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Essay: Does the UN Primarily Reflect the Interests of the Most Powerful States? (Human Rights Governance)

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Does the UN Primarily Reflect the Interests of the Most Powerful States?

Discuss using the Case of Human Rights Governance.

The aim of this essay is to discuss whether or not the United Nations (UN) primarily reflects the interests of the most powerful states. This issue will be considered in the context of human rights governance. The UN Security Council was founded shortly after the end of the Second World War in October 1945 and held its first meeting in London in January 1946. The UN was founded as a result of the failure of the League of Nations, which had been founded after the First World War, to prevent the Second World War (Montaya et al., 2017). Under the provisions made in Article 23 (1) of the UN Charter, the UN Security Council should always have 15 members, 5 of whom were permanent and 10 temporary. The permanent members of the Security Council have the right to veto any resolution put forward by the UN, while the 10 temporary members are elected to represent the region they belong to and serve on the UN for a two-year period (Wallersteen and Johansson, 2004; Steed, 2016). These members then aim to represent the interests of all the other nations in the world (Clements, 2008). Since 1945, the five permanent members of the UN have been the United States, the UK, France, Russia and China (Steed, 2016). These nations were chosen because they were on the winning side at the end of the Second World War. The UN Security Council also has a president who is appointed on a monthly basis and when resolutions are approved they are then enforced by peacekeepers working for the UN who are appointed by its members and are funded by the main budget of the organisation. Today, the UN Security Council is the world’s first ranking national security organisation and it aims to resolve conflicts and prevent human rights violations from taking place (Adams, 2015). Human rights governance is the governance of the world and nations according to the principles of human rights. Human rights are the rights upheld to protect all individuals and shared by all members of the human race regardless of sex, race, nationality or economic background (Ishay, 2004). The definition of human rights is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948, the four pillars of which are ‘dignity, liberty, equality and brotherhood’ (Ishay, 2004). The promotion and application of human rights affects both the implementation of globalisation and social actions in favour for and against human rights principles (Howard-Hassman, 2010). Thus, the UN has the responsibility to act in favour of maintaining human rights principles but may struggle to do so. Once the arguments for and against the UN primarily reflecting the interests of the most powerful states in the context of human rights governance have been presented, conclusions will be presented on this topic.

First, it is important to understand the role of the UN in the global system. The UN is widely considered to be a source of hope for the world’s environmental, developmental and humanitarian communities (Clements, 2008). The UN is a multilateral organisation that also promotes the right to nation self-interest. In this sense, the UN is a trade union that represents the interests of 192 separate parties (Clements, 2008). The powers and membership of the UN were created with these points in mind. For example, the power of veto was put in place as a decision-making device as a classic balance of power mechanism. The theory behind this is that the veto would help to guard against any single state or combination of states imposing their own interests under the guise of community norms (Cronin and Hurd, 2008). Also, the diversity of the permanent 5 in terms of interests and worldview was intended, in theory, to ensure that the UN Security Council decision reflect a high degree of broad consensus (Cronin and Hurd, 2008). As well as this, the 10 rotating members of the UN Security Council prevent a power cabal since any binding decision requires a majority of these smaller states to adhere to the consensus (Cronin and Hurd, 2008). For this reason, small and vulnerable nations can turn to the UN to remind more powerful nation-states of the importance of emerging national regimes, the rule of law and global processes that are likely to guarantee structural stability, justice and peace in the international system (Clements, 2008). These functions of the UN are enshrined in its charter. The UN Charter, ratified at the organisation’s foundation, is an international treaty and legally binding. The organisation protects the interests of its member states and, in turn, makes them adhere to certain obligations (Schaaf, 2013). At heart, the UN is a humanitarian organisation. For example, a key principle of the UN Charter is that every sovereign state has the right to independent domestic governance (Glen, 2009). Also, the UN Security Council, which acts in accordance of the UN Charter, plays a key role in resolving tensions between and within states as it has been granted the authority to initiate collective activities with the goal of achieving global security and peace (Schaaf, 2013).

