Time for change in the United Nations

Country representatives at the U.N. General Assembly to vote on U.S. President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, New York City, Dec. 21.
Country representatives at the U.N. General Assembly to vote on U.S. President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, New York City, Dec. 21.

Last week, there was a historic vote on a resolution in the U.N. Historic because it clearly demonstrated how the world viewed the United States unilateral foreign policy. Historic because it created an unprecedented aggressive reaction from the United States. Historic because this resolution revealed the slow but sure unravelling of a world order dictated by the United States

The world is bigger than five. This sentiment is one that is oft-repeated by the president of Turkey. It is not mere rhetoric. It is a reflection of reality – a reality that is not reflected in most of the supranational institutions that attempt to control the world agenda.

Have the fatal flaws in the United Nations finally become too much for it to continue? Will it, like its predecessor, the League of Nations, be doomed to failure?

Unlike the League of Nations, the United Nations is more inclusive. The general consensus is that the League of Nations failed because it was limited to a few members, and because the United States did not join. The United Nations is different. There are 193 are member states, a couple of observer states and roughly a dozen non-member states.

But when President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan says: "The world is bigger than five," he is referring not to the U.N. General Assembly, but to the U.N. Security Council (UNSC). There are only five permanent members on the UNSC. It is no coincidence that all are legally recognized as nuclear weapon states. These countries are the U.S., U.K., France, Russia and China. These countries were not on the losing side of World War II. Japan, Italy and Germany are not included, as they lost World War II. So, the UNSC is a club restricted to those countries that won a war more than 70 years ago.

That is, while the United Nations as a general body to debate and discuss issues, to fight poverty and promote human rights, the actual ruling body, the body that has the final say is limited to five members. The structure of the UNSC reflects the geopolitical balances of 1945. Europe today is home to just over 5 percent of the global population. Yet European countries make up 33 percent of the UNSC.

In 1945, the UNSC had 11 members and there were 51 countries included in the United Nations. Today there are five permanent members and a total of 15 members. This means that a smaller percentage of member countries are reflected in the ultimate decision-making body. The fact that the world is bigger than five is not reflected in what is considered to the most important supranational representative body.

Any decision made by the U.N. General Assembly can easily be vetoed by any permanent member in the UNSC. In situations where a global power, like the U.S., is involved in a conflict, for example, in Iraq in 2003, the U.N. is powerless to stop. President George W. claimed that UNSC Resolution 1441 gave him the authority to invade Iraq, despite protests from other member countries.

It is not just the Turkish leader who is protesting that the United Nations does not represent the reality of the world today. While the U.K. and France are members of the Security Council, countries with larger economies, like Brazil and Japan, are not included. The "Group of Four" has been leading the efforts to make a reform to the Security Council for years now….to no avail. In order to make such changes, the U.N. Charter needs to be amended. In order to be amended, two-thirds of the U.N. member states need to support this change. This is not that difficult. But the second of the criteria to any amendment is a bit more problematical. All members of the Permanent Five need to approve. And, naturally, they are not likely to voluntarily dilute their powerful positions.

The United Nations has an important role to play in the world; according to the brief as laid out in Article 1 of the U.N. Founding Charter aims to maintain international peace and security, as well as to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of aggression or other breaches of the peace. It also aims to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination, and promotes respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. All noble causes.

The question is does the United Nations achieve its aims?

The U.N. does help with refugees. It does help children in need. It does help combat world health problems. But it seems to fail at preventing wars that lead to refugee crises. Eight-hundred-thousand people lost their lives in Rwanda in 1994. They U.N. was warned by a Canadian general who was part of a U.N. peacekeeping force. The U.N. failed to act. In Srebrenica, the U.N. failed and 8,000 men and boys lost their lives. Similar situations have occurred in Darfur, Cambodia, Iran, Sri Lanka, Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria and, more recently, in Myanmar.

