UN reform needed to meet global challenges

UN reform needed to meet global challenges

Unidentified men carry knives and slingshots as they walk past a burning house in Gawdu Tharya village near Maungdaw in Rakhine state, northern Myanmar. (AFP)

Genocides do not start with mass murder. They always start with words. They always start by ensuring a given group is seen to be “different” and to have fewer rights than the bulk of the population. According to the UN, genocide has a precise definition: “Intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” In this definition, “intent” is important and the destruction can be via mass murder or preventing births; it does not include cultural destruction or simply dispersing a given group from where they currently live.

In some ways, this is unsatisfactory. Crimes by a state against its entire population are excluded (so the Khmer Rouge did not engage in genocide, as they targeted all Cambodians), political groups are not protected and, due to the exclusion of cultural destruction, China’s actions against the Uighurs are not genocide (even if they do seem to be aiming to destroy the Uighurs as a cultural and religious group). Equally, Myanmar expelling about 1 million of the 1.4 million Rohingya in the country since 2017 does not count as genocide (this is seen to be forcible removal). This is not to say that such actions do not constitute crimes against humanity or fall under other UN-sponsored definitions, but they are not genocide.

With its limited definition, the UN has been exposed again recently, as the organization has failed to take any effective measures in response to the crises in Syria and Myanmar. In both cases, a permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC) has used its veto to ensure that the entire international system is held hostage: Russia has vetoed any initiative concerning Syria, while China has consistently opposed measures against the authorities in Myanmar. 

The fundamental problem is that, in the current geopolitical climate, where talk of a new “Cold War” is increasingly justified, just about any global crisis is taking on a geopolitical dimension, where at least some permanent members of the UNSC take every opportunity to play out their respective global rivalries.

America’s veto means nothing will ever be done about Israel and the Occupied Territories, Russia’s veto means that Vladimir Putin can throw his weight around as much as he wants in the former Soviet sphere of influence, while China’s veto means the commercial interests of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative will always take precedence over any humanitarian concerns all across Asia. 

At the very least, the system needs to be reformed so that measures on mass atrocities or genocide, like those concerning the Rohingya of Myanmar or the ongoing civil war in Syria, would require two permanent members to jointly issue a veto — though it is likely that even such modest reform would be opposed by all the major players. 

As things stand, however, there is simply no way of getting around the fact that the UN has long since stopped being representative of the world we live in and its geopolitical realities. The entire continents of Africa and South America are not represented. The UK, France and Russia have their seats and their vetoes, but India, Brazil and Germany do not. There is no logic other than the historical for the current setup of the UN — but the world has moved on.

The consequence of this is that the UN is simply incapable of representing the international communityas a collection of states with a joint stake in the governance of the world, and in global peace and security. This institutional lack is a contributing factor to the growing instability we see everywhere around the globe, and our collective failure to tackle existential crises such as climate change, global migrations and the proliferation of failed or failing states.

If international collective action is to become possible again so that we may try to address these ever more acute challenges, a new institutional order will be required. But that new institutional order will not happen, nor would it be be effective if it did, so long as the powers that be insist on permanent memberships and vetoes. 

The UN has long since stopped being representative of the world we live in and its geopolitical realities.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Everything we need to do to meet the global challenges of this century will require a great deal of consensus, but nothing will get done if every last decision requires absolute consensus among global and regional powers with entrenched rivalries and historical axes to grind. 

Perhaps suggesting the rebuilding of the global institutional order in the age of Donald Trump and Putin seems naive, even misguided. How would such an initiative even get off the ground when the erstwhile pillars of the global order have so thoroughly abandoned the idea of a rules-based world? 

But China, the world’s fast-rising power, does recognize the value of an international rules-based system and it has positioned itself as a defender of the international order. This is promising. What is more, there are benefits for both Putin and Trump’s America to accepting international institutional constraints on their power plays. Doing so would lower the risks of direct confrontation and possible nuclear escalations, it would make the strategic calculations of each side far more predictable, and would most likely lower the costs of play at the geostrategic poker table.

There are reasons why the big players might consider moving in this direction and the need is very pressing indeed as the global situation becomes more and more acute. Whether the current crop of world leaders have the foresight to do so — or whether we will be lucky enough that circumstance will force them into doing what needs to be done — remains to be seen. But the direction in which we need to be going is quite clear: UNSC permanent memberships and vetoes must go.

  • Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a director at the Center for Global Policy and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim
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