Abolish the UN?

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One could make similar points about the (now superseded) UN Commission on Human Rights, whose membership just prior to its abolition included paragons of civil liberties like Ethiopia, Sudan, Zimbabwe, China,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.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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11 years ago

The guts of his argument boils down to a desire to keep the UN because he likes its (sometimes) values. My view is that once those (sometimes) values have been abandoned (as is increasingly the case, the Iran/Saudi Arabia thing being but the latest example), then the whole institution ought to go.

I also think that his other arguments have been ably answered in the thread to my post (which is now 80 comments long).

I will also concede that I wrote what is a very brief post in large part because I wanted to make my MAFF joke, which did (briefly) lead to some nice Yes, Minister and Monty Python moments.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
11 years ago

I am with Ken. The UN only costs 2 billion a year. It should not be judged on the fact that it has not and probably will not deliver on impossible dreams, but rather on whether its values, some particular programs (like the UNHCR and the IPCC), and fora for international deliberation are worth 2 billion. I would say we are getting a cheap deal. The idea of the UN’s existence alone is worth a lot more than 2 billion a year.

Saying there is a net benefit to the UN is not the same as condoning its inadequacies or the need for reforms, or even the need to bypass it on many fronts.

11 years ago

There are two parts of this post I find intriguing. The first (and cheapest) is your final comment that ‘at the very least [the UN] provides a valuable counterbalance to jingoisitc [sic] patriotism and the cynical embrace of sovereign immunity by bloodthirsty dictators like Chile’s Pinochet.

This is intriguing because really I would have thought that the UN was a great place for the cynical embrace of sovereign ‘immunity’. Art 2?

The second thing I find intriguing is Bowring’s argument itself. He suggests that the UN is worth keeping because, as SL puts it, he likes some of its values (presumably he does not like the ‘values’ of the UNCHR, for example). Especially, he likes the UN as a source of Human Rights law, as opposed to Humanitarian law (IHL: the Geneva Conventions and associated protocols as well as jus cogens).

Why he prefers Human Rights Law to IHL is that he has found Human Rights law, as integrated into the European constituent documents is a more powerful lever from which to constrain State action.

(As an aside: In the particular case, he has a very noble example, being the Russians in Chechnya. But he then continues to discuss a much more arguable example, being the British in Iraq. A layman can readily detect some differences in these two examples. Bowring only indirectly refers to a more subtle difference, when he acknowledges that Russia has no intention of complying with the Human Rights law in question. Britain, of course, probably will. And so you have the uncomfortable spectacle of far-less-guilty ‘civilised’ countries being constrained and punished while the barbarians continue to sack, rape, torture and pillage. But this is only an aside.)

He neglects to note another difference between IHL and Human Rights Law, although it is a critical difference in his examples. That is that IHL is ‘real’ international law in the sense that it reflects actual State practice (more often than not) and that it is agreed to by States (including, as he notes, those that don’t actually comply). IHL is generally enforceable in domestic courts for that reason, subject to jurisdiction and standing. Human Rights law is ‘aspirational’ law, in the absence of a structure like the EU it is usually rather impotent.

This leads to the problem with preferring Human Rights law for its ‘usefulness’: such usefulness is predicated on some form of architecture to impose the rules on countries. That may be all well and good within the EU. But on a larger scale that essentially presupposes a more powerful and ‘stronger’ UN.

Ironically, it is the very idea of a more powerful UN which inspires the thought that we should actually just get rid of it rather than take the risk. This is not entirely unjustified. Note his reference to the old adage that if the UN didn’t exist you would have to invent it. Honestly, if one was to propose a more powerful UN, I would seriously prefer a re-invented one to any extension of the current one, built as it is on the core principle, of equality in sovereignty (and by extension KP’s derided sovereign immunity within its sovereign territory and vis-à-vis its subjects).

The current UN works, barely, as a place for people to talk and as an umbrella organisation for some worthwhile initiatives (but the postal stuff, to use one of his examples of ‘essential’ international law, substantially predates the UN and didn’t seem to gain effectiveness from the presence of the UN). At the same time it serves as a harbour and umbrella organisation for enough thoroughly revolting anti-Semitism and pro-tinpot dictatorshipism to give any sane person considerable pause at the idea of investing it with greater power.

To cap it all off he even invokes that sacré canard, the ‘broken’ security council. Whilst obviously India should be a permanent member and France Britain and Germany should amalgamate their seats, the UNSC and its self-arrogated veto is the sanity valve and sole saviour of the UN.

I’m sorry for Mr Bowring, but a world of enforceable Human Rights Law under the UN sans UNSC would be a world in which Iranians would not go to prison for stoning but he might well for criticising them!

derrida derider
derrida derider
11 years ago

It seems people like skepticlawyer have in mind that the UN be replaced by a white man’s club that spends its time enforcing US foreign policy and lecturing lesser breeds without the law.

