As global tensions rise, the UN stands on the sidelines

It’s tempting to lay the blame for unresolved conflicts at the UN’s door but the reality is that the UN can only deliver when it has the support of member states and the buy-in of citizens.

April 28, 2018 22:29
4 minute read.
syrian refugees

Syrian refugee children pose as they play near their families' residence at Al Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, January 30, 2016.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The United Nations Charter, adopted just after the end of the Second World War in October 1945, includes several guiding principles for peace and harmony. Notable among these are the resolve to save future generations from the scourge of war, and a reaffirmation of faith in fundamental human rights.

Despite these noble aspirations, the specter of civilians – including children – being gassed to death in Douma, Syria stares us in the face. Half a million may already have perished in Syria. A further 22 million are at risk of starvation, disease and bombardment in Yemen, making it currently the world’s biggest humanitarian disaster. Today, respect for the guiding principles of the UN Charter appears lacking, and the spirit of multilateralism frayed.

The 2018 State of Civil Society Report finds that a number of factors have coalesced to precipitate a present crisis of multilateralism. Principal among these is a toxic cocktail of resurgent nationalism and old-school authoritarianism in which political leaders are asserting false notions of national sovereignty. Their efforts are focused not so much on safeguarding people’s sovereignty to determine their future as on protecting presidential and elite privileges, including from international scrutiny.

Take, for example, the case of the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte has urged a mass withdrawal from the treaty that established the International Criminal Court. Not surprisingly, this has followed the opening of a preliminary inquiry by the court into the deaths of thousands of Filipinos in President Duterte’s ongoing “war on drugs” that could lead to charges being brought against him and his inner circle.

Meanwhile the UN’s mandate and moral authority to stop war is being circumvented by the built-in veto powers and procedural loopholes of its most authoritative governing body, the Security Council. It’s hard for peace to prevail when five global powers can arbitrarily sway decisions on international peace and security in their narrow interests. International cooperation in the face of global crises is being seriously eroded, and there’s little progress on the common civil society suggestion that the five permanent members of the Security Council voluntarily abdicate their powers.

Every time an international agreement is disregarded, the spirit of multilateralism that underpins the UN Charter is eroded. The decision by the current US administration to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem ignores a sheaf of UN resolutions on the status of the disputed territory and provides a precedent for other member states to bypass UN systems and reject international standards. Nowhere is this more evident than in Syria. Sadly, it’s now easier for Russian representatives to brush off US calls for Security Council action against the murderous Assad regime as hypocritical.

The unkindest cut to UN authority might be coming in the form of broken financial commitments and a reduction in funding by member states. The UN’s approved operating budget for 2018 and 2019 has gone down by five percent. Essentially, this means that at a time of rising global population and corresponding needs, the UN will have fewer people working for it, affecting its ability to respond to international crises and monitor state compliance with universal rights obligations. The International Service for Human Rights estimates that roughly 50% less funding than needed has been made available for key UN posts that support human rights activities.

Paradoxically, the challenge of reduced funding for the UN comes at a time when efforts toward implementing a universal sustainable development framework are being ramped up across the globe. With their emphasis on holistic development that has human rights at its core, the Sustainable Development Goals signed in 2015 by world leaders commit states and the UN to promoting peaceful and inclusive societies. But unsurprisingly, the UN secretary-general’s progress report from last year affirms that violent conflicts have increased in recent years, causing a high number of civilian casualties.

It’s tempting to lay the blame for unresolved conflicts at the UN’s door but the reality is that the UN can only deliver when it has the support of member states and the buy-in of citizens.

This means that the onus is on every one of us to make multilateralism work. When the US government pulled out of the Paris Agreement, local politicians, businesses and civil society in the US came together to show that many of the country’s citizens still recognized the threat of climate change and were committed to act on it. Their efforts to continue honoring the agreement’s provisions when their president rubbished it reflect an acknowledgment of a well-known fact: an international rules-based system benefits us all, and can be underpinned by our activism.

The agreement of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is another example of civil society action leading to landmark success. The work of the International Campaign to Ban Nuclear Weapons resulted in serious steps being taken toward the aspiration of nuclear-weapon-free world, recognized in the award of the 2017 Nobel Peace prize. It shows that when international institutions connect with citizen action, much can be achieved.

The UN Charter begins with the words “we the peoples.” We can make the difference, and it’s up to us to mount a defense of multilateralism that forces our leaders to accept that in today’s interconnected world, the problems facing our societies cannot be resolved through a narrow nationalist lens. Climate change, violent conflict and the emergencies that force people to become refugees do not fit neatly within national borders – they require cooperation and common solutions from us all – governments, international institutions and people.

The author is a lawyer specializing in international human rights and is the chief programs officer at the global civil society alliance CIVICUS. His work focuses on civil society inclusion in UN policy- making on human rights, global security and development.

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