UNrealistic Expectations


On 16 September, the 60th anniversary Summit meeting of the United Nations ended with the adoption, by consensus, of a declaration. The document was the subject of extended and difficult negotiations, in the latter stages of which it seemed there might be no agreement.

This was a familiar state of affairs. There had been no agreement at the 40th anniversary Summit. The 50th anniversary declaration, which was a mere slip of a document of only some 30 paragraphs, had taken two years to negotiate and was agreed to at five minutes to midnight.

Given this record, why has there been such a sharp and substantially negative reaction to last week’s events?

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at <i>The Australian</i>”  ></p>
<p><span><small>Thanks to <a href=Peter Nicholson at The Australian

At the UN, in the pages of globally significant newspapers, in serious broadcasts, the Summit has been described as a profound failure. The New York Times even editorialised on the ‘Lost UN Summit Meeting’. Is this a fair conclusion and what supports it?

One reason for this sense of failure is the widespread recognition that our world is deeply troubled and needs urgent attention. The gap between rich and poor has grown to scandalous proportions. Armed conflict and genocide continue throughout the world. Human rights abuses grow each year. Slavery and trafficking in people is expanding, as is the number of refugees and displaced persons. The list of serious problems is very long and very depressing.

These are precisely the kinds of problems that the establishment of a strong and capable UN was supposed to solve, or at least mitigate.

Another reason is that expectations of change had been raised in the last couple of years. Major studies had been undertaken and solutions, many obvious and long overdue, had been identified. The often overly cautious Secretary General, Kofi Annan, stepped up to the mark with strong recommendations for change. And, at the turn of the century, governments had agreed to some far-reaching new millennium goals.

What was agreed to at the Summit last week was criticised not only because it fell far short of what is needed, but also because it deeply disappointed recent expectations.

In the end, the declaration that was accepted gave only a nod to the millenium goals on the elimination of poverty specifically omitting concrete commitments to aid for the developing countries. It also omitted any reference to nuclear arms control and disarmament, and put aside any reform of the Security Council and the human rights machinery.

On the positive side, there was agreement to establish a Peace Building Commission, to assist in the stabilising and rebuilding of failed or conflicted States. There was also endorsement of a new legal concept to the effect that States have the ‘responsibility to protect’ their citizens from war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide; and, if States fail in this, the international community now has a responsibility to act.

This latter agreement, while obviously representing progress, was surprising given the dominance of national sovereignty over international law in the post 9/11 period. In fact, this heightened conflict between national sovereignty and the principles and obligations established in the UN Charter is the main reason for what happened at the Summit.

Shortly after arriving in New York six weeks ago, the new US Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, tabled 750 amendments to the draft declaration. Their common thrust was to remove all concrete commitments from the document. His greatest success was in the field of nuclear arms control. It must be noted, however, that he could not have achieved the stunning deletion of all such references unless others agreed if silently.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at <i>The Australian</i>”  ></p>
<p><span><small>Thanks to <a href=Peter Nicholson at The Australian

It would be misleading to lay all the blame for the ‘failure’ of the Summit at the feet of Washington’s neo-conservatives. Other heavyweight countries hide behind US positions. Some others, who are in fact deeply hostile to the US, trade off what they want for what the US wants. Nicholas D Kristof of the New York Times, for instance, wrote of an ‘Axis of Medieval’ to describe the US’s cooperation with Cuba, Zimbabwe, Iran, Syria and Venezuela to water down a draft statement about nations having an obligation to respond to genocide.

There was also outright grandstanding, such as President Bush’s ‘challenge’ to eliminate all US ‘tariffs, subsidies and other barriers to the free flow of goods and services as other nations do the same It’s the key to overcoming poverty in the world’s poorest nations.’ Apart from drawing attention away from the US refusal to commit to aid targets, this statement is meaningless. The conditions of world trade are determined in negotiations at the World Trade Organisation and the current state of those negotiations is at least as tortuous as those at the UN last week.

In a debate a few years ago John Bolton made it clear where he stood on the conflict between national sovereignty, international law and cooperation. He declared ‘there is no such thing as international law, there is only national sovereignty.’ In his own way, Prime Minister John Howard lent some support to this view in his address to the General Assembly last week: ‘the nation state remains the focus of legitimate action for order and justice in our world.’ On the UN’s role he said: ‘As nation states, our collective challenge and responsibility is to identify those things that the UN can do and ensure that it is fully equipped to do them.’

Howard later told reporters, ‘I think we make a mistake if we take the view that unless the United Nations authorises something then you can’t do it. It’s a question of the inherit merit and virtue of decisions.’ This veiled justification for Australia’s participation in the invasion of Iraq, is contrary to the terms of the UN Charter, which provides that any use of force against another State is illegitimate unless it is exercised in self defence or authorised by the Security Council for ‘the maintenance of international peace and security’.

So, presumably our decision to participate in an invasion, contrary to international law, was an example of a decision suffused with ‘inherit merit and virtue’. It’s not clear that many members of the UN see it that way.

It must be recorded that Howard announced the doubling of Australian aid to developing countries by 2010, a $3 million contribution to the new Peace Building Commission, and new contributions to the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Democracy Fund.

It was interesting too that he strongly lamented the Summit’s failures on nuclear arms control, but then muddied his position somewhat by explaining that he particularly had in mind the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea that is, the US view of the nuclear problem. A considerable majority of UN members point out that the major nuclear disarmament obligations still lie with the five permanent members of the Security Council who hold the overwhelming number of nuclear weapons.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.