UN: Protectors or Watchers?

by Thambu Kanagasabai, LLM [Lond.], former Lecturer in Law, University of Colombo, January 1, 2018

The United Nations is a global organization that brings together its member states to confront common challenges, manage shared reponsibilities and exercise collective action in an enduring “quest for a peaceful world.”  One of the main purposes of the United Nations is to maintain world peace and security.  At present there are 193 member states in the United Nations.

Of the all main organs of the United Nations, the Security Council is the primary organ consisting of five permanent members [USA, United Kingdom, China, France and Russia] and ten rotating members chosen as representatives of various regions of the world.

The Security Council has the primary responsibility under the United Nations Charter for the maintenance of international peace and security.  Resolutions of the Security Council legally bind the member states for compliance, while the other UN resolutions do not have any legally binding effect, with consequences for non-compliance unless authorized by the Security Council.

The United Nations can, however, make suggestions and recommendations to the Security Council for its consideration and adoption.

One of the United Nations’ primary purposes is promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to age, sex, language or religion and member states pledge to undertake ‘joint and separate action” to protect these rights ‘with member states duty bound to carry out UN Resolutions.

In practice, however, the United Nations General Assembly on its own cannot take sufficient action against human rights abuses without a Security Council Resolution. The Security Council since its inception in 1948 has so far passed more than 2400 resolutions. The Security Council through its resolutions has the power to impose economic, political and/or diplomatic sanctions against any state which is in breach of any Articles of United Nations Conventions resulting in threats of peace, breaches of peace or acts of aggression. Besides, the Security Council can also authorize peace-keeping operations including military action as happened in 1991 against Iraq which invaded and occupied Kuwait in August 1990.

The Security Council authorises referrals to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to try leaders of countries and/or military officials who are alleged to have committed war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide etc.  This referral brings countries who have not signed the Rome Statute of 2002 to face prosecution for war crimes, etc as happened in Rwanda in 1994, the Darfur genocide in 2005 and the genocide by rulers of Sudan in 2011 against South Sudan rebels.

The Security Council by Resolution No 1706 in 2006 first invoked R2P [Responsibility to Protect] (later reaffirmed in Resolution 1674)  is empowered to take preventive action to protect civilians in armed conflict, including initiating action against genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

All in all, the duties of maintenance of world peace, prevention of human rights violations and punishment of perpetrators lie only on the Security Council’s fifteen members, particularly on the five permanent members who also enjoy the veto power to nullify a resolution even if backed by the other fourteen members.

The power of vetoing a resolution by a permanent member even if  backed by all the rest of the 14 Security Council members is a humiliation and disrespect to other members, which action has been often described as an ‘abuse of power’ by one member. “Veto power was alleged to be forced by the Super Powers through threat that without the veto there will be no United Nations.” The net effect is that the UN Security Council is owned by the five Super Powers who can make or unmake a resolution and situation. The recent veto exercised by the USA in the Security Council to rescind its decision to recognize Jerusalem as capital of Israel is one example when world opinion was treated with nil importance and scant respect.  The USA being the major contributor of funds for United Nations [about 22%] also holds dominant influence over the functions of the United Nations.

If one traces the record of the United Nations and particularly the Security Council during the past 50 years, its dismal performances and failures stand exposed and glaring to any  observer.   Some of the inexcusable failures are as follows, which could have been prevented at the outset, but were allowed to reach their ends with horrifying results:

The genocide of Bangladeshis in 1971 during the war with Pakistan

The genocide in Cambodia in year 1970 by Pol Pot.

The genocide in Rwanda in year 1994 when Tutsis in thousands were killed by Hutus.

Massacres in Srebrenica in year 1995 where Muslims were massacred by Serbs.

Civil war in Somalia and Sudan which resulted in the killings of thousands of rebels by government forces and militants with the blessings of their rulers.

The gross failure of United Nations and Security Council during the genocidal war in Sri Lanka from 2006 to May 18, 2009 is one recent ignominious performance of the world bodies, the United Nations and Security Council.

