Bible Study:  The UN Security Council Revisits its Sacred Origins, Dr. Robert Zuber

21 Feb

On Monday January 15, under the presidency of Venezuela, the UN Security Council held a full debate on the UN Charter, the fundamental document guiding this institution’s objectives, values, relationships and working methods. The debate, “Respect for the principles and purposes of the Charter of the United Nations as a key element for the maintenance of international peace and security,” attracted a chamber filled with ministers, mission diplomats and others.

It should be noted here that the General Assembly has also been involved in its own efforts to revitalize itself in accordance with the Charter.   The GA’s version, of course, is a more inclusive process.  Indeed, much of its membership is also suspicious of efforts by the Security Council to “filter” such important conversations through its much more narrow accountability frameworks.   Thus, much of the conversation on this Monday was less about the Charter per se and more about the working methods of the Council itself – how to improve Council effectiveness in responding to security threats but even more its accessibility of and accountability to the wider membership.

To the extent that the debate kept its focus on Charter values and obligations, it followed along lines similar to those of religious communities debating the contemporary relevance of ancient scriptures.  Some UN members stressed the need to hold fast to the fundamentals of the Charter as the basis for all UN action. Others stressed the need for flexible Charter applications to respond effectively to security and other threats – including asymmetric threats from ISIL and other groups – which those giving birth to the Charter could not possibly have foreseen.   Still others acknowledged a shifting security environment while insisting with the Secretary General that we “must get out in front of conflict,” as the Charter suggests we should do, and without recourse, as Pakistan warned, to “power politics”

The world that welcomed the UN Charter has certainly changed on a massive scale since 1945.   At the same time, states joining the UN entered an organization defined by Charter obligations and limitations.  Indeed, many smaller states have seen in their UN membership both an opportunity to participation meaningfully in global policy and a means for resisting big power incursions into their internal affairs – a window on the one hand, a wall on the other.

At this particular debate there were frequent references to Charter values that seek to protect territorial integrity and sovereign equality.   Sovereignty itself was the subject (as it always is whenever the UN membership addresses the Security Council) of much discussion, especially among some states that see sovereignty as a protective principle, including too often protection from accountability for abuse of its own citizens (a point made strongly –but not only– by Spain and the UK).  Sovereignty is too often invoked as one obligation abstracted from others, and is unfortunately also invoked as the ultimate principle within the household of UN Charter values.

Such debates in the Security Council often dredge up regional tensions owing to the fact that states do not always act in accordance with Charter responsibilities and those that don’t (when they don’t) are not held to the same levels of accountability under international law.   In the Monday debate, along with a few side-skirmishes (such as with Cyprus and Turkey), the focus of several delegations, most notably Ukraine, was on Russia’s aggressive behavior in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.

We think that this aspect of the debate, while a bit of a diversion, was largely “fair game.” Indeed, it is part of a larger discussion that needs to continue and that focuses on the degree to which Security Council members – most notably the permanent five – seen by many as the guarantors of important Charter-based responsibilities, routinely abrogate those responsibilities.  This rightly includes, but is by no means limited to the Russians.   One doesn’t have to accept at face value Venezuela’s concern about violations of rights by large powers in the name of “democracy” to agree that accusations of rights abuses are too often externalized, too often used as a tool for political ends, too often used to deflect attention away from other abuses committed closer to home.  As a body, and certainly in the case of the permanent members, we are still prone to accusing too readily and apologizing too seldom.

Indeed, there is probably no institution on earth that is subject to less accountability for its excesses and errors than the UN Security Council.   70 years removed from its founding, as the world recovered from a shattering conflict, it is hard to imagine that Founders Intent could have included such a lack of accountability both to those impacted by its decisions (or lack thereof) and to the general UN membership.  Armenia and India were only two of several states during the debate noting that trust in the UN system is currently under strain due in part to the Council’s working methods.  Fixing those methods, as many states seem now prepared to do, would go far to enhancing the UN’s trust reserves.

But any discussion about Charter intent is to some degree speculative and subject to review by the historians who have a better sense of what those Charter framers were thinking, the new world that they were helping to set in motion.  It is for us to take that analysis and apply it to our own multi-lateral framework for addressing contemporary problems – problems both outside and inside the UN.  Member states breathe life into the Charter, as noted by Malaysia, implying that fair and inclusive working methods can be as important a Charter value as respect for the rule of law. Like so many other states at this debate, Malaysia clearly seeks strategies that enhance the Charter, not bypass it.

As we examine appropriate ways to modify and enrich our understanding of the UN’s founding “scriptures” to accommodate new security and development realities, it is imperative that we abandon, as Japan duly noted, any predisposition to apply “rules” to some and not to others.  We must also ensure, as Sweden, Italy, the African Union and others urged, that we always make the full and best use of UN and regional capacities to address conflict, and to apply preventive tools wherever and whenever possible.   We need a more level field of play as well as a full complement of partners to play with.

Latvia got it quite right, I think, when it referred to the UN membership – inside and outside the Council – as the “guardians” of Charter promises.   Panama also got it right when it encouraged Charter applications that place people at the center of our policy deliberations.  These and related recommendations from the membership imply a reverence for the values and principles that underpin our collective responsibilities that is all-too-rarely seen inside UN headquarters.   The specifics of those promises may at times have to adjust to new and even unforeseen circumstances, but the promises themselves and the values they embody continue to uphold the foundations of the UN’s sacred trust.

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