For reasons which shall become clearer, let us start by drawing extensively from the preamble to the UN Charter: “We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom, to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours, and to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples…” This was the culmination of the San Francisco Conference for the inauguration of the United Nations, heralding a new era of peace and prosperity for mankind in 1945. By any objective criteria, the UN has spectacularly failed in every aspect of its primary objectives. Why do leaders still bother showing up at its Annual General Assembly?
Throughout the whole of last week, heads of states after heads of states were heard from the green rostrum of the United Nations Chamber, talking to the world, but, more specifically, talking to their own citizens back at home on global issues, on an equal footing with other leaders. Yet, the biggest threat facing the world, today, is the ongoing war in Ukraine, provoked and being prosecuted by Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation. Putin is an old-fashioned Clausewitz on matters of overwhelming military force. He, indeed, ordered the deployment of such a force at the start of the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. The tragedy for the Russian army is that the ‘overwhelming’ force has proved to be more apparent than real. Much of the battle tanks, artillery and other munitions at the disposal of its soldiers are obsolete, malfunctioning and downright out of date. As a consequence, the Ukrainian army, with supplies from Western countries, has managed to repel the Russians and pushed them a little bit out of their positions in the Donbas region, in the mainly Russian-speaking areas. The Ukrainians are now gearing up for more offensive against the retreating Russian soldiers.
For the Russian president, even a sniff of defeat against an ‘inconsequential’ nation such as Ukraine would mean humiliation for the country, a hitherto superpower, and a catastrophe for Putin, personally. So, why not throw everything at Ukraine; plates, cutleries, kitchen sink, the lot? To that effect, Putin has ordered the mobilisation of additional 300,000 reservists and fast-track citizenship for foreign nationals who volunteer to join the regular army. On top of that, he has given orders to the pro-Kremlin political leaders in the Donbas to organise sham referenda that would affirm the territories’ allegiance to ‘motherland’ Russia. The immediate consequence of that would mean that the Ukrainian (Donbas) territory would become Russian there and then, and any further help from Western allies to fight the Russians in the area would be tantamount to a declaration of war on Russia itself, requiring the use of (many fear), tactical nuclear weapons. Many inside and outside Russia now pin their hopes on a swift and decisive end to Putin and his war machine. That may well happen sooner rather than later, especially if the number of conscripts into the army and subsequent casualties from the war start creeping up as they sure will in the coming months. Meanwhile, as the world is hurtling towards an escalation of the war which threatens to involve the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, what do we see of the United Nations members other than talk, and deliver brilliant speeches from the podium?
The United Nations General Assembly accommodates all heads of states of recognized independent countries in the world, currently 193 members. It is an assembly of equals, and it is the nearest we have to world government. It operates on a ‘one-man-one-vote’, or, one-head-of-state-one-vote system, which appears to be perfectly democratic in outlook. On a closer examination, however, it is anything but. The assembly has no real power. The real power is locked inside the 15-member National Security Council, five of whom are permanent members: the UK, France, USA, China and Russia. The other 10 rotate between the rest of the UN members. It is, of course, an arbitrary and obsolete arrangement that suited the victors in World War II. Some of the biggest and most economically relevant nations on earth are conspicuous by their absence from the club of permanent members; Germany, Japan, Australia, Canada, Italy, India, etc. The UN Security Council is charged with maintaining world peace and enforcing its resolutions. The Security Council has indeed tried to condemn and pass a resolution to end the war in Ukraine to no avail See; “Between diplomacy and war: Russia-Ukraine high tension,” PUNCH February 8 2022” and “How Russia undermines international law,” PUNCH April 19, 2022.
The Security Council is impotent in enforcing UN resolutions because its five permanent members have divergent interests. ‘World peace’ seems to have different interpretations for each and every single one of them. None of them ever comes to equity with the proverbial clean hands. For instance, the USA has vetoed every single resolution against Israel from inception. Israel is the bulwark against the Islamic fundamentalist takeover of the middle east as the West sees it. So, it has to be embraced even when its wrongdoing is exposed by evidence. Russia, on its part, has vetoed resolutions against Syria for similar reasons. China has done the same to protect its actions in Tibet and Hong Kong. If you then imagine that each and every single permanent member has a veto over the Council’s resolution, which in fact they do, then, you have the perfect setting for permanent gridlock. The UN did not manage to stop the Korean war in 1956, North and South Korea are still technically at war today. The Nigerian civil war (1966-1970) started and ended without the UN being able to lift a finger. Israel-Palestine war is perhaps the most prolonged and most intractable for the organisation. It has been on and off almost from the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
As ominous as the situation in Ukraine appears, it still does not pass the litmus test for ‘threat to world peace’ for many leaders both on the Security Council and in the General Assembly. China, for instance, may not necessarily like what the Russians are doing in Ukraine, but, the USA and many other Western nations already see President Xi Jinping as an enemy of Western interests in the Pacific Region, and further afield in the geo-political world, and are already busy trying to undermine the Chinese Communist regime, especially in the field of technology and trade. The Chinese breakaway region of Taiwan is another hotspot that could blow up along the same line as the war in Ukraine if maximum care and caution are not taken. Consequently, Jinping, therefore, has little choice as to where to throw his considerable weight on the Ukraine issue. Perhaps common sense may yet prevail, or perhaps it would take a nuclear catastrophe on the battlefield to force the long-overdue reform of the Security Council, but, by the time we reach that stage, what remains of the world may no longer be worth keeping.