Makdisi and Vijay Prashad; Ramzy Baroud; Helen Lackner; Gerry Simpson; Obiora Chinedu Okafor; Anne Marie Goetz; Dan Plesch; Tom Farer.

United Nations Part Two

Karim Makdisi and Vijay Prashad

The question is wrong. It is not whether the UN is ‘relevant’: which UN are we talking about?

The UN is not one thing. It reflects the contradictions of the world order and the imperatives of geopolitics, but also serves as a site of contestation where world order is actually produced and struggles from below for legitimacy, recognition and rights are played out. Meanwhile, UN bureaucrats in New York, Geneva and in the field go about doing their work, sometimes on behalf of power and other times for the marginalised, disadvantaged or vulnerable.

The most visible face of the UN is the Security Council (UNSC), which has come to stand in as the executive of the UN body on all matters of international security. It comprises fifteen states, five of them permanent members (the P5: China, France, Russia, the UK and the USA) that hold veto power, allowing them to define which matters to deliberate on and which decisions to scuttle. So, Yemen is off the table, Russia blocks resolutions on Syria, and the US halts otherwise unanimous decisions on Palestine. These vetoes, however, are the exception not the rule: the UNSC was set up precisely to further great power interests. Vetoes reflect anxiety at the top in policing world order. When France and the UK broke ranks to veto US plans to invade Iraq in 2003, it precipitated a moment of genuine crisis in Atlantic relations. The fate of Iraqi civilians did not much bother them.

The UNSC stands in for the General Assembly, whose one hundred and ninety-three members set the tone for world opinion and produce or oversee the bulk of the UN’s huge social, development, environmental, and humanitarian agenda and actions. Following de-colonisation, the General Assembly mounted a radical challenge on behalf of the global South against the stifling structures set up by big powers. However, it has been largely tamed by the P5 in the post-Cold War period and after the Third World bloc broke apart. The relationship between the UNSC and the General Assembly remains fraught, with the former seeing itself as independently able to chart policy while the majority of the world’s states see the latter as the embodiment of a true democratic institution.

As the UN passed resolutions and drew up conventions, a myriad of indispensable, specialised agencies developed to deal with the various crises of the modern age. These UN agencies provide relief and advocacy for refugees, protect labour rights, move nuclear energy from war to peace, improve telecommunications around the world, provide development assistance, and many other functions. They are routinely taken for granted by critics of the UN, and pay the price for dependency on funding from, and the political whims of, rich states such as the US. When the P5 do agree on an important task, such as eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons, funding and political will become non-issues in the completion of the task. When they do not agree, there is paralysis.

The UN, in all its forms, mirrors the contradictions and tensions in the world’s political environment. That is both its strength and its weakness. The question, then, is not about relevancy but about what the crises say about humanity. READ MORE

One Question
United Nations
(Part One)

One Question
United Nations
(Part One)

One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month we ask:

Is the United Nations still relevant?

Due to the number of responses we have received, we have split them into two parts. This is part one. Click here for part two.

Part one responses from: Hans von Sponeck; Richard Falk; Rose Parfitt; Balakrishnan Rajagopal; ; Zillah Eisenstein; Sital Kalantry; Göran Therborn; Ian Hurd.

United Nations Part One

Hans von Sponeck

In 2000, US Senator Jesse Helms, attending a meeting of the UN Security Council, reminded his audience that the US would support the UN as long as it was in the interest of the United States. The UN was relevant whenever the US and the UN agendas tallied. Long before, meetings preparatory to the creation of the UN during the years 1941 to 1945, especially at Dumbarton Oaks, Bretton Woods and Yalta, had unequivocally confirmed the competitive ambitions of Stalin, Roosevelt/Dulles and Churchill to take control of the evolving post-WWII global order. Who should own the United Nations was the issue. The Mexican delegate to the San Francisco UN conference observed: the 51 founding members ‘had created an institution which could control the mice but the tigers would roam around freely’.

Western economic power, finance and leadership, with a majority of permanent members in the UN Security Council, led to a UN multilateralism controlled by the western world, with decision making essentially dictated by the United States. Subsequent globalisation, de-westernisation and the failures of the West in responding to geo-political challenges in the Middle East, South Asia and elsewhere led to a questioning of unilateral US leadership. The UN became an arena of increasing confrontation. As a tool for western, or more accurately US, interests, the UN began to lose its political relevance.

