War and Peace Disunity and Impotence at the United Nations
The mandate of the United Nations is to preserve peace in the world, but when it comes to the Syrian crisis, the global body has failed badly. Will the UN's new secretary-general be able to finally introduce necessary reforms? By SPIEGEL Staff
The UN was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell. Dag Hammarskjöld, UN secretary-general, during a May 1954 speech.
The man who, by simply raising his hand, prevented all efforts to end the war in Syria is sitting in a bunker-like room on 67th Street in Manhattan. Chandeliers are hanging above his head, a pendulum clock is keeping the time behind him and the furniture recalls Soviet-era filmography. "We have had this problem with Syria, of course, and ... I (have) thought a lot about it," says Vitaly Ivanovich Churkin, Russia's ambassador to the United Nations. An ironic expression on his face, the white-haired diplomat leans back in his leather chair.
Churkin is one of the men charged with saving the world. As absurd as it might sound, that is his job. The 15 members of the UN Security Council, in particular the five permanent members -- China, France, Great Britain, Russia and the United States -- bear "primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security," according to Article 24 of the Charter of the United Nations.
It is a heroic task, an idealistic notion that was born out of the ruins of World War II: The peoples of the Earth joining together to protect the only planet we have. Uniting their strength, the world's countries hoped to create a better world, a place where all people can live in dignity. And the prerequisite for doing so is peace.
In 2001, the United Nations and its then-secretary-general, Kofi Annan, received the Nobel Peace Prize "for their work for a better organized and more peaceful world." It is also thanks to the UN that nuclear war has thus far been prevented, that war criminals from former Yugoslavia were forced to stand trial and that we now have a Paris Climate Agreement, which is aimed at preventing the destruction of the world.
But what has been happening in Syria for the last five years is the opposite of peace: a proxy world war being fought on Syrian territory. It has called everything into question for which the UN stands. The images and the calls for help that innocent men, women and children have been sending out to the world via Facebook and Twitter are unbearable. And yet the world stands by, watching as though it were all merely part of a particularly long horror movie.
The five permanent members of the Security Council carry a significant degree of the responsibility for what is happening in Syria because they are able, with a single veto, to block all efforts at peace. All it takes is for one of their representatives to raise their hand. If they do, then there will be no no-fly zone, no political solution and no UN-prompted intervention.
Since 2011, Russian UN Ambassador Churkin has raised his hand six times in opposition to resolutions pertaining to Syria. On five of those occasions, he was joined by China, most recently in opposition to a cease-fire in Aleppo. Weeks later, when the last hospital in the rebel-held eastern part of the city was destroyed by bombs, the Security Council agreed to send observers. But thus far, not a single one has arrived in eastern Aleppo.
At the end of December, Russia and Turkey negotiated a fragile cease-fire for Syria without the participation of the UN or Western countries. The Security Council was left no other option than to welcome this cease-fire. The body's Western members were only able to make improvements to some of the formulations, meaning that ultimately, national powers essentially usurped the responsibility of the global organization. And the Security Council once again didn't just look inept, but even worse: irrelevant.
Turkey and Russia, of course, insisted that their efforts were merely intended to support UN efforts and not supersede them. The UN, after all, is important for the Russians in particular: The Security Council is the place where Russia can interact with the West at eye level -- thanks to its veto.
Vitaly Churkin, meanwhile, finds himself in the absurd position of being responsible for ending a war in which his country is an important player. Since 2015, Russia has been fighting side-by-side with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, a despot who has attacked his own citizens with chemical weapons.
When asked about the tremendous responsibility facing him, Churkin demurs. Assad's use of chemical weapons hasn't been proven, he says, at least not from Russia's perspective. On the contrary, he has a simple explanation for his country's obstinacy on the Security Council: "Our Western colleagues were not making a secret of the fact that their intention is to use the council to topple the regime."
Churkin raises his eyebrows derisively. "We were telling them, sorry, if you want to topple the regime, please go ahead, but the council has nothing to do with it. It's not the responsibility of the council to topple regimes."
That is true, of course, but it has been the council's job to end wars since 1945. "We the peoples of the United Nations, to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind " -- that is how the Charter of the United Nations, the body's founding document, begins.
The war in Syria is the darkest chapter of our times. It was sparked by Bashar Assad, the Syrian president, when he unleashed his henchmen on peacefully protesting citizens in 2011. According to estimates, more than 400,000 people have since lost their lives in Syria, with over half of the country's population having been forced to flee.
When severe human rights violations occur, the UN has the responsibility to protect, with the Security Council allowed to interfere in a country's internal affairs in such cases. Who then, if not the UN, could put a stop to the horrors in Syria? And, if the UN fails, as it did in Rwanda, Bosnia and Chechnya, what is the point?
It is an auspicious time to ask such questions. Since Jan. 1, the United Nations has had a new secretary-general, António Guterres of Portugal. It marks a new beginning after 10 years under the leadership of the South Korean Ban Ki-moon. It is also a good time to take inventory: What has become of the UN, this bureaucratic colossus where pretense and reality are so far apart? What role does the global organization play in this era of autocrats and populists who glorify the nation-state and have nothing but disdain for international institutions? In these times of Assad, Putin and Trump?
