In a fairly desultory post, Helen ‘Skepticlawyer’ Dale presents the right wing de rigueur view that the United Nations is a waste of space dominated by corrupt third world regimes and should be abolished. Her pretext is the imminent establishment of a new UN agency for women’s rights which is to include those noteworthy feminist champions Iran and Saudi Arabia.
One could make similar points about the (now superseded) UN Commission on Human Rights, whose membership just prior to its abolition included paragons of civil liberties like Ethiopia, Sudan, Zimbabwe, China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and Russia. Even its ostensibly reformed replacement body the Human Rights Council includes China, Libya, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Cuba!!!
Nevertheless, although I have some sympathy for Helen’s views, on balance I think those of UK academic Bill Bowring expounded in the (always worth browsing) openDemocracy are rather more nuanced and preferable:
BB: When I am teaching public international law to my students we start with the question: Is public international law really law? There is a strong English theory – the law is the command of the sovereign. In international sphere there is no sovereign, we have no world government, so many theorists will say there is no such a thing as international law, it does not exist. So how can you teach it? To which I think part of the answer is that there is a huge amount of international law on all kinds of issues and 99 % of the time it’s obeyed by everybody. We could not possibly have telecommunications, we could not have postal services, we could not have the use of the sea, and we could not have air-transport. The area of law which most people come across on a daily basis is the Highway Code. Some people disobey it and crash their cars and kill people, but 99 per cent of the time people obey the Highway Code, because otherwise you could hardly move along the road. So with international law it’s very much the same.
There’s been a massive growth in international law since the Second World War, since the formation of the United Nations, in all kinds of fields. And what I find very interesting and encouraging is that even states like the United States, the most powerful country in the world, which often feel that the International law is quite uncomfortable and they do not like it, they still put enormous resources into explaining that they are behaving lawfully.
The world is by no means perfect and there are terrible things going on, but we need a lot more of these structures, so that states really have to think before they use armed force…
MK: And yet in your book you quote the international relations scholar David Chandler who proclaimed the “degradation” of international law following the US and UK response to the events of September 11, 2001. Moreover, you describe a “prelude” to these events and state “the three exemplary uses of armed force against Iraq (1991), Serbia (1999) and finally Afghanistan (2001) appear as three acts in a tragedy of intimate deception, a macabre vampire-bride relationship between law and power… First consummation, when law and power, freed by the end of the Cold War, seemed set for the longed-for happy alliance; second seduction, when power sought from law invasion of its means of creation, international custom; third, rejection, when power, having taken and ravished the law, turned its back and walked away”. And then you talk of “the blatantly unlawful behaviour of the US and UK in the invasion and occupation of Iraq”. So you seem to support the idea of “degradation” and “violation” of law. What are the means, then, to “rehabilitate law”, borrowing your terminology?
BB: My bottom line in this chapter and throughout the book is to insist that the United Nations is worth preserving, because I am arguing against people, in particular David Chandler, who think that the United Nations is a complete waste of time, that human rights is a shamble and one should forget about it, that is, he is basically saying this is all worthless. I say, on the contrary, that the United Nations has developed principles that we need to stick to very closely indeed, in particular on the use of force – when force can be used in self-defence, and the whole series of principles. For my part why I say that these principles are so worth sticking to is because they are precisely the product of the transformation of the international order as a result of the aftermath of the Second World War and the collapse of the colonial empires, and the transformation of the United nations from a small club of victors to the enormous organisation that we have now. These principles have tremendous historical content and we have to defend them. That is why I use the phrase “the degradation of the international legal order” with a question mark. The question is: is it finished and we forget about it or on the contrary, is it more important than ever? I go for the latter.
MK: But hasn’t the United Nations actually deteriorated in later years? We all remember how impatient everybody was with United Nations during the wars in former Yugoslavia, for example. They did not seem to be doing anything, just procrastinating, didn’t they?
BB: There is a difference between the General Assembly, where all states are represented, which is able to get things to the International Court of Justice, and the Security Council , which is still the permanent members, still the winning side in the Second World War, including Russia sitting in the place of the Soviet Union. And it is a fact that it badly needs reforming, it’s been obvious for a long time, because in any serious conflict either Russia will vote against, or China will vote against, or the United States will vote against… However, I still maintain that the UN represents a huge achievement. And if certain people would say: “get rid of it!”, they will have to rebuild it once again, and I do not see the point of that.
Moreover, one would have to be determinedly curmudgeonly to be really negative about the role of longstanding UN agencies like UNHCR, UNESCO or UNICEF. The UN is a radically imperfect institution, like all human creations, but at the very least it provides a valuable counterbalance to jingoisitc patriotism and the cynical embrace of sovereign immunity by bloodthirsty dictators like Chile’s Pinochet.