The challenges to restoring global order
“The exercise of overwhelming US power strikes at the heart of the United Nations’ very raison d’etre: the independence and neutrality of its actions. That must be moderated if the UN is to succeed in restoring global order.”
AFTER a decade of desultory leadership at the United Nations under Ban Ki Moon, there was excitement about the prospects of a more effective and independent United Nations under the new, and highly accomplished, Secretary General Antonio Guterres. He was the most senior political figure, and also the most prepared, to have been appointed secretary general – a former prime minister of Portugal, and one who had navigated some of the most perilous issues of our time as UN High Commissioner for Refugees in the last two years in particular.
I had met Mr Guterres twice when I accompanied Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, as his Spokesman and Senior Adviser, in negotiations with him, in Nairobi and in Davos in 2009 and 2010. Mr Guterres was trying to persuade President Mwai Kibaki to roll back Kenya’s announced intention to close the Dabaab camp and forcibly deport Somali refugees back to Somalia, an action not permitted under international law. Mr Odinga and I both I found him very courageous as well as politically savvy, and his humanitarian commitment was strong. He succeeded after doggedly pursuing his goal of protection for Somali refugees for three years.
But US President Trump dealt a blow to the hopes about Mr Guterres last week when he bullied him into demanding the “withdrawal” of a study by the UN Regional Commission for the Arab world, which likened Israeli occupation practices in Palestine to apartheid. The highly-respected head of the UN Commission, the highly-respected former Deputy Prime Minister of Jordan, understandably resigned, outraging Arabs and others at this blatant suppression of speech.
The Commission’s Study was done by two independent professors, one of them the legendary Richard Falk, Princeton University professor of international law, who was denigrated in most media reports in the US as being “anti-Semitic” – quoting Israelis! That’s the standard charge against anyone who criticizes Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. The study prominently said on its first page that it reflected the views of its two authors, not the United Nations, but that did not sway Mr Trump.
Because of that explicit disclaimer, some have felt Mr Guterres should have strongly distanced himself from the study rather than give in to US demands. Having worked at UN headquarters for 20 years, the last six as a Director of Communications under Secretary General Kofi Annan, I can attest to how difficult it is to resist the US when its determined to get its way. But most people are unaware of this power the US exercises over the UN: it can slash its UN contributions. And it can cripple its workings by withholding the indispensable cooperation the UN head needs from the world’s sole superpower to carry out his mandates.
While even modest UN independence seems totally unavailable under Mr Trump, secretaries general Kofi Annan and Boutros-Ghali fell afoul of it too. But unlike the current case, in which Mr Guterres played no direct role whatsoever, the two suffered for courageous public positions they took, Mr Annan on the legality of the Iraq War in 2003 and Mr Boutros-Ghali over publishing a report of an investigation into Israeli bombing of a UN battalion’s base which killed 100 refugees. Mr Annan weathered the unrelenting attacks that followed his BBC assertion, but the US vetoed Mr Boutros-Ghali’s second term, as it had threatened to if he published the report. That was the only time a UN secretary general was denied a second term, and the other 14 Security Council member states supported him. That’s how strong the US is when it comes to the UN, or indeed just about everywhere.
The exercise of this overwhelming US power strikes at the heart of the United Nations’ very raison d’etre: the independence and neutrality of its positions and actions. Regrettably, none of the many proposals about UN reform address this dimension. The UN must operate in the real world, but an enlightened United States should moderate its demands if the UN is to succeed in restoring global order, whose first beneficiary will be the US itself.