Wednesday 2 March 2011

If we believe in the UN, we must campaign to reform it

The United Nations General Assembly has voted unanimously to suspend Libya's membership of the UN Human Rights Council, following the shock of discovering that the Gaddafi regime is engaging in gross and systematic violations" of the rights of its people..

Perhaps that deserves only one cheer, though it is an important and unprecedented development. The UNHRC retains several members, whose unsuitability as stewards as human rights principles is equally evident.

Waiting for the top table of the UN Security Council is a frustrating business too. The painstaking process of seeking 'nine votes and no vetoes' will always see diplomacy institutionalise the thought 'too little, too late'.

Yes, two of those vetoes are held by a Chinese dictatorship which shot large numbers of its own citizens with impunity in Tianamen Square in 1989. (It seeks still to eradicate the event from domestic or diplomatic history, though we all hope it wouldn't do the same again now), and an increasingly autocratic Russiam state which is perhaps even less keen on scrutiny of states which behave with murderous intent towards their own citizens, and perhaps very few qualms about its own security policy.

But the 'good guys' of the leading democracies haven't covered themselves in glory either. David Cameron is pursuing the right course at the UN, after saying some sensible and welcome things about the mistake of believing dictatorship brings stability. Yet he rather undermined it with his poor judgment in being so transparent about what a business-led foreign policy looks like (even as the FCO struggled to discharge its first responsibility to its own citizens).

France's foreign policy in the Middle East has been, if anything, even more complicated and ethically dubious than usual, though this has at least claimed the scalp of the hapless Foreign Minister. It is good to have a US administration that does not routinely disdain the United Nations, but which will find it harder to build consensus having just acted alone to veto a resolution on illegal Israeli settlements which the UK could support. And the reform which would broaden the legitimacy of the Security Council beyond the top table of the 1945 victors remains in the long grass.


Amid these frustrations, some would give up on the United Nations. This is the position of the Muscular Liberals, though (sensibly) not of their standard bearer in the real world, Mr Cameron. In a response to me explaining why he was mostly not a neo-con, Max Wind-Cowie argues that the UN is essentially useless because it is a "relativist dystopia". Because the UN's ability to uphold its own core principles is compromised by realpolitik of the world we have, it is argued that any attempt to engage through it is to collapse into nihilist relativism.

This seems to me a serious mistake for several reasons. David Cameron is right to reject it. Shouting "relativist" is not always and everywhere a satisfactory substitute for a strategy or policy. Whatever the shortcomings of the response to the Libyan crisis, it demonstrates the necessity of the UN as well as its limitations in practice - and it shows too how the international framework of law is shifting in a direction that those who believe in human rights should welcome and champion.

Firstly, as Blair argued back in 1999 (in an argument the neo-cons rejected, meaning that Blair arguably then broke with his own argument in Iraq), the central purpose of liberal internationalism should be to create a rule-based world order ' "new rules for the international community", as his Chicago speech was titled, with much focus on the effective and legitimate institutions to uphold it. This certainly requires much reform of the multilateralism we have - but an approach of rejecting even the possibility of the UN as a sphere for such reform massively underestimates the legitimacy value which the UN has in the developing world, and to the major developing world democracies in particular, and indeed its support across most of the advanced democracies too.

Secondly, this approach will often in practice prove rhetorical, lacking the will or means to intervene - not least because of the lack of domestic and international legitimacy, as well as the creation of capacity, often at a regional level. It is a better argument for columnists and bloggers than governments.

Thirdly, in the name of rejecting relativism, it must appropriate to itself the power to decide. Good news for Mr Putin, who will be delighted to do likewise. Bad news for indicting Gaddafi before an international criminal court. Because Wind-Cowie also rejects the US exceptionalism of the neo-cons, he is much less clear than they can be as to where such authority might reside and why.

Rejecting this does not mean there aren't cases where intervening outside an emerging framework of international law or multilateral insitutions might not be considered - in cases of severe and immediate emergency, such as Rwanda, or Pol Pot's Cambodia, or East Timor where UN approval was secured (as described by Conor Foley, who has long been for the most cogent critic of the theory and practice of humanitarian intervention). Part of the reason for the legitimacy threshold being very high, and the support of local and regional actors important, is that part of the price, albeit arguably the much lesser evil in a specific case, is that such interventions are quite likely to set back progress towards an effective multilateral regime capable of protecting peace and justice, especially if they are deeply contentious and polarising between democratic states.


The UN needs reform. This will be a long-term process. What can be underestimated is how much events, and the reaction to them, can shift the agenda.

Despite so much British media discussion being dominated by the "is this Iraq all over again question", you only have to listen to what people are saying to see that it is very clearly not a similar case to that fiercely contested and polarised public debate over Iraq in 2003.

By contrast, the Libyan situation precisely captures why the Responsibility to Protect is a principle that international law and institutions must recognise - offering a compelling real world case where this seems to be all but universally acknowledged.