However, there are significant problems with how the UN Security Council is current run. These problems have made some commentators question whether the UN Security Council is fit for purpose. The main problem with the UN Security Council is that permanent members of the UN frequently put their own national interests before those of other parties in the global system (The National, 2016). As such, it can be suggested that the main problem with how the UN Security Council is currently ordered is that it is designed to give too much power to the permanent 5. Because of this, these five nations tend to reject resolutions that do not compliment their own self interests. Significantly, the veto power was most often used during the Cold War, a fact attributed to the need for the Permanent 5, particularly the United States and Russia, to promote their own self-interests. For example, between 1945 and 1989, Russia issued 68 vetoes, while the United States issued 61 (McClean, 2014). The problem of self-interest was most recently seen during the course of the Syrian conflict. Commentators have suggested that the response to the Syrian conflict by the UN Security Council was not inspired by a desire to mitigate the conflict, but by tensions between members of the permanent 5, particularly the interests the UK, the United States and France against those of Russia and China (Gowan and Pinheiro, 2014). Because of these tensions, four resolutions drafted to resolve the conflict were vetoed by Russia and China (Adams, 2015; Bellamy, 2016). Another problem that prevents the UN Security Council from resolving national conflicts in a fair and timely manner is gross imbalance in UN General Assembly Resolutions. For example, Israel has refused to accept UN Security Council mediation for this reason as in 1975 the General Assembly equated Zionism with racism (Ginsberg, 2001). Also, the presence of France in the Permanent 5 means any resolution involving Israel will likely be vetoed and Israel is opposed to the presence of the Arab League and its allies on the Security Council (Ginsberg, 2001). Thus, the national interests of the permanent 5 and imbalances in the UN Security Council have prevented the international body from resolving and acting decisively in the case of the Syrian conflict.

Another problem with the UN is that it struggles to balance its dual purpose. The two purposes of the UN are that, firstly, it is a multilateral organisation that aims to assume international responsibility and alleviate human suffering but, also, it allows for the expression and protection of national interests (Clements, 2008). However, the protection of national interests is often seen as more important than the UN’s responsibility to protect weaker nations. The promotion of national interests is enshrined in the UN Charter’s principle of non-interference. Article II Part 7 of the Charter states that ‘nothing contained in the present charter shall authorise the United Nations to interfere in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state’ (Clements, 2008: 3). The larger powers, the permanent 5 and those aspiring to join them, have traditionally interpreted this mandate to mean that the UN should not obstruct the assertion of power and natural interests, expect in extreme circumstances (Clements, 2008). It has been argued that, since its foundation, the UN Security Council has maintained and promoted the interests of the most powerful nations over those of the rest through the veto process (Schaaf, 2013). As a result, the UN has been criticised on the basis that it prioritises representing the interests of certain nations over those of others. Thus, granting stronger nations the power of veto means that the interests of these countries can never be overridden (Schaaf, 2013). It is clear that such a position offers strong, powerful nations certain long-term advantages. It has been said that:
For a hegemon, multilateral organisations offer a medium through which it can more easily fulfil its objectives, provided others can be persuaded to go along (Glen, 2009: 311).

This idea reflects the view that, according to hegemony theory, the construction of an international order can help the dominant power preserve its authority (Schaaf, 2013).

It is clear that the largest nation-states in the international system see the UN as a means through which to advance their national agendas (Clements, 2008). Thus, although the permanent 5 transfer issues to the UN when its acts in their favour; they will circumvent the organisation if it refuses to do so (Clements, 2008). A prime example is the actions of the United States under the Bush administration (2000-2008). During this period, the United States used the UN to dry and advance United States exceptionalism and unilateralism (Clements, 2008). This occurred during United States-led conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Schaaf (2013) explains that such implicit bias towards the interests of certain countries can influence the effectiveness of military and development organisations. For example, the UN and several non-government organisations (NGOs) were involved in the conflict in Iraq from 2003 to 2010 and were identified with the occupying power, not as neutral humanitarian actors (Stoddard and Harmer, 2006). Thus, it could be suggested that Operation Iraqi Freedom saw pre-emptive, unilateral action on the behalf of the UN and some of its most powerful key members (the UK and the United States), that threatened the entire legitimacy of the UN and its Security Council (Glen, 2009). Hence, it appears that the UN is an example of an international order that exists to preserve the power and authority of the five key powers, rather than to represent the interests of more fragile nations and peoples.

The Permanent 5 and other large states view the UN as a container for the expression of national interests (Clements, 2008). As such, this could be interpreted as a demonstration of the political theory of realism in action. Realist theory is underlined by three core ideas. These are survival, statism and self-help (Baylis et al., 2008). Survival is an important aspect of realism as realists believe that the global system is anarchic by nature and has no central authority; hence, the global stage is always characterised by battles for power by self-interested nation-states (Snyder, 2004). Nation-states play an important role in realist theory as the nation-state is viewed as the dominant actor in international politics (Snyder, 2004). Finally, self-help is another important aspect of realism as realists believe that nation-states can only rely on their own resources for survival. By acting in their own self-interest, nation-states can more effectively acquire power and are acting in the most rational and logical manner they possibly can (Morganthau, 2005). The reason for this is that from a classical realist perspective, nation-states are primarily motivated by ‘relative gains’ (Donnelly, 2000: 58). These are gains that increase the power, wealth, amount of land and utility of the nation. As such, through the application of classical realist theory, it can be concluded that all nation-states, including the permanent 5 members of the UN Security Council, are primarily motivated by a desire to further their self-interest. For this reason, nation-states struggle to work together, explaining why the UN Security Council has a poor record when it comes to humanitarian intervention.

In light of these points, it could be suggested that the workings of an international collaborate body such as the UN Security Council can be better understood in light of liberal political theory. This is because it is clear realism sees no role for an international body in world politics. Furthermore, liberal approaches to world politics find reasons for effective collaboration between nation-states and between nation-states, non-state actors and NGOS. Liberal theories of international relations acknowledge that non-state actors and international organisations play an important role in international affairs. While realists view nation-states as billiard balls, liberal theorists understand the relationship between nation-states and non-state actors to be like a cobweb (Burton, 1972). For this reason, classical liberal understandings of international relations view nation-states as dependent on one another and international institutions if they wish to achieve peace and stability (Beach, 2012). Liberal understandings of international relations can be applied to international institutions such as the UN Security Council and its interventions in global affairs as the idea of liberal governmentality developed by Michel Foucault, suggests that international actors must express a conscience when expressing political power (Walters, 2012). Also, liberal governmentality takes into accounts the variations and risks that can come about during political action, not just the finalities and absolutes (Walters, 2012). But while the UN Security Council does illustrate aspects of liberal governmentality, it appears that in cases of intervention, the international body continues to be informed by a more realist approach to international politics as its members often prioritise their own interests when taking action against other nation-states (Yoshida, 2013).

There are other ways of interpreting UN intervention in international conflicts that do not lend themselves to the belief that the UN primarily exists to represent the interests of more powerful nations. It has been found that a lack of agreement and consensus exists between the permanent 5 during times of crisis and conflict. This problem was present during the Cold War, when the United States and Russia were aligned against one another and more recently seen during the Syrian conflict. The third problem with the UN Security Council is that the global order is no longer dictated by nation-states (Ross, 2016). Instead, non-state actors are now often involved in international affairs, a change the UN Security Council has failed to evolve to take into account (Ross, 2016). This is because the structure of the UN Security Council remains unchanged since the 1940s. But in the present day, conflicts often involve non-state actors in the form of terrorist groups such as Boko Haram, al-Shabab or ISIS (Ross, 2016). Although these conflicts occur due to local tensions, they can have global reach and consequence, most notably when ISIS took over parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014 (Michael and Dekel, 2014). The problem with the UN in these situations is that the Security Council is unable to address conflicts that do not involve nation-states or occur between more than two nation-states (Ross, 2016). This oversight indicates that the UN has failed to change with the times and, for this reason, often does not represent the interests of weaker nations.

To remedy the problems presented above, commentators have argued that the UN should focus on humanitarian activities as promoting the interests of its most powerful members can be problematic (Schaaf, 2013). Hazen (2007) argues that the UN should only conduct peacekeeping activities, but should use them as a foundation on which national governments and populations can build up peaceful governance over a long period of time. Analysis of many conflict situations indicates that it is important to have national and popular ownership of the process in order for sustainable change to take place (Hazen, 2007). One example of this is Kosovo’s successful self-led bid for independence, which took place on 17 February 2008. On this date, the Assembly of Kosovo, approved a declaration of independence that established its autonomous independent governance following a period spent as a province of Serbia under administration by the UN (Weller, 2012). Although the UN had from 1999 to 2008 been in charge of governing Kosovo, 72 UN member states recognised Kosovo as an independent sovereign state (Vakhtangidze, 2011; Balouziyeh, 2012). Furthermore, in the two decades before Kosovo established itself as an independent nation, international authorities had considerable involvement in conflicts in the region, an illustration of the widely-held belief that international bodies such as the UN should intervene in difficult regional and ethnic conflicts (Daalder and O’Hanlon, 1999). However, after twenty years of conflict it was argued that the creation of an independent Kosovo was vital if peace were to be maintained in the region. This was because the UN, the UK and the European Union (EU) all agreed that the violent and unique circumstances of the breakup of Yugoslavia and the period Kosovo spent under administration by the UN made it a special case for establishing an independent nation on human rights grounds (Vakhtangidze, 2011). Hence, the example of Kosovo’s bid for independence that was supported by the UN shows that the UN is effective as a peacekeeper and enforcer of international security on humanitarian grounds. Thus, Hazen (2007) argues that UN intervention is often necessary but should be limited.

Although under Article II Part 7 of its Charter, the UN has traditionally upheld the national interests of all its member states, especially the permanent 5, the publication of the Responsibility to Protect in 2005 has changed how its operates (Clements, 2008). Humanitarian intervention takes place on two levels. First, it must acknowledge that the consequences of any kind of intervention, including humanitarian intervention can be considerable and, second, intervention in the affairs of another nation is a matter of principle, rather than one of personal gain (Paskins, 1993). The Responsibility to Protect was introduced as humanitarian intervention began to be touted as an appropriate response to conflict situations in 1999 by Bill Clinton, the then-President of the United States and Tony Blair, the then-Prime Minster of the UK (Daalder and O’Hanlon, 1999; Jenkins, 2016). In a speech broadcast in Chicago in 1999, