Check Against Delivery

Randolf Harrold has asked me to discuss three points tonight with respect to the ongoing Syrian crisis:

  • Is the UN Failing?
  • Is the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine Hollow?
  • What should Canada do about it?

I will try to respond to all three questions as briefly as I can.

It is true that hardly a day goes by that you don’t hear someone decrying the failure of the United Nations.

From members of parliament, for example, Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound MP Larry Miller—who wanted to “review” Canadian membership, to cabinet ministers, political staff and officials, neither the Canadian government nor its allies in the press have been shy with their criticisms.

There is much disappointment with the UN in the air, some of it fabricated, some of it misplaced and some of it legitimate.

The frequency of Ottawa’s condemnations accelerated dramatically after Canada lost the 2010 Security Council election, which suggests sour grapes as a motivation, as well as dissatisfaction.

But others are complaining, too.

Amnesty International, as the advertisement of this event mentions, has said that Kofi Annan’s resignation as Joint Special Envoy on Syria was as a result of UN Security Council failure, which showed that the UN is “tired, out of step and increasingly unfit for purpose."

Not a judgment shared by Kofi Annan, among others, according to an interview he gave to The Globe and Mail that appeared today.

The Syrian National Council, for its part, has been withering in its criticism of the UN and its efforts to broker a transition to a new system of government there.

So why isn’t the UN doing something effective about Syria?

Is the UN Failing ?

The short answer is, no. The longer answer is, no, but it is failing the citizens of Syria.

There is an understandable but nevertheless unhelpful tendency to judge the utility of the UN by however it handles the latest crisis.

It is in our interests to recognize that there is more to the UN  than that.

I think it is worth taking a few minutes to refresh all of our memories  of what has been accomplished under the UN banner, of what needs to be valued and what is worth preserving.

Otherwise, as Joni Mitchell once sang in another context, we won’t know what we’ve got till its gone.

What we’ve got is a lot, and it shouldn’t be casually deprecated.

 By and large, the UN has succeeded in meeting all the goals set for it in San Francisco:

  • to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war;
  • to protect human rights;
  • to foster universal justice; and
  • to promote social progress and better standards of living.

Driven by the memory of the 60 million dead in the second world war, nation states have progressively brought the practice of war under the disciplines of international humanitarian law, which seeks to limit the effects of armed conflict and restricts the means and methods of warfare.

Aggression has been stigmatized, and there has not been a war between major powers since Korea.

According to the Human Security Report of 2010, over the preceding 30 years, the number of armed conflicts around the world had dropped by 80%.

Battle deaths had also decreased dramatically, as had overall lethality.

As for human rights, a whole corpus of conventions has been concluded, from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic and Social Rights, the Convention against Genocide, the Convention against Torture, the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, and the Convention on Children’s Rights, to name some of the most significant.

These conventions are respected unevenly around the world but over time are being progressively assimilated into state practice.

To “foster universal justice”, the international community has created an extensive criminal justice system, which has seen some of the worst human rights abusers face justice in the Hague and elsewhere.

And last but not least, as regards economic and social progress, for hundreds of millions of people, including in Africa, poverty is down, education is up, and health is improved, although the plight of the bottom billion remains to be effectively addressed.  

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Food Program (WFP), the World Health Organization (WHO) have all done major service to the world’s poorest and dispossessed.

By 2015, 90 percent of the world’s children will be immunized against the six major vaccine-preventable diseases— pertussis, childhood tuberculosis, tetanus, polio, measles and diphtheria.

The UN or its constituent bodies have concluded 45 treaties on the environment from the Kyoto Protocol on climate change to the Montreal Protocol on ozone depletion to treaties on migratory species and endangered species and beyond. The UN has passed 13 counter-terrorism treaties. All told, over 500 multilateral treaties have been concluded under UN auspices.

The member countries of the UN have, thus, spawned an extensive body of international law, treaties, norms, practices and institutions that govern most facets of interstate relations.

With these “apps”, the UN Charter has become the world’s central operating system, the motherboard of global governance, making it possible for ideas such as the Millennium Development Goals to become policy drivers, and for other organizations, notably NATO and the G-8 and the G-20, as well as  civil society, to function more effectively.

All of this brings greater order, predictability and progress to global affairs, and greater modernity, security and dignity to peoples’ lives.

