With every event that takes place on the world stage it is highly probable that someone will take it as an opportunity to attack the integrity of the United Nations. There is hypocrisy at the UN, they say, and the events unfolding in Libya are the proof.
Take this article by Rex Murphy in The National Post for instance. Murphy’s point of departure, valid as it may be, is the seat held by Libya at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). What right, after all, does a state such as Libya have to a seat on such a council?
The council is largely composed of countries with poor human rights records. The failures of the council are well-recognized by most; attacking Western democracies, overzealous attention to all things Israel, and an incomprehensible blindness to some of the most grievous atrocities on the globe.
With all these facts being as they may, it is still frustrating to read the leaps in judgement that regard the flaws of a single part, the UNHRC, as encompassing the entire UN. Murphy writes:
The UNHRC is a perfect emblem and symbol of the entire organization to which it belongs. The UN does not help the world any longer. As the Libya case manifests, it is an impediment.
This might just be a predictable defence by one liberal-minded commentator, but to attach the hypocricy in the UNHRC to the entire UN does a large number of determined and hard-working individuals a great disservice. These people who work in the many other institutions which make up the UN devote their lives to improving the lot of others.
The UN Economic and Social Council is a particular institution which embodies the work of the UN, and as the institution which enjoys the lion’s share of UN funds it should be understood as the benchmark for what the UN accomplishes. Its mandate involves:
Promoting higher standards of living, full employment, and economic and social progress; identifying solutions to international economic, social and health problems; facilitating international cultural and educational cooperation; and encouraging universal respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.
The parts of the UN which are governed by the sovereign states which make up their membership (such as the UNHRC, or most importantly, the Security Council) are limited in their capacity, willingness to act, and moral judgement by the states which fill their seats. This certainly causes problems, as is illustrated by the resolution at the UNHRC on Friday. Although it still remains to be seen whether Libya will be suspended from the council.
What I take issue with is not the feeling of disappointment with many aspects of the UN prevelant in commentators such as Murphy – because I often share those disappointments – but the unreflective attitude which supposes that we in the West are so civilized that we cannot fraternize with the likes of the UN because the world body has been taken over by, well, the world:
One reason why tyrants have so long a lease in our brave new world is that temporizing, accommodating, trimming organizations like the UN give them, over the years, the bureaucratic sheen that allows them to present themselves as somewhat normal. These moral hell-holes are seen or read to be in public concert with the “better nations” of the world, that overtime it erases in the eyes of the world the great gulf that should separate evil or cruel states from the better, civilized ones.
Oh Rex, how thoughtful of you! But I considered these two sentences very closely and came to the conclusion that yes, indeed you are right, the fact that we engage with other states in an international forum to discuss world issues can actually provide these despotic regimes with a sense of normalcy. But, then again, so do the vast amounts of goods and resources which we happily exchange with such “moral hell-holes” provide them with a semblance of being part of the “better nations” club. So do the large amounts of technological weaponry – which our more “advanced” civilization more than eagerly provides to the “barbaric” leaders of the world to use in suppressing their own people – provide these oppressive regimes with a show of modernity and legitimacy.
It is always amazing to see the ease with which one cleans the stain of complicity from one’s opinions and beliefs. A moral highground which looks so far away from its own position and the actions of its own government and business interests does a great amount of damage to the habbit of critical thinking the world over.
Hypocricy is a dirty smear that can be easily thrown around, and the moral bankruptcy involved in acting without principle but instead with pragmatic attention to percieved national interest is, not surprisingly, rampant throughout the world. States will always tend to act in the way that (supposedly) satisfies their national interest. That is why the United States vetoes Security Council resolutions which go against continued Israeli settlment construction, as it did recently, even though it is morally wrong do to so. (See The Economist) And, unfortunately, that is also why states that are ideologically or politically opposed to Western ideas of human rights vote Libya onto the UNHRC.
There are hypocritical problems with the UN system by allowing states with such excellent human rights records as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan, or China to sit on the UNHRC. But there are also hypocritical problems with Western governments doing trade with and therefore filling the coffers of all those governments. With this in mind the dividing line between “better nations” and “moral hell-holes” becomes very mirky indeed.
To suppose that the UNHRC is the benchmark for judging whether the entire UN does or does not help the world any longer is a quite shallow analysis, and an affront to the work done by the thousands employed throughout the international body to improve the lives of others. It is also an affront to human judgement to suppose that Colonel Gaddafi and other tyrants “have so long a lease in our brave new world” simply because some of them sit on a defunct human rights council or have the privilege to rub shoulders with the “better nations” club in the General Assembly. Some might say the issue is more complex than that.