A G NOORANI
WE have been spared the sneer common in times of crises. ‘Why is the UN so impotent?’ But we have yet to understand the truth behind the facade. It has, in truth, no personality of its own — legalism apart. It is what its members choose to make of it on any given occasion. It is a do-it-yourself bit with incomplete instructions — and a price tag.
The reality about the UN was laid bare starkly in a commentary by the British government when the UN Charter was adopted. It was published in what the British call a ‘Command Paper’. This document now nearly 75 years old is forgotten as if it was dead. It is a Command Paper with the full text of the United Nations Charter. It bears recalling even in March 2022.
It said: “No enforcement action by the organisation can be taken against a Great Power itself without a major war. If such a situation arises, the United Nations will have failed in its purpose and all members will have to act as seems best in the circumstances.”
“If, indeed, a Great Power … resolves to defy the public opinion of the world … it is impossible to predict the outcome or to lay down the rules as to what ought to be done.”
How far can the UN go in resolving US-Russia tensions?
The war in Ukraine has that hapless country as a victim of a conflict between the United States and its European allies in Europe and the Russian Federation. That is precisely why the United Nations cannot intervene to prevent or end the war. But it can serve as a forum for mediation and for mobilising world opinion.
The British commentary said eloquently: “It is not suggested that all this machinery, however impressive it may be, can by itself preserve the peace or increase the welfare of the peoples of the world. That depends upon how governments use such machinery, and their actions in turn will largely depend upon the public opinion of their respective countries as expressed through their legislative and other bodies. This fact cannot be overemphasised. But it would be misleading to suggest as a kind of corollary that the nature of the machinery now provided is of secondary importance.
“On the contrary, if the discussions at San Francisco had resulted in creating an organisation which did not take into account the urgent needs and hard facts of the present time, the difficulties in the way of international cooperation would have been enormously increased, however anxious states might be to play their part in it.”
The greatest secretary general the United Nations has had was, beyond question, Dag Hammarskjöld. He said in October 1960, in reply to Khrushchev’s proposal of a ‘troika’ to run the United Nations, “It is not the Soviet Union or indeed any other Big Powers who need the UN for their protection. It is all the others. In this sense, the Organisation is first of all their Organisation… . I shall remain in my post during the term of my office … in the interest of all those other nations, as long as they wish me to do so.”
But no sooner did the Cold War break out in 1946 than the US began using the UN as a tool in its diplomacy. One man, Walter Lippmann, had the foresight to warn of the consequences of George F. Kennan’s policy of ‘containment’ of the Soviet Union. “…[C]onsider how we are to relate our role in the United Nations to our policy in the conflict with Russia. But the State Department, in its attempt to operate under the Truman Doctrine, has shown where that doctrine would take us. It would take us to the destruction of the UN… .
“The Charter and the organisation of the United Nations are designed to maintain peace after a settlement of the Second World War has been arrived at. Until there is a settlement of that war, the United Nations does not come of age: it is growing up, it is at school, it is learning and practising… . During this period, which will not come to an end until the Great Powers have agreed on peace treaties, the United Nations cannot deal with disputes that involve the balance of power in the world. The balance of power has to be redressed and settled in the peace treaties by the Great Powers themselves … by the withdrawal of their armies from the continent of Europe.
“Until such a settlement is reached, the United Nations has to be protected by its supporters from the strains, the burdens, the discredit, of having to deal with issues that it is not designed to deal with.
“The true friends of the United Nations will therefore be opposed to entangling the world organisation in the Soviet-American conflict. No good and nothing but harm can come of using the Security Council and the Assembly as an arena of the great dispute, or of acting as if we did not realise the inherent limitations of the Charter and thought that somehow we could by main force and awkwardness use the United Nations organisation to overawe and compel the Russians. All that can come of that is to discredit the United Nations on issues that it cannot settle… .”
There is much to learn from these words.
(The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.)