The media seems to hanker for round 786 of the same argument again, and so seem somewhat unable to spot that what they actually seem to have is a perhaps bewilderingly broad consensus.

So Mark Seddon acknowleges the importance of the Responsibility to Protect, and Gaddafi's extreme isolation, from the left, while discussing the consequential pros and cons of different types of intervention to discharge it. And I have heard very few serious attempts from the realist right to defend a "let states do whatever they like within their own borders" view of sovereignty, (perhaps short of genocide itself), as long as they do not trouble their neighbours. 'Its their civil war and we should let them get on with it, as we can all only do more harm than good' was a pretty popular argument over Bosnia in Rwanda. I have not heard anybody seriously making it over Libya.

The multilateral institutions which have led the way on suspending and expelling members who violate the norms they sign up to have been the Commonwealth and the African Union. It may seem surprising to many that the Commonwealth led the way in this respect, being instinctively among the most cautious and consensual of multilateral fora. The reason it did so was very simple: events demanded a response or the organisation would have failed an existential test of its credibility.

Where the Commonwealth set itself apart from other international organizations in being prepared to suspend members who failed the democracy test. This was not easy: in fact, it was the result of another equally traumatic Commonwealth crisis.

In dealing with the vile Abacha regime, the Commonwealth showed much the same vacillation and reliance on the quiet diplomatic pressure that has been ignored in Zimbabwe. Yet Abacha's decision to execute Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni dissidents during a Commonwealth summit amounted to a two-fingered salute which the Commonwealth, for once, couldn't take on the chin. Nigeria was suspended, and the Commonwealth formed a ministerial action group (CMAG) to police "serious and persistent" violations of the Harare Declaration. Further suspensions - including those of Sierra Leone, Pakistan and Fiji - followed

This created a useful model, adopted by the African Union, and which could well be extended over time from regional to global fora.

So events can underpin and catalyse reform as well as frustrate it. What a potentially epoch-making moment it could be for Gaddafi to stand trial at the International Criminal Court. How much better that that he should end strung up on a lamppost.

The dictator seems somewhat indifferent between these options. We should not be.


But we need to think beyond the crisis too. Liberal internationalists who believe that we need an effective, legitimate multilateralism could offer a longer-term agenda which seeks to develop and deepen the consensus from crisis response to the principles of the internationalism we need.

I have previously called this a neo-prog agenda - set out in this 'World after Bush' essay, though the label may prove unhelpful. It doesn't in any way resile from the value of the principle of securing democracy and human rights for all. But it differs markedly from neo-cons and Muscular Liberals, especially where they are allergic to multilateralism and the state, in the means by which to pursue it. It is more constructive and more gradualist, but there is reasonable evidence for believing that its long-term results are more effective.

This should combine the traditional, government-led, case for UN reform with a much broader citizens' campaign, to strengthen the principle of democratic norms in international fora and (while we are getting there) for democracies to seek to cooperate wherever possible, so that the stewards of our human rights might have greater legitimacy in protecting them.

Bring the UN into the 21st century

Brazil, Germany, India, Japan and South Africa should gain permanent seats on the Security Council. But reforms should increase effectiveness as well as legitimacy, with no extension of veto powers to new members. Appointments to lead key multilateral institutions should be on merit, not reserved for particular nationalities. EU governments should give up Europe's 'rights' under current arrangements, in favour of free and fair global competition next time the IMF head is chosen.

Campaign to make democracy matter on the global stage
Creating international institutions which countries want to join has proved the most powerful way to make regimes want to change, democratically. Developing world democracies should have more voice and voting power in the IMF and World Bank.

A public citizen's campaign should set out the long-term goal that the United Nations should give General Assembly voting rights only to legitimate governments. The Burmese Junta, which denies its own citizens a vote, would have observer status. It isn't practical politics now – but it could be achieved by the centenary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 2048, following a concerted peaceful effort, decade by decade, to make the world a lonelier place for dictatorships.

We should campaign for symbolic changes at home too. Governments have to deal with unsavoury regimes. But why not hold off on the pomp and ceremony of official state visits for the worst human rights offenders? A parliamentary human rights committee could hold public hearings to monitor this: it would mean no more red carpet treatment for the House of Saud.

I am sceptical of the relativist argument that those who sell arms can never have a crystal ball or foresee the future. There is very broad agreement about the principle that should inform arms sales - "no arms for external aggression or internal repression". The question of a policy is how best to minimise the risks of that being broken. The Prime Minister says we got it wrong on Bahrain and Libya and should look again. You can't set the bar much lower than Libya. So a straightforward conclusion would be that it can not be safe to assume that authoritarian dictatorships will not guarantee these conditions. If the Prime Minister's acknowledgement means anything substantive, the onus should be on those who would reject a blanket ban or amrs to dictators to produce a transparent framework - perhaps working with FCO Human Rights monitoring and civic groups - which could make finer distinctions on that.

