Published online February 16, 2012.
The actions (or inactions) of the United Nations elicit varied reactions. Supporters hold the institution in high esteem, and believe it has the power to promote peace, human rights, justice, and social progress, as the preamble of its charter suggests. Even the most ardent enthusiast will admit that the UN is not a perfect institution, but argue instead that it is as close to a functioning world government as we can hope for in this period of our history.
To others, the UN is a bumbling, impotent and ineffectual player in the realm of international relations. It is an expensive bureaucracy that both overreaches and underperforms. Critics cite inaction during crimes against humanity on the one hand, and intrusion of state sovereignty on the other. They argue that decisions are dictated not by the community of nations but the community of a few superpowers.
On either side of this chasm, and everywhere in between, are people who do not understand how the organization works. What most people see, if they see anything at all of the UN, are its loud condemnations, the roaring silence of its passivity, or its troops scattered across the world’s “troubled” spots.
The future of the organization depends not only on its performance, but also on global public opinion. The recent failure of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to back the Arab League-sponsored resolution on Syria brings to light afresh the challenges the organization faces. The halting process of decision-making at a time when hundreds of Syrian civilians are being slaughtered by the Assad regime is reminiscent of past faltering by the Council. Inability to gather consensus on resolution wording, much less action, has hampered the UNSC on many occasions.
UN intervention during the Rwandan genocide is only the most vivid example of a lumbering bureaucracy with at least as many interests as members stumbling at the feet of those who clamor for its attention, resources, and even salvation. An excruciating recollection of the events of the UN’s behavior in 1994 calls our attention to the power of a few words. What is said and not said, done or not done, leaves a mark on history, on leaders, and on ordinary citizens that cannot be removed.
It is not at all surprising, therefore, that according to the World Values Survey, only 8% of Rwandan respondents thought that policies regarding international peacekeeping should be handled by the United Nations. The remaining 92% thought peacekeeping should be handled by national governments or regional organizations. This response varied drastically from almost all other countries surveyed. On average, nearly 50% of people in nearly 50 countries around the world thought the UN, and not regional organizations or national governments, is best placed to handle international peacekeeping. Rwanda’s experience with peacekeeping operations has clearly damaged trust in the UN in this arena.
On the other hand, a greater percentage of respondents in Rwanda than in any other country think the UN is best placed to handle refugees. Only 10% of Rwandans thought national governments should handle policies related to refugees, while the vast majority, 73%, thought the UN should handle refugees. Meanwhile, 32% of respondents from all other countries thought national governments should handle refugees while only 48% thought the UN was best. A more thorough investigation could uncover the extent to which first-hand experience with the UN intervention, in all of it various forms, shapes public opinion regarding what the organization can and should do.
In the meantime, the most recent failure of the UNSC to come down firmly on its position towards a regime that is clearly brutalizing its population raises questions about the limits of an international institution whose explicit and primary goal is world peace. It is precisely the collapse of these talks that chips away at people’s faith that the UN, or any organization for that matter, can promote peace in any way beyond that which is lip service.
Students in a class I am helping teach this term learned this lesson the “hard” way in a UNSC simulation last weekend. For two days the fifteen delegations, made up of at least some students who are destined to be diplomats and policymakers themselves one day, met to draft and pass a resolution on the international community’s response to Iran’s nuclear program. They took turns making statements to the council, drafting the resolution, and debating each word and paragraph. It soon became apparent that delegations were not all equal. The permanent five (P5) had the unique power to make or break a deal. After nearly twenty hours of debate, the council came to the final vote.
In a bizarrely parallel universe to the actual meeting and vote of the UNSC taking place the same day, the students’ resolution was vetoed by China, a member of the P5. A collective “boo!!” filled the room. But it was over. After days of work, side deals, compromises, and urgent pleas, the resolution had failed. Meanwhile, in New York, the real Chinese and Russian delegations killed the Syrian resolution. The palpable disappointment of the students was only a whisper of the hundreds of disappointments, much larger and all too real, of both UN action and inaction.
Those who have been burned before, in ways small or large, have no choice but to alter their behavior domestically and make do with the politics in New York. The UN has proven time and again that it is not an organization that leaders or publics can rely on when times get tough. Whether or not a resolution can be reached depends not only, not primarily, on the gravity of the situation at hand, on the peril at which lives are placed, or on the number of lives in danger. Instead, alliances, precedents, and power creep into the corners of debates between great and small countries, and the diplomats that represent them.