Will Antonio Guterres of Portugal, the new secretary general of the United Nations, succeed in restoring the organisation’s reputation on the international stage?
The UN is the most democratic and universal of all international organisations, but for the last few years it has been in deep crisis and is struggling to assert itself in global affairs, as its impotence in the Syrian crisis has shown.
Unlike his self-effacing predecessor Ban Ki-moon, submissive in face of US interests, Guterres is a more charismatic and eloquent figure. He also has solid experience, having run the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) for ten years, from 2005 to 2015. With more than 65 million refugees in the world, this crucial agency is facing the most serious refugee crisis since the end of the Second World War.
But what can the UN do in today’s world of growing unilateralism among the major powers? Both the United States and Russia look with contempt upon the UN and tend to bypass it, like the US President-elect Donald Trump who in a recent tweet described the institution as “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time”.
The United States, veto champions
As a permanent member of the Security Council with the right to veto, Uncle Sam has always exerted strong pressure on UN decisions: the United States has used its veto in the UN more than 80 times – often to protect its ally Israel – to reject draft resolutions on the Israeli-Palestinian question.
A notable exception to this rule was the American abstention during a vote in the Security Council on 23 December 2016 on a resolution stating that Israel’s colonisation of the occupied Palestinian territories “constitutes a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-state solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace.”
The United States has always been very reticent to sign up to conventions and other recommendations issued by the United Nations: it did not, for example, ratify the 1989 International Convention on the Rights of the Child, because it prohibits the imprisonment of children, which is authorised in the United States.
Nor did it sign the 2005 UNESCO Convention on cultural diversity, because it sees culture as a commercial commodity above all, while UNESCO’s view is that culture is a global public good, to which everyone has the right, and which cannot be reduced to something governed solely by the laws of money. And in 2003 the US had no hesitation in invading Iraq without the backing of the UN.
Furthermore, as Swiss sociologist Jean Ziegler observed, the United States, which alone finances about 22 per cent of the United Nations budget, controls recruitment to all the UN’s high level posts by means of its intelligence agency, the CIA. This has led to “the complete colonisation of the UN bureaucracy by the United States” says Jean Zielger in his latest book Chemins d’espérance (Paths of Hope).
An uncertain future
With the election of Donald Trump, we know that the incoming US administration will be hostile to the UN. Donald Trump’s recent comments do not bode well for relations with the UN. And what will happen if the new US president decides to withdraw the United States from various UN treaties and conventions and to stop paying America’s financial contribution to the organisation? It could have a domino effect, with other states following suit, which would pitch the UN into a financial crisis and a crisis of legitimacy, making it even more powerless to act.
It is true that Donald Trump recently back-tracked on some of his pronouncements during his campaign. In a recent interview with the New York Times, he said he was going to “take a look” at the Paris Agreement to combat climate changed signed in 2016 at the COP 21, whereas during his campaign he said he wanted to annul the agreement, pure and simple.
If the UN is to overcome the crisis and the uncertain situation it finds itself in, the organisation will have to reform, and its member states will have to give it more power.
Guterres will have to take on this task and make the organisation more effective and more democratic:
Effective because it must be given more power to apply its decisions, resolutions and conventions in practice, as these excellent texts often remain just words on paper.
Democratic, because recruitment must be made more transparent, and there must be an end to the injustice of the veto, which is the privilege of the five permanent members of the Security Council (France, United States, United Kingdom, China, Russia). Putin’s Russia has used its veto six times against proposals to stop air strikes in Syria.
It was to resolve this problem that Kofi Annan proposed in 2006, with the support of France, that the right of veto be suspended when the UN dealt with cases of mass atrocities. The idea was not accepted at the time, but it is making progress.
The UN has a major role to play in the 21st century because with globalisation many issues have become transnational: conflict, because today the Syrian conflict has repercussions on other countries; finance, which needs regulation; tax evasion, which has to be banned; the environment, etc.
Far from losing confidence in the UN, it must be supported and helped to improve, because it is the most representative international organisation: with its general assembly, where nearly every state in the world is represented (193 member states), it is the most universal agency, far more so that the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) which only has 35 countries, among the most rich in the world, or the G7, G8 and G20 which are just the rich people’s clubs.
The UN, with its ’one state, one vote’ is also more democratic than organisations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which have a weighted voting system, i.e. the richest countries have more say.
When it comes to peace keeping, in particular, the UN is more legitimate and universal than the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), dominated by the United States, which has a tendency, more than ever, to present itself as the agency most capable of settling conflicts around the world. In fact, since the 1990s, Nato has tended to cut out the UN: it was Nato that contributed to settling the civil war in the former Yugoslavia.
The UN has to reassert itself vis-à-vis Nato and other major powers that decide to act alone, intervening unilaterally in major world conflicts, as the United States did in 2003 in Iraq, and as Putin’s Russia tends to do today.
The creation of the UN in 1945 was a victory for the spirit of pacifism, an affirmation of multilateralism, a beautiful progressive idea. This idea must be maintained in face of the pipe dream of unilateralism.
Guterres faces the uphill task of overcoming these difficulties and of bringing the UN closer to world public opinion, so that this institution can be truly effective in playing its role in ensuring peace, social progress and democracy in the world.