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Commentary: From Gaza to Ukraine, the UN is fast becoming irrelevant

BERLIN: “I am ashamed of the UN.” That’s how Czech Defense Minister Jana Cernochova put it the other day, referring to the United Nations. “In my opinion, the Czech Republic has nothing to expect in an organisation that supports terrorists and does not respect the basic right to self-defence. Let’s get out.”

Wow. Nobody is expecting the Czechs to quit the UN, but Cernochova’s outrage says it all. One way or another, pretty much every one of its 193 member nations is fed up and increasingly convinced that the UN is fast making itself irrelevant. It’s meant to be the world’s primary organ for multilateral cooperation and collective peacekeeping, and its charter prohibits the use or threat of force.

But at this rate, the UN could soon meet the fate of its precursor, the League of Nations, which showed itself to be useless in the 1930s and was finally dissolved just after World War II.

Cernochova’s indignation concerns a UN resolution introduced by Jordan and passed by the General Assembly with a vote of 120 in favour, 14 against and 45 abstentions. It demands “an immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce” in the conflict between Israel and Hamas now raging in the Gaza Strip. 

But the assembly had first rejected an amendment sponsored by Canada. It would have added that the UN also “unequivocally rejects and condemns the terrorist attacks by Hamas” and demands the immediate release of all hostages. As passed, the resolution therefore doesn’t mention Hamas, the hostages or Israel’s right to self-defence.

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DIPLOMATIC VERSION OF A MUD-WRESTLING FIGHT

Well, you may say, that’s just the General Assembly. The real action at the UN is in the Security Council, the body of five permanent and 10 rotating members that can dispatch troops to make or keep peace in trouble spots. But that forum has become the diplomatic version of a mud-wrestling fight between the Western democracies among the five veto-wielding powers – the United States, United Kingdom and France – and the autocratic axis of Russia and China.

Last week the US proposed a council resolution that condemned Hamas’ terrorism and reaffirmed the right of all states to self-defence. It demanded the release of the hostages and also called for “humanitarian pauses” to protect civilians. Nope, said Russia and China. They were joined by one of the rotating members, the United Arab Emirates. 

Then it was Russia’s turn to get rejected. Its resolution called for an immediate ceasefire and condemned all violence against civilians. That’s rich coming from a nation that’s been bombing, abducting, maiming and killing Ukrainian civilians for more than 600 days. The other problem was that Russia’s version failed also to recognise Israel’s right to self-defence and even called for rescinding the evacuation orders to Gazans, though those are meant to protect civilians. So the US and UK said no. 

Other countries, especially those in the so-called Global South, are trying to stay out of this geopolitical brawl and throwing up their hands in exasperation. Gabon, a rotating member of the council, voted for both the American and Russian texts, just to get something done. “We regret that antagonism within this council” makes any progress impossible, as Gabon’s representative Lily Stella Ngyema-Ndong phrased it diplomatically.

Some degree of strife in a global forum shouldn’t be surprising. As divided and polarised as we are in our domestic politics, we can hardly expect harmony when showing up at international institutions that ipso facto subsume a “clash of civilisations.”

And yet idealist internationalism rests on the aspiration of rising above our differences. It has a long and venerable tradition, embodied most famously in Woodrow Wilson, the US president who reluctantly entered World War I but then decided to “make the world safe for democracy”. The result, as conceived by him, was the League of Nations, a club of countries that promised, in theory, to provide collective security for one another, settling disputes by arbitration and defending victims of aggression.

From the start, however, the league was hobbled when the US Senate, in a snub to Wilson, failed to ratify the covenant. The US not only stayed out of the league but turned isolationist instead. Without American leadership, the league therefore lacked the “realist” element of power that Wilson’s “idealist” vision required. 

That became clear in the 1930s, in a succession of crises the league was meant to prevent or redress but couldn’t. Starting in 1931, the Japanese seized Manchuria. In 1935, Italy’s Duce, Benito Mussolini, took Abyssinia, now called Ethiopia. With the league showing its impotence in each successive crisis, Italy, Japan and Nazi Germany ignored it altogether and set the world on fire. 

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DISTRUST EVERYWHERE

The UN, chartered in San Francisco just after World War II, was therefore supposed to be a new and improved institution. And this time around, the US, the clear hegemon of the postwar order, would stick around as foster parent. 

The Cold War made that hard, of course. But the idea of collective security, which ran from Wilsonianism to the UN, stood a chance.

In 1950 the North Koreans overran the southern peninsula. On the Security Council, China was still represented by China’s Nationalists (who were by that time on Taiwan), causing the Soviets to boycott council meetings, which meant they couldn’t exercise their veto. In their absence, the body authorised a UN force – led by the US but including 14 other nations – to liberate South Korea.

These days, such intervention is unthinkable. Last year, one member of the Security Council, Russia, invaded another UN member, Ukraine, and keeps tormenting its population to this day. Then Hamas went on its rampage. And yet the international “community”, such as it is, can’t even agree on what to call such terrorism.

Admittedly, the UN still plays a vital role in other ways. Its norms and conventions regulated everything from international telecommunications to seafaring and its relief agencies work hard to alleviate the human toll of conflicts and disaster in Gaza and beyond.

But in times of crisis such as now, the General Assembly and Security Council turn into a Babel in which everybody distrusts everybody else and finding common words becomes impossible. When UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres condemned the Hamas terror but added that the attacks “did not happen in a vacuum”, Israel’s representative, Gilad Erdan, accused him of “blood libel” and demanded his resignation. 

And so things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. That centre was to be the League of Nations in Wilson’s day and the United Nations in ours.

Instead, as Israel’s Erdan has said and the Czech Republic’s Cernochova and others would agree, the United Nations “no longer holds even one ounce of legitimacy or relevance”. We have entered another age of disunited nations, an era when mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

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