The Toronto Star [Canada] on November 20, 2012 commented this failure as follows:-

“When as many as 40,000 Tamils were killed during the final months of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009, the United Nations did not hold a single formal meeting. Not at the Security Council, not at the General Assembly. Not at the Human Rights Council.”

“In Sri Lanka, United Nations retreated into craven silence and looked the other way that emboldened war criminals to ply their vicious trade”.

“This systematic failure is appalling coming long after the United Nations was thought to have absorbed the ‘NEVER AGAIN’ lessons from the Rwanda genocide and Srebrenica in 1995”

Rosie Dimanno, the Star columnist commented as follows: “On Sri Lanka the United Nations was notoriously deaf, dumb and blind”.

“The United Nations had a pretty clear idea of what was happening in the killing fields of Sri Lanka during the bloody climax of civil war, yet it suppressed or diluted that information, utterly failing in its core mission of protecting civilians”.

“Instead the Security Council and United Nations Secretariat were cowed by the Sri Lankan authorities, who enjoyed “the effective acquiescence of post 9/11 world order” to defeat an enemy”.  Genocide Prevention Project [NY] Index 2008 “identified Sri Lanka as one of the eight alert countries where genocide and other mass atrocities were under way”.

Former Secretary General Ban ki-Moon, who remained passive and action-less during the war, visited Sri Lanka in September 2016 and lamented as follows, conceding the grave failure of his office:

“Something more terrible, serious happened in the past. In 1994, in Rwanda, there was a massacre. More than one million people were massacred. United Nations felt responsible for that.”

“It happened just one year after in Srebrenica. Again, many people were massacred, when they were not fully protected by the United Nations Peacekeeping Operations. So, we repeated again, Never again.”

“How many times should we repeat never, never again? We did again in Sri Lanka. We have to do much more not to repeat such things in Sri Lanka, Yemen and elsewhere.”

Adding insult to injury was the UNHRC’s Resolution in May 2009 which praised Sri Lanka for ending the civil war by eliminating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam [LTTE]; However, this resolution was condemned later “as a slap on human rights and endorsement of genocide, but later realised its folly and ignorance of facts and figures and falling to the game of duplicity by Sri Lanka”.

Some legal commentators have even hinted the United Nations’ failures as a crime of complicity committed during the war providing the encouragement and allowing its continuation.  However, the failure of United Nations and Security Council is continuing in the current situation involving the ethnic Rohingya Muslims who have been living in Myanmar [Burma] for generations. They have been stripped of their citizenship and denied almost all rights and also labelled as stateless. Rohingyas are people with their own language, religion and culture. They are a distinct ethnic group qualified for protection by United Nations and necessary action against Myanmar [Burmese] authorities and security forces that are forcefully expelling them from their Rakhine State to flee and take shelter in the neighbouring poor country Bangladesh.

The current situation as commented by a former United Nations General Romeo Dallaire is “You are in the midst of a very slow moving deliberate genocide”. Various genocidal crimes are being committed by the Myanmar [Burmese] Government and security forces including forceful expulsion by the Myanmar army which is continuing to commit the crimes of murder, rape, burning of their houses and villages in addition to mass atrocities. It is estimated that between August and September 2017, 6,700 Rohingyas were killed while 670,000 have fled the Buddhist-majority Myanmar into Bangladesh to escape the ‘ethnic cleansing’ as called by the United Nations is now described as genocide.

The disgusting scenario is the continuing of military operations despite condemnations and mutual agreements with Myanmar Government to diffuse the crisis.

The world is watching the horrors in Myanmar, as is the United Nations and Security Council.  United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres summed up the situation as follows:

“We are still repeating rather than preventing and acting only when it is often too late. We must do more to respond early and keep violence from escalating. One such case may be Myanmar”.

“One year of investigations reveals mounting evidence that points to genocide against Rohingya Muslims with Myanmar army soldiers, police and civilians as the major perpetrators. Genocide has recurred multiple times”. .

“Rohingyas have suffered attacks and systematic violations for decades.”

The Tamils in Sri Lanka also suffered the similar harrowing experiences for the last sixty years under the watchful eyes of the United Nations and the International Community.

