The United Nations celebrated its 65th birthday (1945 to 2010) on 24 October 2010. At 65 the world body has lasted 27 years longer than its predecessor, the League of Nations (1919 to 1946). Will the UN go another 65 years? To help answer that question a quick look at what did in the League of Nations is in order.
The League of Nations was certainly not a perfect organization, infected as it was with the colonialist notions of its European founders. We can see that aspect of the organization in its mandate system which served as a cover for imperialism. But ultimately the mandate system is not what brought the League low. The fatal flaw was its inability to achieve its primary goal of preventing war by transcending the power of nationalism and compelling all states to end their quarrels through negotiation or arbitration. What success the League did have in this effort was restricted to a category of relatively weak states. For instance, it successfully brought an end to disputes between Columbia and Peru, Greece and Yugoslavia, Finland and Sweden, and even, in 1921, Poland and a very weak Germany. However, when disputes involved aggressive “great” powers, as they did in the 1930s, the League failed utterly. It was ultimately destroyed by its inability to project authority and influence, as well as punishment, on countries like belligerent Italy and resurgent Nazi Germany. As Mussolini observed while, with impunity, using poison gas on the Ethiopians, “the League is very good when sparrows shout, but no good at all when eagles fall out.” He thought of Italy as an eagle.
As the League was founded in response to the First World War, so the United Nations was founded as a response to the Second World War. Where once there was the horror of the trenches, now there was the horror of the Holocaust. Where once there was mustard gas, now there was something much worse, nuclear weaponry. Thus the prevention of war still formed the central and urgent mission of the United Nations. This time around it should have been easier for the new world body. Where the First World War spurred on imperialism, carving up the Ottoman Empire and introducing the facade of mandates, the Second World saw the dismantlement of empires and, finally, the fulfillment of Woodrow Wilson’s promise of self-determination for most of the non-European world. Most, but not everywhere. For at the end of World War II, as the United Nations Charter was ratified and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed, the members of the United Nations were coerced into committing a fatal mistake. Under heavy pressure from the United States, the General Assembly gave its blessing to an arrangement whereby the sin of European and American antisemitism was to be paid for by the Palestinians, a people who had nothing at all to do with Europe’s death camps or America’s death dealing immigration policy. The United Nations blessed the creation of Israel. By doing so it went a long way to assuring its own demise.
It is this background that makes so important, and depressing, the statement made before the General Assembly by Richard Falk on 20 October 2010. Falk is ending his tenure as Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Palestine. Here are some of the points he made in his address:
1. Throughout his tenure the Government of Israel has been consistently uncooperative, even to the point of refusing him entrance into Israel and the Occupied Territories.
2. The United Nations itself has failed to respond strongly to this challenge to its authority thereby encouraging the view that the world body has not the political will to uphold international law and the principles of its Charter when it comes to the ally of a Great Power.
3. The response of the international community has also been “disappointing.”
Falk concludes as follows, “The United Nations will be judged now and in the future by whether if contributes, at long last, to the… realization of the Palestinian right of self-determination, and thereby brings a just peace to both [Israeli and Palestinian] peoples.”
Dr. Saeb Erakat, chief negotiator for the Palestinian Liberation Organization, also spoke about this dilemma in his remarks on the UN’s 65th birthday. He observed that “Israel has undermined the efficacy of and derogated the UN system, the very authority through which it was created.” He then went on to list some of the sources of international law in which Palestinian rights are grounded. These include UN General Assembly resolutions, UN Security Council resolutions, and the Fourth Geneva Convention. All of which Israel has been allowed to violate.
Both Erakat and Falk know that there is virtually no chance that the United Nations can or will even try to force Israel to abide by international law. Whatever its Charter might say, its decision making structure is designed to prevent any challenge to the great powers that have permanent seats on the Security Council. The United States is the great power patron of Israel and has, and will continue, to block efforts to sanction its ally. Thus, like the League of Nations, the UN can deal only with sparrows and but not eagles. It can go after the leaders of Sudan, Serbia and Rwanda, but not those of the United States for its crimes in Iraq, Not China for its crimes in Tibet, not Russia for its crimes in Chechnya, and not Israel for its crimes against the Palestinians or its near fatal corruption of an ancient world religion. It would seem that Israel flies with Mussolini’s eagles.
It is unlikely that the UN will end its days abruptly as did the League of Nations. While Israel does encourage war and mayhem in the Middle East, liking nothing better than to push the United States into a war with Iran, it is unlikely to spark World War III. Thus, it is probable that the United Nations’ fate is to go out with a whimper and not a bang. It will linger on for many decades to come, a tool of the great powers to be used to shoot at sparrows when appropriate. Ironically, this means the final legacy of the United Nations will be the opposite of its original ideal. Ideally meant to keep the peace and hold all nations to the rule of law, it will stand emasculated as an symbol of the ultimate supremacy of power in the world.
Power has been supreme for a very long time. In the 5th century BC the city state of Athens (alleged birthplace of Western democracy) was fighting the Peloponnesian War. Its naval forces came to the neutral city of Melos and demanded its surrender. The historian Thucydides recounts the ensuing debate in which the Athenians told the Melosians “…we both alike know that in the discussion of human affairs the question of justice only enters where there is equal power to enforce it, and that the powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must.” In our modern day such Machiavellian honesty has fallen out of favor. We need to manage our ruthlessness so as to keep our consciences clear. And that is what the United Nations is for. It will run after the sparrows so that the eagles can feel they have some modicum of justice to point to as they “exact what they can” from those they do treat unjustly. The United Nations has become a cover for great power hypocrisy.
Such is the way of international politics. Do we have to put up with this evil? The answer is no we do not. But we cannot look to any of the great powers for justice, fairness, equity or the like, for theirs is the world of Realpolitik and raison d’etat. Hope, such as it is, lies with civil society. The fortunes of justice, fairness, equity are a function of the ability of citizens worldwide to organize themselves for a specific cause, and the great precedent here is the struggle that brought down apartheid South Africa. This strategy, born of mass communications and the ethical potential of individual consciences, knows no national boundaries and thus has enormous potential. It is presently focused on the condemnable behavior of Israel toward the Palestinians. If, in the next quarter century (for it is likely to take that long), the power of mobilized civil society can bring justice to the Palestinians it will create the possibility for a more humane world in practice and not just in theory. It is an intoxicating prospect. And it is one that has a chance of realization.