Is the UN failing us?

Wednesday September 21st marked the United Nations International Day of Peace. A day dedicated to world peace: the absence of violence and war. Sadly, we must come to the conclusion that in our current global situation there is little cause for celebration. The enslavement of Yazidi women by ISIS, the current tragedy unfolding in Aleppo and the inability and unwillingness of the UN security council to take action against these and other mass atrocities taking place in Syria, should leave us feeling anything but celebratory.

Last week, Amal Clooney, renowned human rights attorney, addressed the United Nations with a powerful speech. In her speech — during which she sat next to Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman who was enslaved by ISIS herself — she expressed her discontent with the organization’s inability to prevent crimes against humanity, such as those being committed in Iraq and Syria today. She stated that she is “ashamed, as a supporter of the United Nations, that states are failing to prevent, or even punish, genocide because they find that their own interests get in the way,” and that she is “ashamed as a lawyer that there is no justice being done and barely a complaint being made about it.” The UN has shown incompetence and unwillingness in dealing with the situation is Syria, which needs targeted humanitarian interventions to end these crimes, and the world seems to simply stand by, pretending their hands are tied.

To hear how girls like Nadia have suffered at the hands of ISIS is truly appalling. ISIS has massacred over 5000 Yazidis and it is estimated that more than 3000 Yazidi girls remain enslaved today. They are sold at slave markets, tortured, and raped, a treatment that is actively promoted in pamphlets handed out by ISIS.

And it is not just the genocide against the Yazidis and other minority groups in Iraq and Syria that we are witnessing today: the images of Aleppo, the city that has been described by Amnesty International as simply “hell on earth,” are beyond comprehension. There, civilians “are suffering unthinkable atrocities,” 275,000 people are currently stuck without access to food, water, electricity or medical supplies.

In the past four years of the Syrian war, 400,000 people have been killed (although the UN stopped updating the death toll since 2014) and the Assad regime has used chemical weapons against its own civilian population on numerous occasions. Furthermore, indiscriminate bombardments by all parties continue to destroy civilian infrastructure (e.g., hospitals, schools, market places) and have led to the displacement of millions of people.

Resolutions by the UN Security Council, the body responsible for the maintenance of international security and peace and tasked with the duty “to take effective collective measures” to prevent and remove threats to that peace, have not been very effective. The organization that the world had created after World War II to help prevent future mass atrocities from ever occurring again, to “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person,” and to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” now proves to fail doing so. Today, like during World War II, we are once again trapped in a downward spiral and the organization established by the world to drag us out of it has rather become a place to legitimize state leaders instead of securing the safety of the nations as it was supposed to. The UN now seems far removed from the principles in its own charter and the world fails to hold it accountable for its incompetency.

Besides the inability to act against the current tragedies unfolding in Syria, we have also seen examples of failures of various UN policies and their devastating effects in the past. The UN failed to prevent the Rwandan genocide in 1994 (with a death toll of 800,000 people), stood by during the massacre in Srebrenica in 1995 (with a death toll of 8000), and was unable to prevent the slaughter of 6500 civilians in a UN safe zone in Sri Lanka in 2009. In addition, UN peacekeepers have been implicated in cases of rape and abuse in Congo, Haiti and Sudan, with a majority of the victims being children. As further testimony to the warped policies prevalent in the UN today, flagrant human rights violators, such as Saudi Arabia, China, Venezuela, have been able to be elected as members of the UN Human Rights Council.

Former employees of the UN are also lamenting the ineffectiveness of the organization’s solutions and projects for modern-day conflicts. Anthony Banbury, former UN Assistant Secretary-General for Field Support, has openly criticized the UN in his op-ed in The New York Times, calling its system “a black hole into which disappear countless tax dollars and human aspirations, never to be seen again.” He stated that despite the incredibly valuable humanitarian work the UN has been able to accomplish since its existence, “in terms of its overall mission, thanks to colossal mismanagement, the United Nations is failing.” He asserts that the UN’s highly expensive and complex bureaucracy is keeping it from functioning well in peacekeeping missions and that its decisions are often driven by political agendas rather than its values.

In addition, other critics have pointed out how the UN’s founding premise is based upon an outdated state-focused world order and has not been able to adapt to contemporary challenges perpetuated by non-state actors, such as various terror groups. In a transnational global world, the UN does not always have the means to be effective. Furthermore, in his piece in The Guardian, Carne Ross, an esteemed diplomatic advisor, stressed the immediate necessity for an independent and tough secretary general focused on an overall duty to protect civilian life—a duty that would override prejudice, fear and unfair favor for veto members. This secretary general would be able to demand “a ceasefire in Syria with clearly spelt-out consequences, including coercive sanctions, for those who breached it.”

Whenever I read about the history of the Holocaust, I cannot help but ask how it took so long for the world to stand up and take action. How could people have continued to live their lives, study, apply for jobs and go out, see movies, while millions of people were slaughtered in concentration camps? Unlike our predecessors, though, there will not be any “excuses” left to make. This time, we will not get away with a ‘wir haben es nicht gewusst’ because the atrocities are unfolding right before our eyes, filling our newsfeeds and screens. With ISIS publishing its latest video, depicting people brought into a slaughterhouse and murdered like cattle, it is impossible to deny their genocidal motives and actions. It is similarly impossible to look away from the tragedy that continues to unfold in Aleppo.

Taking all of the above into account, putting responsibility in an organization that is simply no longer able to provide the necessary solutions to pressing worldwide concerns should give us no rest or ease of mind. Our inability thus far to reform the UN into an organization that is more effective and adaptable should not free us from our responsibilities — the promise we made after World War II to never again turn a blind eye to genocide and massive crimes against humanity. We must continue to remind ourselves that while the UN may be a failing organization, an apathetic world that chooses to look the other way is its silent collaborator.

About the Author
Kitty Herweijer is a Dutch writer holding a bachelor degree in political science. She has lived in Israel, interning at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and is currently pursuing her graduate degree in Middle-Eastern studies at the University of Amsterdam.
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