The Chilcott inquiry into the circumstances of the Iraq War has brought me back to thinking about a subject that I spent some time working on and involved with when I was a lot younger: the United Nations.
When I was 15 I took part in a model UN event at the United Nations HQ in Geneva. It was quite interesting representing Chile at the height of the Pinochet affair! I also chose the effectiveness of the UN as a personal study subject at college. So, hopefully, I have some kind of understanding of the organisation.
The founding principle of the UN is the prevention of armed conflict through collectiveness and discussion. Formed out of the alliances that defeated Germany, Italy and Japan in 1945, in the past 65 years of its existence it has had very mixed results. Whilst a wealth of humanitarian, economic and social activities take place under the UN banner, the UN has become increasingly toothless in the face of serious global problems. Particularly dangerous regimes, such as Iraq and Iran.
That the biggest and most powerful country in the world is willing to not only ignore the UN, but bypass it entirely, undermines the whole process and sets the world on a very dangerous path. Unilateral action creates as many problems as it solves. Any action that takes place in the name of ‘the international community’ will not alienate or radicalise nearly as much as any US Coalition.
But it is a double edged sword. Too many times the UN has been weak on big international crises. In the worlds of Team American, ‘we will write you a letter telling you how angry we are’ is not good enough when dealing with people like Saddam Hussein.
Both ignorance of the UN and its inability and refusal to act decisively has undermined its standing in the world. The two factors are clearly interlinked – all the time the UN is weak on crises, ignoring it will always seem an option. But by marginalising the UN, states make it irrelevant anyway. To change this will probably take a big cultural shift in policy making, particularly in the US.
But also, the Security Council system is increasingly coming under scrutiny. The power of any of the 5 permanent members to veto any resolution has largely hamstrung its ability to act. There are also calls to reform the membership of the Security Council – should Britain and France, for example, have a seat, in view of their declining influence? Why are prominent countries such as Germany, Japan, Brazil and India not permanent members? Personally I am undecided on this issue – but I am positive that size, wealth and strength should not necessarily eclipse responsibility and diplomacy as a factor for world influence.
Clearly the UN has been much more succesful than its predecessor the League of Nations, and it has encouraged a degree of international dialogue unheralded in world history. But it could do much more.