It is clear as crystal that the International Community and Myanmar Government failed to protect Rohingya civilians from mass atrocities, repeating the UN’s failure in Sri Lanka.

What has been going on in the Rakhine State of Rohingyas is nothing but a calculated pre-planned process of genocide committed by Myanmar.  This is now openly admitted by the United Nations and International Community but only after watching the continuation of atrocities and remaining abhorrently silent until genocide is accomplished like in Sri Lanka.  United Nations Secretary General admits this by saying that “Genocide can take place in times of war and in times of peace. We must be ever vigilant”.

Special Adviser on Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng summed up the situation correctly as follows:

“It is our inaction and effectiveness in addressing the warning signals that allows it to become a reality. Genocide does not happen by accident. It is deliberate with warning signs and pre cursors”.

Whether the Security Council will even now act quickly and decisively to prevent the genocide of Rohingyas is anybody’s guess even though International pressure is mounting.

It appears that the five permanent members of Security Council are adopting a lethargic wait-and-see approach to the plight of Rohnigyas due to the veto threat of Russia and China.  The permanent members, particularly the USA spring in to action when their economic, political and strategic interests are threatened, for instance, to protect the oil rich state Kuwait, which prompted the intervention and invasion of Iraq in 1990.

Strategic interests to protect the friendly state Israel prompted Security Council scrambling into an emergency session to discuss the Israeli-Gaza conflict when ten Israeli lives were lost.

It can be stated that a thread of duplicity appears to be running through the web of United Nations’ actions which seems to confirm the application of different scales of values to people affected depending on the continents they live. Certainly Africa and Asia fall within this web of duplicity.

There is no denying of the fact that the Security Council is being monopolized to protect and promote the interests of the Super Powers, rather than to go to the rescue of the marginalised victims of state aggression, particularly in third world countries.

Even manipulation and intimidating tactics are employed to achieve the goals of some powerful countries. Furthermore United Nations also failed to enforce  R2P [Responsibility to protect] rule introduced by Canada, making its existence questionable and irrelevant.

British historian Paul Kennedy’s statement on Security Council confirms “Glaring failures had not only accompanied the United Nation’s’ many achievements, but they overshadowed them, for instance the lack of will to prevent ethnic massacres in Bosnia and Rwanda.”

The discriminatory enforcement or lack of enforcement of Security Council’s Resolutions also cast doubts on the integrity of United Nations Resolutions concerning Muslims who are apparently treated unfavourably like the Resolutions demanding withdrawal of Israel from occupied areas while Israel is allowed to flout it by building new settlements. It is to be noted that the affected Rohingyas are also Muslims living in poverty and neglected.

The present United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein recently expressed his frustration over the current plight and state of human rights by saying that “This is an age when United States and other world powers are retreating from their historical commitments to human rights”. His decision to not to request extension to his position due to this sorry state of human rights has only worsened the plight of the victims of human rights who as an alternative could be forced to resort to obtain redress and relief employing violent methods .

Besides addressing the issues like lack of will and collective agreement to prevent genocide, the United Nations also must concentrate to evolve new swift judicial mechanisms without delay to ensure accountability for the perpetrators of war crimes etc.

United Nations should act fast to prevent and end the human tragedies rather than silently watching to know the end result of the atrocities. Like what has happened to the Tamils in Sri Lanka and now what is happening to the Muslims in Myanmar where the majority community are also Buddhists.


No Responses to “UN: Protectors or Watchers?”

