UN Systemic and Individual Flaws and Failures

Image by Mathias Reding.

There is much to figure out about preventable human-caused death in Gaza, in climate disasters, wars, starvation. At top of the hierarchy of responsibility is the UN, yet how to understand that 153 nations voting for a ceasefire in Gaza can’t implement any action? And why it is set up so that one Security Council permanent member’s veto can overturn any UN decisions, that “we the people of the United Nations” isn’t of, by, or for the people but is an assembly of nation states, shareholders, stakeholders.

Novelist Marilynne Robinson [1] brilliantly describes the historic origins of the smug and hypocritical usages of liberal, humane values that shape much systemic and individual behavior. She examines the attitudes about the underserving poor in 14th, 19th , and 20th century British Poor Law. She imagines an evening of “great and minor luminaries, ornaments of literature, the sciences, the church, and of philosophy and politics… They are charmed to find in one another just that streak of intuitive brilliance they had always admired in themselves, and to be confirmed in their sense that they are true members of a group in which there are no impostors, by a very great similarity of taste, of interest, of sympathy.” They played a game called Philanthropy. ”The rules of this game are very simple. One must justify things as they are by attacking things as they are…This distinguished party warms to the challenge. And how affecting it is to hear them, one after another, in the language of statesman and moralist, decry the sufferings of the poor, until it seems that the very table they sit around must be made into splints and crutches…Then, just when the pleasure of participation in this virtuous fantasy is at its height…just when the temptations of virtue are most intesnse, then the player reveals the illusion: This ‘ virtue’ is not virtue at all, but an evil to be scrupulously avoided …” Robinson’s conclusion is precisely applicable to neoliberalism: “There is such a profound bias against generosity in British culture that it is entirely possible for them to argue that where misery is achieved a too melting generosity must have lain behind it. It has been characteristic of British social theorists…to cry out for an end to generosity on humanitarian grounds.” (p 79-93).

It is arguable that the human condition is at its worst in the financialized global economy where labor and consumption are inessential to wealth creation.

Some intersecting flaws and failures of the UN

Structure of the UN. One veto on the UN Security Council nullifies votes on resolutions, action plans, on deployment of peacekeepers. The UN is organized to represent and protect the interests and security of nation states, not the people.

The Goldstone Report’s [2] conclusion on Israel’s 2008/09 Cast Lead war against Gaza states: “[whereas] the Security Council has placed the protection of civilian population on its agenda as a regular item, recognizing it as a matter falling within its responsibility… [yet the Goldstone Report] notes that the international community has been largely silent and has to date failed to act to ensure the protection of the civilian population in the Gaza Strip and generally the Occupied Palestinian Territory.” (p 301) ,

Eyal Weizman [3] analyzes how “new frontiers of military practice are being explored via a combination of legal and military technologies that use the law as a weapon of war.” Called ‘lawfare’, whereas justice and law are not synonymous, and the various international legal practices and institutions are both a “cure and a poison”. For example, torture is legitimized as the ‘least of all possible evil” if it prevents worse violence. (Weizman p 70-71).

UN regulatory bodies like the IAEA (nuclear watchdog) and UNFCCC (climate policy) serve the interests of capital instead of protecting people. The UN international financial institutions entrench neo-liberalism, third world debt and severe immiseration, pharmaceutical monopolies.

I cite the UN Sustainable Food Systems Summit on September 23, 2021 as an example of the flawed UN voting system in which “a powerful alliance of multinational corporations, philanthropies, and export-oriented countries … subvert multilateral institutions of food governance and capture the global narrative of “food systems transformation.” UN Chair Antonio Guterres convened the summit ”to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030” and appointed ‘multi-stakeholders’ from the major agro-industrial/pharmaceutical companies that are so ruinous to global agriculture.

The ICJ. Here are two glaring problems with the Gaza genocide decision: first, despite confirming plausible genocide, the ICJ did not order the crucially urgent ceasefire, and second, even if the ICJ ordered a ceasefire, would it be implemented? There are precedents of noncompliance. In 1996 the ICJ declared that ‘the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law.” [4] Yet Netanyahu and Obama say “all options are on the table”, code for nuclear weapons, and no one even cites the ICJ advisory opinion. In 2003 the ICJ determined that Israel’s separation wall violated international law and ordered its dismantlement, but Israel has continued to wall-in the territories without any UN consequences. In 2022, the ICJ demanded that Russia immediately suspend its military operation but the order has had no effect.

Law vs Rules: Law ostensibly provides a code of ethics and norm of justice. Laws have long been undone or degraded by parsing out the wording, providing behavioral rules of conduct, and even allowing an opposite understanding of their apparent intent. This is lawfare and it uses casuistry or Jesuitical and Talmudic argument to parse out words. One method is the use of evasive words that provide a rationale for inaction: starvation in Gaza, Somalia, Afghanistan, Yemen “could be” an emergency, the killing of 25,000 Gazans “is almost a humanitarian disaster”. In contrast, the Houthi drone attack on Red Sea shipping “ is an emergency”.

Words vs Action. The ICJ genocide ruling hinged on wording and whether there was an explicit official statement delineating the plan to commit genocide. This despite Israel’s unambiguous genocidal actions. The ICJ ruling on January 26th did not demand a ceasefire. The court did ask Israel to report in one month that “it has effectively eliminated the risk of genocide… Palestinians must have access to food, water, healthcare, and safety…” But as of February 4th the Mondoweiss headline read “ Israel kills more than 1,000 Palestinians since ICJ ruling” and I have not seen a UN or ICJ reaction.

Freud described the irrational attribution of magic power to words themselves: “ceasefire” is too dangerous to say for Bernie Sanders, and the 153 nations that voted for “ceasefire” apparently believe that saying the word is enough. The children’s rhyme distinguishes words and action: “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me”. Ironically, liberal Israeli leader Yithak Rabin was nicknamed the “bone breaker” because of his brutality. Netanyahu can say “from the river to the sea”, but a person who adds “free Palestine” is banned or jailed, accused of threatening Jewish students. To date, the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor reports that 35,096 people in Gaza, including 13,642 children, have been killed… not with words but with grisly, often prohibited weapons.

What is the UN response to emergencies? Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, two former UN administrators, resigned in protest to the lack of any response to all the deaths caused by UN Iraq sanctions, eventually causing ½ million child deaths. In contrast, there was immediate response to the devastating floods in northeastern Libya when the UN Humanitarian Coordinator was on the ground to ensure safe drinking water, medical supplies, hygiene kits, blankets, psychosocial first-aid services and supported the establishment of six field hospitals.

This is opposite what is happening in Gaza: the suspension of UNRWA aid. without any investigation of alleged charges against nine UNRWA workers. UNRWA’s 13,000 workers, its food, healthcare, shelters and schools, were abruptly defunded.. Former UNRWA chief Chris Gunness posed another ‘emperor’s new clothes’ question: where are the Arab leaders who are making billions each day on oil revenues, a tiny fraction of these profits would fully restore UNRWA services and staff. For UN Assistant Secretary-General Khaled Khiari property is sacred and “no cause or grievance” could justify continuing Houthi attacks against freedom of navigation in the Red Sea.” About 9 million barrels of oil per day were shipped through the Suez Canal in the first half of 2023.

Sovereignty and Power. In the UN system, individuals as representative of nations vote, but otherwise individual people do not have ways if representing themselves. The UN Charter starts with “We the people…..” Ironically, personhood, as in corporate personhood, are granted sovereign rights in their role as shareholders, stakeholders, and their votes are weighted by the amount of personal wealth they invest as stakeholders and shareholders. Wealth determines political power in university boards, UN COP meetings, medical facilities. Ellsberg and Michael Glennon [5] describe how the narcissism of being in an in-group, such as in the Rand Corporation or the inner core of the National Security State, is another determinant of political power. Other determinants of political power are the possession of nuclear weapons, or simply the entrenched conviction of being superior, omnipotent or omniscient, above common laws, such as the Chosen People.

Psychotic and psychopathic mass behavior. How does this happen in the ideation and actions of whole groups when individuals may not be psychotic or psychopathic? In the US, individual psychosis itself is punished such as the execution of psychotic Lisa Montgomery, whereas many world leaders seem to be psychopaths.

Taboo subject- – human death: what’s shocking in Gaza, climate change, the starvation emergency, is the unprecedented complicity and impunity. The disregard for human life is similar in the framing of climate change where there is ample information and measurements but no compilation of human deaths. The “cost of war” tracks the numbers of deaths and monetary cost, but not the needless ending of a life.

Child Death: The UN Convention on the rights of the child states that “childhood is entitled to special care and assistance”. Israel disproportionately , and intentionally kills, imprisons, severely deprives basic needs to Palestinian children, cruelly blames Palestinian parents for “wanting” Israel to kill their children for Palestinian propaganda (Golda Meir, Netanyahu). Crimes against children globally proliferate with inadequate UN funding to respond: mining disasters especially in Africa, starvation especially of racialized people in Gaza, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen; profiting from the commodification of racialized children in the U.S.

Geopolitical debacle. Less explored are the interstate alliances that cross lines, sometimes covert, based on complementary political/economic interests; Israeli physicist and historian Israel Shahak [6] wrote about the extensive, covert trade between Israel and Middle East countries. Currently new blocs cross political, ideological, racial, religious lines, all functioning within a neoliberal economy, seeking a competitive advantage through financial schemes. Patrick Wintour writes: “The trend to shifting transactional non-ideological alliances will grow. Forum shopping by countries or strategic hedging requiring active portfolio management like financial hedging, will become even more the norm. Alternatively, America could find itself confronting larger and more assertive alternative blocs, whether it is an expanded Brics, led this year by Putin, or other Chinese-led alliances.” A plausible motive and common interest of Israel, Europe, and the Arab regimes opposing the Houthis and various other movements, is building an alternative to the Suez Canal through Gaza, the Ben Gurion Canal and and and.

Conclusion. These observations and questions about the UN are only the tip of the complicated iceberg. There is starkly little analysis and critique of the UN.

For me, a psychoanalyst and student of history, what is incomprehensible is how this war and so many others, and the immense global disorder and regression, is allowed to happen, when the facts about such sorrowful, preventable loss of life are clearly known – knowing about Palestinians is certainly accessible and available in Israel. [7]

[1]Marilynne Robinson. Mother Country: Britain, the welfare state and nuclear pollution. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York 1989.

[2]Adam Horowitz, Lizzy Ratner, Philip Weiss ed. The Goldstone Report: the legacy of the landmark investigation of the Gaza Conflict. Nation Books, New York, 2011.

[3]Eyal Weizman, Forensic Architecture: violence at the threshold of detectability. Zone Books, New York, 2017. Also see Eyal Weizman, The Least of all Possible Evils: humanitarian violence from Arendt to Gaza, Verso, London 2011.

[4]David Krieger, “Turning away from the nuclear precipice” in Richard Falk and David Krieger, At the Nuclear precipice: catastrophe or transformation? Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2008. P. 217-224

[5]Michael J. Glennon. National Security and Double Government. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2015. Also see Daniel Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine, Bloomsbury USA, 2017.

[6]Israel Shahak Open Secrets: Israeli nuclear and foreign policies. Pluto Press: London 1997.

[7]For example, Rashid Khalidi, The Hundred years’ War on Palestine: a history of settler colonialism and resistance, 1917-2017. Metropolitan Books, New York, 2020. Also on the unique history of Palestine as a nation and the governmental role of Hamas, see Sara Roy Hamas and Civil Society in Gaza: engaging the Islamist social sector, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2011. Haim Bresheeth-Zabner’ s An Army like No Other, Verso London, is a fascinating examination of the invention of a new Jewish identity as entitled perpetrator not victim.

Judith Deutsch is a psychoanalyst in Toronto. She is former president of Science for Peace. She can be reached at judithdeutsch0@gmail.com