The Appeal of the German President
Fall was in full swing in Hamburg when Ban Ki-moon stopped by for a visit last October. The light varied between a sickly gray and dark gray as a cold drizzle fell from low-hanging clouds. Inside, though, in the great banquet hall of Hamburg City Hall, the chandeliers glowed bright and a string ensemble was playing. The staid audience, dressed in appropriately dark tones, listened quietly. The event was the 20th anniversary of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, an institution established on the banks of the Elbe River in Hamburg under the auspices of the UN.
The court, like many UN initiatives, is theoretically a fantastic idea. Equipped with 21 judges from 21 different countries, the tribunal is charged with peacefully resolving differences at sea. The problem, though, is the fact that only 30 countries have thus far recognized the court. The rest of the world apparently prefers to resolve their maritime conflicts in a different manner, with the result that the tribunal has only adjudicated 25 cases since its 1996 founding.
Nevertheless, its anniversary was celebrated and the German president made an appearance to hold a speech. The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, said Joachim Gauck, is a "great asset." But he then turned to Ban Ki-moon and didn't mince words: "The Security Council is now just as polarized as it was before the Wall came down," Gauck said. "Millions of people are paying the price for this paralysis of the Security Council."
In such surroundings, Gauck's words seemed like the shrill screeching of a violin's bow. The German president brought the ghastly present inside the banquet hall, speaking of war and of the "belief that the nation-state is the sole instance able to solve problems." He also spoke of the noble goals contained in the UN Charter. When he finished, applause filled the room -- and continued for longer than was strictly necessary.
And Ban Ki-moon, who had been the face of the UN for the previous 10 years? He listened motionlessly to Gauck's speech, his posture slightly bent. When it was his turn to speak, he invoked the 14th UN Sustainable Development Goal, which focuses on the protection of the world's oceans, and he noted the importance of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which forms the foundation for the tribunal, and the significance of the 21st case addressed by the tribunal.
But it was difficult to listen. Here was the man whose duty was actually that of reminding the governments of the world of their responsibility to peace. The UN secretary-general has very little actual power, but he can demand attention as the voice of the world's conscience, as a kind of worldly pope. Ban, though, simply read out his speech, stoically and with a quiet voice. He didn't respond at all to the passionate speech he had just heard from German President Gauck.
The Birth of a Grand Idea
The UN is actually well situated to exert a positive influence on the world. With 193 members, almost every country in the world belongs. It is the only international organization with an almost incontrovertible legitimacy.
The League of Nations, formed in 1920 following the destruction of World War I, was the first attempt to form a global, political organization. But it was unsuccessful because the United States never joined and other countries soon left. But during World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and later Josef Stalin revisited the idea. It wasn't out of idealism: The Allies wanted to create a postwar organization that could help protect their interests.
The result was that the U.S., Great Britain, China, the Soviet Union and France received permanent seats on the Security Council. China at the time was far away from being a great power, but among the world's leading powers, it was seen as a welcome counterbalance to Japan, which hadn't yet capitulated at the time.
Today, the world order looks completely different, with the Western view no longer the only one with significant influence. Russia and China carry an equal weight on the geo-political stage and emerging nations are demanding their own seat at the table of power and influence. The trauma of World War II is fading into the past.
It is now possible to see the veto rights given to the five permanent members as a fatal design flaw, one that has paralyzed the Security Council and prolonged Syria's tragedy -- or, in a more sober formulation, as a reflection of postwar power relations that is no longer appropriate for today's multipolar world. Because despite all of its noble goals, the UN is not divorced from reality.
In the almost 72 years since its founding, the UN has seen some notable achievements: During the Cold War, it was the forum where the superpowers could speak with one another; it has helped give birth to a number of nation states; and in 1948, the body agreed on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. More recently, it was instrumental in the formation of the Paris Climate Agreement and also issued the Sustainable Development Goals, which aim at eliminating war, hunger and poverty.
Such plans are a feather in the UN's cap, but the higher the aims, the more frustrating is the reality. UN peacekeeping troops, which are charged with establishing security in war zones, have often failed or, worse, even abused those who need protection. For decades, there have been repeated accusations of UN troops engaging in sexual abuse, trafficking in women or forced prostitution -- in Sarajevo, Liberia, Haiti and most recently in the Central African Republic. Investigations into such scandals often leave plenty to be desired.
Perhaps the UN simply has too much on its plate. Over the years, it has grown to become a monstrous apparatus. It's most important organizations are the Security Council (SC), the General Assembly (GA), the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the Secretariat, headed by the secretary-general. Beyond that are dozens of suborganizations, funds and programs. Some 44,000 people work for the UN and its annual budget of 2.7 billion dollars is, when measured against its mandate, absurdly tiny.
- Part 1: Disunity and Impotence at the United Nations
- Part 2: A Visit to the Secretary-General