This isn't going to happen tomorrow. The High Politics question is whether or when China decisively believes that a rule-based world orderis fundamentally in its interests, and what the consequences would be of that. But we don't need to wait for something to become possible to campaign for it as right. We often forget that the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights was mainly signed by states who did not believe it applied fully to them. Britain and France were to run colonies for another generation; the US combined the values of its constitution with the stain of segregation and disenfranchisement; the Soviet Union was bringing its iron curtain across the continent. If the words were honoured in the breach, they proved more powerful than those who signed the piece of paper perhaps anticipated.

The prospects of democratic multilateralism are almost certainly stronger today than the claims of human rights were then.


Tacitus said...

The world has changed greatly since the UN was formed. Unfortunately, it hasn't kept up with those changes and now needs urgent review if it not to become a 'talking shop' of little consequence.

Already motions passed in the Assembly are largely dismissed. Countries need to decide what role is there for the UN in the moidern world

Read my blog at

donpaskini said...

Hi Sunder,

I thought the argument in Jadaliyya was quite compelling.

While it could indeed be "a potentially epoch-making moment it could be for Gaddafi to stand trial at the International Criminal Court," Bali and Abu Rish argue that:

"The prospect of retirement in a prison cell in the Hague may factor into al-Qaddafi’s incentives to make good on his threats to fight to the last of his capacities, visiting untold atrocities on Libyan civilians in the process.

Paradoxically, then, providing al-Qaddafi with an immediate exit strategy to a safe haven might be the right choice from a humanitarian perspective. Shifting the regime’s incentives by offering an option that is neither death nor prosecution may well be the most humanitarian of presently available options for international intervention.

Working with Venezuela, neighboring countries or others that would be willing to provide safe passage to Qaddafi would be far preferable than the apocalyptic endgame that the regime might otherwise pursue for lack of alternatives...

Threatening al-Qaddafi with war crimes prosecutions today may create perverse incentives with little strategic benefit. Securing him an exit option now may have the strategic benefit of sparing the Libyan people the violent death throes of their doomed regime."

They also have an interesting critique of different options for intervention:

Sunder Katwala said...

Thanks for this. And, yes, I agree that there could be a persuasive consequentialist 'peace over justice' case for such an exit route in these or similar cases, depending on the specific context. (But presumably keeping this open depends on pressure to not escalate violence to the catastrophic apocalyptic endgame the authors write of, if the regime retains sufficient control of the military to wreak such havoc).

Where regional actors are acting in accordance with the spirit of the Responsibility to Protect, as these proposals are doing, there is of course a strong argument that they should have a strong voice in devising strategies with international support: the Arab League's advice at the UNSC would presumably carry a good deal of weight.

The ICC trial may, however, also perhaps not be Gaddafi's worst option.

Robert said...

Safe route out, nope no safe route out but a court for all the murders killing, his money needs stopping all his banking needs stopping, the way to stop these tyrants is to ensure a court of laws is waiting them.

I love this week seeing Peter Hain agreeing that Cameron did good taking the arms dealers, with him, when the public made him look like an idiot, he kept mumbling about 10,000 jobs.

Labour and the Tories really need to get some space between them before people really do decide their is no difference

Cantab83 said...

No reform of the UN will work unless the veto power is removed from all permanent members. It is the threat of vetoes that results in the corrupting of UN resolutions through the use of vague and ambiguous language in order to formulate resolutions that mean all things to all people, but are ultimately toothless and unenforceable. The Iraq debacle is a case in point.

If there had been no veto power for countries like France then the Iraq debate at the UN would have been entirely different, and the possibility of creating a real and broad coalition of opposition to Saddam Hussein with well defined military sanctions at its disposal would have been possible.

If the UN is to function as a prototype world government of sorts that has the power to intervene for humanitarian reasons then it must be constituted in a similar manner to a national government with a clear separation of powers. That means it needs to have a separate executive, legislature, civil service and legal branch. The UN's failures can be traced to the way the Security Council (SC) is currently able to act in a judicial manner in determining whether states have complied with SC resolutions, while also acting as the executive in drawing up those resolutions, and also as the principal legislature in voting on them. In effect the SC is a political body that acts as judge, jury and prosecuting counsel in most matters. How can that be justified?

The solution is simple.

The Security Council should only act as the executive. It could be expanded to include Brazil, India and Germany as permanent members, but no country should have a veto - not even the five current permanent members.

The General Assembly should be the legislature with the voting power of each country increasing logarithmically (base 2) with its population. Under this system a population of 1 billion would result in ten votes, while 500 million would give 9 votes and 250 million would give 8 votes etc. Countries with less than 4 million inhabitants would all get 1 vote. The SC may formulate resolutions but only the General Assembly should be able to pass them, preferably with a 2/3 majority.

The Office of the Secretary General is the civil service. It should be responsible for enacting all resolutions.

The International Criminal Court in the judicial branch. Only it should be able to adjudicate on whether a resolution is legal, or whether a country has complied with it.

Above all, though, there needs to be a UN constitution (or new charter) that explicitly sets out the limits of the UN's powers of intervention and the basic human rights it should seek to protect.