Paul is dead right – judge it on what it achieves for its money, not on what it would achieve in an ideal world. Anyway, having Iran and its ilk capture a few committees is a small price to pay for getting them in a room, talking to them and mutually discovering that in fact Satan is not present in said room.

11 years ago

That would be nice, DD, if anyone seriously believed that the Iranian delegation to the UN expects to find Satan in the room.

I think they expect to find an opportunity to pursue their national interest, which they do with vigour. I think it unremarkable to note that their perceived national interest is in many ways downright offensive to what we consider basic morality (demonisation of Irael, support for blasphemy laws, shoring up of Iran’s sovereign right to hang gays, stone women and subsidise the disintegration of neighbouring States, etc).

KP – starting at about the third para, since I don’t think we really disagree at all until there.

(I) He would love to go to the ICC, but it doesn’t have jurisdiction over Russia nor Chechnya without a UNSC referral. Not happening as you correctly note in your penultimate paragraph. Why otherwise he is interested in human rights law is that it, I believe, presupposes the absence of an ‘armed conflict’ and presupposes that any death is a wrongful death. IHL on the other hand, which I believe is considered to be the only law applying to armed conflict, presupposes that some people are combatants and can legitimately be killed, and that some people whilst civilians may unavoidably be killed anyway.

Not unsuprisingly, as a litigator he preferred the easiest path. I think.

(II) I don’t think of him as a simplistic anything or anyone’s dupe. My apologies if I gave that impression.

(III) Agree about the UNSC, as per my parentheses. Basically my reading of Bowring’s comments is more suspicious than yours. Maybe it is paranoid! But often talk of ‘reforming’ the UNSC is about getting rid of the ‘great power’ vetos. We seem to both agree that whilst these are not perfect they are much better than not having one. The rest of my comment was hopefully about explaining my concerns around the use of the GA as a body from which to drive Human Rights law.

(IV) I meant the Human Rights Council. I presume that he doesn’t agree that Israel is worth nearly as much attention as it gets, I can only imagine that he doesn’t believe in the right to religious practice without fear or scrutiny or comment and I believe that he would agree with that body’s Rapporteur, who thought that Sri Lanka committed human rights abuses in his defeat of the Tamils, but not the actual Council who disagreed and praised Sri Lanka for its noble defence of sovereignty, instead.

peter d jones
peter d jones
11 years ago

This is a classical right wing position, echoed by Pauline Hanson in her appalling first speech in Parliament in September 1996. These critics always get the General Assembly mixed up with the Security Council and forget that it is the great powers who have made the UN ineffective for much of the time since 1945, especially during the Cold War years and because of US refusal to sign virtually any international treaty or convention.

It also forgets that the UN is more than the GA and that the work of the agencies goes on regardless, as well as agencies like the ICJ. The UN operates on a shoe string compared to what the world spends on the military and while it is sad that many governments use the UN as a dumping ground for incompetent politicians and diplomats, the world would be worse off without it. Right wing critics would have us go back to the Law of the Jungle and spend more on the military which would be disastrous.

While it is depressing to see how authoritarian regimes posture on issues like Human Rights and Women’s Rights, it is worth remembering who keeps them in power, for example Saudi Arabia which sits on 50% of the world’s cheap oil. In this respect, the Big Five are all culpable. If you start posturing about who is qualified and who is not, who acts as the arbiter ? That would be a dangerous polarisation like good guy NWS and bad guy NWS.

michael wilson
11 years ago

well i ain’t no lawyer but i have spent some time with some and the law works largely on precedents ,i have had my sights set on gaining human rights for drug addicts for many years now since i joined the legion of the dammed .being am iv speed user .but its always possible to force a solution through sheer force of will .the government has blocked my web sites for years but now they are left with the consequences.i have an electronic paper trail of proof they can’t erase.and a court system to try them with you see they must obey the laws they said were real in the past or they become proven liars and the Nuremberg war crime trial i believe were held in Geneva so i intend to take a slice of the Australian government to face war crimes charges for their .war on drugs you see drugs are an inanimate object and can’t have a war waged on them so the war on drugs was and still is a war on the victims of drugs a slice of their own population unfit for combat because of their illness poor because of the governments interference in market forces and politically unrepresented since the state believes it owns them lock stock and barrel.and the proof is you can only tell something you believe you own what it can and can’t do with its mind so on its belief of ownership it has tortured addicts into lives of crime and prostitution by using withdrawal.but the best part of all of this is that just doing my job is no excuse for doing an act that you knew was morally wrong so i would say its game set and match to the junkies against crime liberation front P.S.i am dismantling the drug laws of this country on the 21 st of APRIL ANY ONE WHO WANT’S A DAY OF FUN BE AT PARRAMATTA DISTRICT COURT and if they guiltlessly no bill it i will sue for damages as this is public notice that if they don’t proceed they are wasting my time deliberately and in a callous and calculating way by forcing me to sign on for bail for a case they can’t win. regards the motorcyclemessiah