Empty Shell:  The UN Seeks to Renew the Life of its Charter, Dr. Robert Zuber

12 Jan

Globe

Commitment is healthiest when it is not without doubt, but in spite of doubt.  Rollo May

The master of the garden is the one who waters it, trims the branches, plants the seeds, and pulls the weeds. Vera Nazarian

One person with commitment accomplishes more than a thousand with an opinion.  Orrin Woodward

In dreams begin responsibilities.  William Butler Yeats

No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.  Stanislaw Jerzy Lec

Late Friday afternoon at the UN, past the time when delegates, security officers and interpreters are expected to be at their posts, the Security Council barely averted a disaster to its own reputation as well as to the welfare of millions of Syrians who continue to face grave need in a long conflict that the Council has failed to end.

The disaster was averted through the positive energies of Belgium and Germany, co-penholders of the Council’s humanitarian resolutions who eventually accepted the compromise terms (dictated primarily by Russia) to restrict cross-border humanitarian access (by reducing the number of authorized crossing points) in exchange for the promise not to veto the extension of the cross-border mandate for Syria which would have otherwise expired at midnight Friday.

Sitting in the Council chamber, it was difficult to know how to react as the Council once again pushed the welfare of millions to the political brink.   That some cross-border access will continue to function beyond the bureaucratic impediments imposed by Damascus is a good thing; but that access was cut back when displacement and food insecurity threaten millions and when progress on ending the conflict is modest at best raises more questions than it answers about the long-term viability of a Council where partisan politics so often trumps responsible authority.

This is, of course, a time characterized by other unsettling events within and beyond the UN, including an assassination of an Iranian military leader, the unintentional downing of a Ukrainian airliner near Tehran and, perhaps most ironically, the decision by the US (as host country) to deny a visa to the Iranian Foreign Minister seeking to attend a Vietnam-sponsored discussion in the Council on “Upholding the UN Charter.”

In a time when most states and civil society organizations agree that multilateralism is under considerable strain, this Charter discussion generated unprecedented attention from the UN membership; indeed to such a degree that additional sessions had to be scheduled to handle the demand for speaking slots. Some states (such as Cuba and Georgia) used the occasion to highlight the hypocrisy of permanent Council members that seek to regulate the conduct of other states in accordance with the Charter while largely exempting themselves from such scrutiny. Others urged these permanent members (as did Singapore and Cyprus) to “set a better example” for the rest of the UN membership.   Uruguay and other states called attention to what it called “weak compliance” regarding the Charter obligation of states to uphold Council resolutions, in part due to the obvious (as on Friday) political compromises that lead to watered-down resolutions with limited will to see them implemented.  It was in this context that Ecuador referred to the “empty shell” that the Council is in danger of becoming, a chamber where resolutions inspire less and less confidence by global constituents and less and less compulsion to compliance by their governments.

While not all the statements uttered during these multiple sessions had to do directly with peace and security, the discourse rarely strayed far.   Peru noted that given “uneven progress” on issues such as climate change, nuclear disarmament and transnational organized crime, “the rumblings of war must be rejected.”  The Elders Chair HE Mary Robinson was a most welcome briefer at the opening session, making clear that our disregard of our disarmament obligations and our manifest unwillingness to amend our ways (including our multilateral ways) in the time remaining for us to address climate change are gravely endangering the world for our children in ways that the Charter could surely not countenance.

Indeed, it seems clear to me at least, that there are already several ways in which multilateral processes have evolved and devolved in ways not directly countenanced by the designers of the Charter.  The framers were apparently less concerned about universal membership than universal valuation, seeking states that were committed to the “pacific resolution of disputes” and including measures for suspending or even expelling states that gravely violated this pacific premise.  Moreover, while the word “peacekeeping” does not appear in the Charter, there is a clear recognition that maintaining security must be a task common to all member states. While the Council exercises its primary responsibility, other states have the duty to contribute in their own ways and to limits of their own capacities, at the very least to pledge not to undermine or impede the maintenance and/or restoration of international peace and security once the Council is seized of a conflict threat.  This pledge is one that is disregarded on a more regular basis than many publicly acknowledge.

The Charter also demands more attention to security at the “least possible levels of armament” than is now the case; more regular communication between the Council and the General Assembly (and other UN bodies) than is now the case; more attentiveness to the values that bind the international community than is currently the case. And while clarifying duties to development and self-governance, its primary concern is to “harmonize the actions of states” without recognition of the roles – positive and otherwise – played increasingly by non-state actors in creating and resolving global threats.  Indeed, the growth of the non-government sector, even small initiatives like ours, provides us with an opportunity that the Charter framers could scarcely have envisioned – to help “pull the weeds” that impede healthy global growth; to insist that UN working methods are fair and transparent; to hold up for review instances where states offer support with their lips but degrade Charter values and duties in their practice; to remind members of the urgency of the moment, an urgency not always apparent inside our UN bubble; to promote a system (as the Prime Minister of St. Vincent and Grenadines noted this week) in which the responsibility to uphold the Charter is not allowed to dissolve into mere “political expediency.”

We and others in our orbit take the opportunity offered to us very seriously.   We know well some of the many ways in which the UN needs to become more relevant to circumstance, its need to dive more deeply into the ways in which sustainable peace is dependent on health oceans and food security as much as international courts and weapons treaties.  And we know that many of the efforts to “reform” the UN run the risk of replacing what some this week referred to as its “delegitimized structures” with revised versions which, given the rapid pace of global change, are likely to also find themselves going quickly out of date.   When Germany wondered aloud this week about the shape of the world 75 years into the future it was more than idle chatter, but a reminder that the legitimacy of our current actions and preferred structures will be tested and assessed in some future realm, at a time when others now much younger than ourselves will have no choice but to answer for our wisdom – or our folly.

We will have suggestions for reforms in this 75th year of the UN, suggestions that will seek to embrace what is necessary and universal about the Charter but in ways that help us address the current “avalanche” of threats as well as serve to predict and avert future crises. In this, we will be guided by a statement from Poland, recently “retired” as an elected Council member, whose Ambassador reminded the chamber that the upholding and fulfilling of international humanitarian and human rights law is not an option but rather a “sacred commitment” that is fully consistent with UN membership and its Charter-based obligations.

As we grapple together with ways to make the UN more agile and transparent, more thoughtful and less political, more accountable and less aloof, we should all pledge not to lose sight of the sacred commitments and responsibilities that the Charter continues to represent – norms and tools for enacting the dream of a world where nations and peoples can live in harmony with each other and with the entire created order on which our sustainable prosperity is based.

In an age characterized by deep divisions, armed to the teeth and melting before our eyes, such harmony remains the goal of greatest treasure.  Despite the inadequacies of so much of our current policy and practice, despite the doubts that so many now have about our relevance and fidelity to promises, the Charter stands resolute as an essential guidepost towards a more peaceful future.

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