To quote Kofi Annan again from today’s Globe, "the UN is not a perfect organization, but we need it."

It is the organization that has the power to convene the whole world under one roof, to come and discuss common issues. It is the one organization that tries to sustain the norms that allow us to live in a peaceful way. Recently, we came up with a responsibility to protect. It is only the UN that could have come up with that sort of a norm. Who else?

So, to put it bluntly, it would be short-sighted and worse to just write off what our parents and grandparents have achieved, as if this generation had the wit and will to start from scratch and do better.

But if the UN is not failing across the board, it is not succeeding across the board either. Understanding why it succeeds and fails starts with the conception people have of the UN. There is an assumption that it is almost a world government. And expectations of it are very high.

People in this room understand that the UN is far from being  world government. One of the hardest ideas to get across is that the UN is, to paraphrase the old Pogo cartoon character, us, all of us.

The UN belongs to progressives and regressives, democrats and authoritarians, because that is the world we live in.

When we all agree, there is little we cannot do under the UN banner. When we disagree, there is little we can do.

In any case, the UN is not some independent entity, run by a CEO , with a mandate and a capacity to act in the common interest as it sees fit. Nor is the UN a recalcitrant and indolent secretariat isolated from the world in its iconic tower on First Avenue in New York.

The UN is the member countries, and is dependent on their common purpose and will, when those can be mustered, to act.

It is like a parliament without a prime minister, presided over by the speaker. If anyone is failing, it is the five permanent members of the Security Council, who are so devoted to preserving their own veto powers that they are prepared to respect the vetoes of their peers, no  matter how tragic the consequences.

The P5 are failing to find sufficient common ground to resolve the issues of the 21st Century. To be fair, doing so is more difficult than it looks.

The disagreements are over big issues, some of them new, some not, but all undermining the peace in the 21st Century.

Transnational organized crime is threatening the security of people everywhere, but especially in Central America, the Caribbean and Mexico.

Africa, increasingly used as a transit way by South American gangs selling drugs to Europe, risks becoming a narco-continent.

Iran continues to test the limits of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

An effective response to climate change remains elusive. And the next pandemic never seems more than a plane-ride away.

Meanwhile Afghanistan struggles, Pakistan seethes tensions rise in the South China Sea, and North Korea remains unstable.

In sum, the problem the UN has is that not only are some of its members intransigent, many of the issues it confronts are intractable.

Members have incompatible visions of the future and disagree on the appropriate role of the organization and the grounds for collective action. Perhaps most fundamental is the issue of philosophy.

Does the state exist to serve and protect the people, or is it the job of people to serve and protect the state?

If you believe that the state exists to serve and protect the people, your sympathy must be with people trying to overthrow a despotic government.

If , like the Russians and Chinese apparently do, you believe that the people serve the state, you endow any government with legitimacy, including those built on secret police, torture, militias and coercion.

Whoever gets to the top in a state, however he gets there, or stays there, that person is the legitimate leader and should not be interfered with by outsiders.

The UN Charter, with its proscription of interference in the internal affairs of states, tends to accept the latter philosophy. It is not the case that, as the notice for this event says, that Russia and China “have interests that diverge from UN principles.”

The positions that China and Russia are taking on Syria are legally, perhaps more accurately, legalistically, in line with Article  2 of the Charter. A Middle East variant of the philosophical question is whether democracy is compatible with the Muslim conception of theocracy.

In the Muslim world, is the state the theocratic instrument of God, which the people can question only at the pain of heresy?

International practice in recent years, which has seen outside intervention in several states and the bringing of justice to major human rights abusers, has tended to accept that the state exists to serve and protect the people.

Hence the adoption of the Responsibility to Protect, which may be why the Russians and Chinese appear to have decided to make a stand on Syria.

But the philosophic question of who serves whom, the state or the people, is a major one.

And it is at the heart of divisions over Syria and the Responsibility to Protect. That, and some residual buyer’s remorse on the part of the Non-Aligned Movement.

  • With a distinguished career in Canadian diplomacy — including posts as ambassador to Germany, permanent representative to the United Nations (UN) and adviser to various prime ministers, Paul Heinbecker is one of Canada’s most experienced commentators on foreign policy and international governance. Paul is also the director of the Centre for Global Relations at Wilfrid Laurier University.