When an organization falls short of expectations, there are two options: try to fix it, or cut your losses, and scrap it altogether. Critics of the United Nations argue it has fallen so short of the objectives set out in its original charter it would be better to dismantle this discredited organization than to try to make it work.
But scrapping the UN in favour of an uncertain future would be a reckless move in a world where conflict is spreading, corruption is rampant and nuclear proliferation continues unabated. Flawed as the UN is, it is still the only means the world has to keep nations talking to each other.
There is no question that the ambitions for the UN were high when it rose from the ashes of the Second World War. It was to patch the holes exposed in the hapless League of Nations. It was to provide both peacekeeping and humanitarian relief that would finally put the world on a more enlightened path.
But, in the ensuing years, there has also been “mission creep” for this well-meaning institution. Somewhere along the way, it was also commissioned to be a peacemaker, willing to intervene in a nation’s affairs at even a military level if conditions warranted. In the minds of some, it became the prototype for world government, the policeman that would only intervene in crises where the state failed to protect its population – things like genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.
It is this mission creep – chasing these unrealistic expectations – that have saddled the UN with an impossible mandate. It has, in effect, been set up for failure.
No question, when it comes to military punch, the UN has consistently failed when it mattered most.
Ask Romeo Dallaire.
The Canadian General who headed up the UN mission in Rwanda witnessed first-hand the genocide of Rwanda’s Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Every step of the way, Dallaire was stymied by his superiors in his plea to step in and stop the slaughter. It was in the soul-searching that followed that 1994 disaster that the UN’s expanded mandate found its shape.
The UN has been severely criticized for its failure to intervene in the Second Congo War, the 1995 Srebrenica (Bosnia) massacre, failure to help feed the starving people in Somalia when that country’s government effectively disappeared and failure to cut short the genocide in Dafur.
In the wake of the Rwanda slaughter, the African Union urged the UN to embrace the concept of the Responsibility to Protect (R to P). Canada’s government established the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2000, and a year later that body laid out the R to P concept, arguing the international community has the duty to intervene – by military force, if necessary – when a sovereign government lets its own people down.
But the world body continues to drag its feet.
Still, the UN deserves credit not for what it has failed to do, but for what it has managed to prevent in the 65 years since the second great clash of superpowers.
It’s hard to measure how much credit belongs to the UN for the things that haven’t happened. But, whatever those member countries’ grievances, they should stop to ponder what a world without a UN at all might have looked like. A cumbersome UN may be a lot better than no such body at all.
The UN can achieve no more than its mandate permits. Unless and until that mandate is revised, the world’s nations must bring their expectations into line. We should stop asking the UN to be a world government, when it was never intended to be one.
Doug Firby, a former editorial pages editor at the Calgary Herald, is managing editor of Troy Media Corporation.