  1. Kumarathasan Rasingam

    The voice of the New UN Secretary General is ringing in my ears: he said “In the end, it comes down to values, as was said so many times today. We want the world our children inherit to be defined by the values enshrined in the UN Charter: peace, justice, respect, human rights, tolerance and solidarity.”
    We see no improvement or change UN is failing again and again instead of its slogan “Never again’
    The UN Internal Report exposed UN’s failure “Charles Petrie Report
    Report of the United Nations Secretary General’s Internal Review
    UN Action in Sri Lanka released November 14th, 2012. This internal review, undertaken by Charles Petrie, reveals UN involvement in Sri Lanka to be a “grave failure” in preventing the mass atrocities that occurred at the end of the civil war in 2009
    Also former UN Official Gordon Weiss in his book ‘CAGE’ – Chapter Six: Inside the cage
    Pages 125 – 126 “The UN’s public position appeared muted and equivocal to the outside world. The Secretary General’s style of quiet diplomacy on Sri Lanka struck observers as a blow to international good order, at a time when the world seemed ‘ravaged by international economic, environmental and security problems, which cry out for multilateral solutions.’ Newspaper headlines decried ‘the UN’s Invisible Man and said of him “whereabouts Unknown’. The most damaging assessment, was a leaked memo from Norway’s deputy UN ambassador, Mona Juul, who accused Ban of being a ‘powerless observer’ to the humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka whose ‘passive and not very committed appeals seem to fell on deaf ears’
    Unless there are immediate reforms and monitoring system there will be more and more Never Again.
    UN must wake up and proof its genuine policy of protecting the oppressed civilians in the world.

  2. Manicka Vasagar

    After all the inaction and painfull mistakes made by the UN, state aided terrorism and structural genocide is still continuing on the Tamils in the NE of Sri Lanka and to the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State in Myanmar.

    UN has now at least the opportunity to correct its own past mistakes, make good and refer these two rogues states to the ICC and or to the UNSC, to resolve this long drawn ethnic issues and not prolong the sufferings of these people.

    Sri Lanka, Myanmar and North Korea is thumbing the nose of the UN, catch me if you can?

    Is UN, UNHRC, ICC, relevant to the victims of human rights abuses?

  3. S Siva

    An outstanding article with a perfect title – “Protectors or Watchers” when heinous crimes are committed by state forces including mass human rights abuses, genocide and governments are still practicing Apartheid policies in the 21st century. Why would corrupt, incompetent, chauvinistic, weak and failed people are appointed as leaders of a global body that requires strong, talented, brave, forceful and powerful leaders to stand firm on principles, fair, save humanity and take bold action?

    UN and US have been failing on many issues for decades and thanks to WikiLeaks exposing to the world that many war crimes, oppressive actions were ignored although it was known to US and UN. UN is undemocratic in many ways as it does not represent each race based on numbers (over 100 million Tamils have no representation or voice at the UN), dictators and oppressive regimes are members of UN, alleged war criminals are allowed to speak at the UN, small nations that rely on rich nations for their survival voice/vote in support of funding nations and not act based on principles and so on. Democracy is a failure in many nations due to illiteracy, corruption, oppression, two failed parties controlling politics, caste and discrimination and India is a classic example of utter failure in many ways. Western colonialism that imposed their Apartheid and racist rule on other nations, merged many nations as one (today British voters voted for BREXIT) that led many races losing their freedom, democracy, rule of law, sovereignty and Justice. UK despite made a mockery in merging and leaving nations together, when there were solid evidence Sri Lanka state oppression against minorities that lost its sovereignty as a result of colonialism, war crimes and genocide, UK leaders allegedly collaborated to genocidal Sri Lankan regime.

    Nobel prize has tainted its image when it awarded Nobel prize to Obama and Obama was at the White House when Sri Lankan forces allegedly committed genocide against Tamils. Good governance is failing all over the world due to Western double standard and Apartheid policies and UN has been a failure since its inception. No wonder North Korea has no confidence in western democracies and International Community. It looks that world was in peace due to cold war period and Russia should be admired as it ended its occupation of many nations by giving them freedom, and it should continue to support freedom struggles in other nations including Eelam Tamils. When we need to choose between two evils, we need to support the better evil that is reliable and trustworthy than the other to win their rights, freedom, independence, sovereignty and justice!

  4. Kannan

    Excellent article published at the appropriate time when the United Nations just watched the human rights violations increasing all around the world. The UN is powerless and the independence of the UN and its member countries are controlled by the Super Powers holding veto power.
    It is time for UN to make radical changes in the system and reforms to control the countries that are violating human rights and and UN Charter.
    It is time for the Human Rights Organizations all over the world to voice for this reform and make this world peaceful.