Tag Archives: UN Charter

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

12 Jan


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.

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.