And then there was the phenomenal drama of America's response to a resolution last week. The assembly resolution in question was drafted by Yemen and Turkey. Citing a number of former resolutions concerning Jerusalem, the resolution urged nations to "refrain from the establishment of diplomatic missions." There is a consensus in international law that East Jerusalem, occupied by Israel since 1967, will be the future capital of a Palestinian state. All attempts at brokering a two-state agreement have included the establishment of East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital.

The resolution demanding that other countries not establish their representation to Israel in Jerusalem was met by anger from both U.S. President Donald Trump and the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley. The extreme reaction created a sense that the United Nations was being manipulated. The United States outright demanded that the resolution fail. Thankfully, it did not.Like an irate middle-school teacher, Haley put herself in the ridiculous position of wagging her finger at the assembly. She would "take names" to pass on to the principal – sorry – to Trump. She said: "The United States will remember this day in which it was singled out for attack in the assembly for the very act of exercising our right as a sovereign nation." Trump went further, saying: "For all these nations, they take our money and then vote against us. They take hundreds of millions of dollars, even billions of dollars and then they vote against us. Well, we're watching those votes. Let them vote against us. We'll save a lot. We don't care." Haley backed up her fearless leader, saying: "We will remember it when we are once again called upon to make the world's largest contribution to the United Nations, and we will remember it when so many countries come calling on us, as they so often do, to pay even more and to use our influence for their benefit."

Not only was the world outraged; many Americans were too. John Brennan, the former director of the CIA tweeted: "Trump Admin threat to retaliate against nations that exercise sovereign right in UN to oppose US position on Jerusalem is beyond outrageous. Shows @realDonaldTrump expects blind loyalty and subservience from everyone—qualities usually found in narcissistic, vengeful autocrats."

The United States provides one-fifth of the U.N. budget, so Haley's wagging finger actually carried a huge threat. The resolution that was passed by the majority of the U.N. is not binding, but is rather symbolic. Such an overreaction seems to have made a mountain out of a molehill, to have created a storm in a teacup.

The problem with Trump's hard stance, of his making this an issue on which he will not give ground, is that he has put himself in an untenable position. Either he follows through on his word – this means refusing to give funds to the 128 countries who voted for the resolution, and refusing to fund the U.N. Such a stance will not only alienate his closest allies in Europe, it will also mean probable instability in Egypt. And instability in Egypt directly and negatively affects Israel. If Trump backs up his hot words with action, then not only will he be shooting himself in the foot, he will be cutting off his nose to spite his face. He will create instability in countries where stability has been forced down the people's throat. Such actions will only further isolate the U.S., alienating its European and Middle Eastern allies.

Despite Trump's blustering and threats, 128 countries voted for the resolution, and only nine voted against it. Those who voted against the resolution and with the U.S. are countries that are absolutely dependent on American aid – Guatemala, Honduras, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Togo. Oh, yes, and Israel.

Haley claimed that the vote was actually a victory, as many states had abstained or failed to turn up. Thirty-five countries abstained. Yet many of these abstaining states still criticized Trump's unilateral decision from the podium in the assembly. Twenty-one countries were absent, perhaps fearing the repercussions of Haley's wagging finger.

The U.N. envoy for Palestine, Riyad Mansour, summed up the situation best. "They made it about them. They did not make it about Jerusalem … to only be able to get nine votes to say no … was a complete failure."

And by Thursday last week, the government had already started to backpedal. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert the said "the U.N. vote is really not the only factor that the administration would take into consideration in dealing with our foreign relations and countries who have chosen to go one way or the other."So, despite a great deal of blustering and bravado, Trump and his administration seem to have made empty threats, which have achieved nothing – nothing except irritating allies and others.

What happened in the U.N. last week may seem like something from the theater of the absurd played out on a grand scale. But what happened could well have deep repercussions, and it could mark the beginning of the end of the United Nations as we know it. If the United Nations is to be a body that stands for what is right in the world, if the United Nations is to be independent from pressure, then the UNSC has to be greater than five. The UNSC, or any governing council of the United Nations, must reflect the world as it is today, not as it was 70 years ago. It is time to reappraise what the United Nations is, what its role is, what it achieves and, more importantly, what c it an achieve if the necessary changes are made.

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter