December 19, 2016

Death of a Peace Mediator: United Nations 1945-2016

I can already see the eyes of numerous readers roll up: Another text claiming the demise of the United Nations Organisation. The last 20 years are full of them and yet the UN is still there. Also didn’t I write a text along these lines around the same time last year? This one is quite different however as it deals with the UN in a different way, namely the organisation’s role as a platform for peace and dialogue.

I am not writing about the UN’s death as a whole or of its relevance. Branches like the UNDP, WHO, UNICEF etc, are effective and will still be around for ages. The UN has its value, but it is simply no longer as an actor for peace. The last days of Aleppo are putting an end to whatever hope people had for the security council to resolve conflicts. People may have forgotten, but the UN’s main goal, when it was created after the second world war, was to ensure that the disaster that was the League of Nations did not repeat itself. Chapter VII of the charter is all about providing the possibility to counter the abuses of individuals and states against their people or other countries. It was about preventing a third world war and upholding the dignity of people by avoiding another holocaust.

The 1990s put these aims to the test, hence the flood of literature on the UN’s relevance as the genocide in Rwanda and the atrocities of the Yugoslavian war unfolded. Where was the UN? How could this happen? For all its problems, the UN did try to intervene. They sent blue helmets to Sarajevo and to Kigali, resolutions were passed, the security council was busy trying to solve the issues. And it is the lack of success that ultimately led to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which was to renew states’ commitments to peace and limit – if not stop – the indiscriminate killing of civilians. It was supposed to be – again – lessons learned. No more Srebrenica, no more Radio milles-collines.

Yet, here we are in December 2016 and the western world is beside itself with the situation in Aleppo. Never mind that the massacre has been going on for years and that the Russian air force has been carpet bombing the place for over a year, now come the comparisons with Srebrenica and Sarajevo. While I strongly believe that the comparison is wrong – the siege of Sarajevo would be a more appropriate comparison if one absolutely wants to compare with the Balkans war – it nonetheless provides the perfect case to demonstrate just how powerless and absent the UN has become when it comes to international conflicts.

In comparison to the mid-1990s, the UN is not involved in Syria. No blue helmets, no missions and very limited discussions at the security council. The resolutions have no teeth and any ceasefire is the product of single states mediating like the current “cease-fire” brokered by Turkey and Russia or through a coalition like the Geneva talks. But no talk about UN intervention or truly meaningful gestures. The UN as a conflict resolution platform has been cast aside. And Aleppo, rather than being the spark that leads to intervention as was the attack on the market in Sarajevo in 1994, or the piles of bodies in Rwanda, is actually the nail in the coffin. Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon’s words are unheard, as are those of his successor. At the time when it was needed the most, the UN is at its most absent.

As if Aleppo was not enough, the situation in Yemen and the massacres that occur there on a daily basis are also outside the organisation’s sphere of influence. Same goes for South Sudan. In any conflict right now, the UN is allowed to record the minutes, but not to speak, to send material and personnel, but not to intervene. A far cry from its original purpose.

The fact is the UN is simply not allowed to act. Credibility was lost and state sovereignty has proven supreme in dictating international policy, despite idealists’ best wishes and efforts. And so the resolution of conflicts now either lies with small coalitions, regional bodies or as Saudi Arabia and Russia have proven over the last year, with states that are willing to get involved on their terms, whatever the latter may be. In other words, those flexing their muscles dictate the pace of conflict resolution.

70 years ago it was never again; 40 years ago, never again; 20 years ago, never again; today, never again. I really thought the UN would help cure our amnesia. It didn’t worked out, but thanks for trying.

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