UN relevance, it must be stressed here, relates not just to its political but also to its operational dimension. National representatives in the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly have a political mandate. The UN operational system of Agencies, Funds and Programmes led by the UN Secretary-General is responsible for multifarious tasks in development, peace-keeping and humanitarian assistance. It is considered an important, albeit chronically under-financed, contributor to the global order. Its relevance is rarely questioned.

In order for the political UN to be the credible institution defined by the UN Charter, reforms have to be introduced with a sense of urgency. The shelves are full with many proposals for change. The 193 UN member states (governments and civil society) at long last have to muster the political will to consider such change. East, West, North and South have to be ready for compromise, convergence and accountability in handling global relations. Once this process has started in earnest, the affirmative answer concerning UN relevance will be easy to give. READ MORE

One Question
Gaza

One Question
Gaza

One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month, we ask:

What is the future of Gaza?

With responses from: Ramzy Baroud; Richard Falk; Sara Roy; Abdalhadi Alijla; Norman Finkelstein; Huwaida Arraf; Toufic Haddad; Atef Alshaer; Helga Tawil-Souri; Hagar Kotef; Joel Beinin; Magid Shihade; Ran Greenstein; Richard Hardigan; Salman Abu Sitta.

The future of Gaza

Ramzy Baroud

The ongoing siege on the Gaza Strip was interrupted by three major Israeli wars: in 2008/9, 2012 and 2014, with a total death toll that exceeded 5,000. Tens of thousands were wounded and maimed, and hundreds more were killed in the in-between, so-called ‘lull’ years. Coupled with a hermetic blockade, Gaza cannot rebuild most of its destroyed infrastructure, leading the United Nations to conclude that the tiny but overcrowded enclave will become ‘uninhabitable’ by 2020. In many ways, however, and tragically so, it already is.

The future of Gaza will follow the same path of horrific wars and a suffocating siege if no new positive factors are injected into this dismal equation. Without a regional and international push to force Israel to loosen its grip, or to find alternative routes to assist the isolated Strip, misery will continue, even beyond 2020. ‘Uninhabitable’ or not, Israel has no plans to allow Gaza’s 2-million inhabitants, mostly refugees from historic Palestine, today’s Israel, to lead normal lives. READ MORE

Richard A. Falk
International Law and Human Rights

Richard A. Falk
International Law and Human Rights

This interview was conducted with Richard Falk by email in 2012 and is included in the book Weapon of the Strong: Conversations on US State Terrorism.

Richard FalkRichard Falk is Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University. He has authored, edited or contributed to 40 books, including: The Great Terror War; The Costs of War: International Law, the UN, and World Order after Iraq; Achieving Human Rights; and International Law and the Third World: Reshaping Justice.

What do you understand by “hegemony”? Should the United States be categorised as a “hegemon” or an “empire”?

Richard Falk: To be a hegemon is inherently ambiguous, usually implying some mixture of dominance and legitimacy, that is, being seen as contributing global leadership in a generally benevolent manner. As such the meaning of hegemony is subject to varying interpretations depending on how the historical role of the United States is interpreted. After World War II, facilitating the establishment of the UN and aiding the reconstruction of Europe, the United States was widely viewed, at least in the West, as a benevolent hegemon. In the non-West, the US was often perceived as a supporter of the colonial powers in their struggle to maintain control over their colonial possessions, and was viewed far more critically, especially by emerging elites that were more inclined to socialist development paradigms than to the capitalist ethos favoured by Washington. More recently the US has more accurately been viewed as a militarist “empire” that fights destructive wars and intervenes in a variety of societies, especially in the Middle East to retain control over oil reserves, and lends crucial support to Israel that not only oppresses the Palestinian people but threatens to convert the entire region into a war zone. At present, the United States, with over 700 foreign military bases, navies in every ocean, a program to militarize space, and drone bases planned for all regions of the world, is increasingly perceived in relation to its hard power diplomacy, a threat to political independence and stability for many countries. It is perhaps best viewed as an “authoritarian democracy” within its own territory and as “a global state” of a new kind when considered internationally. READ MORE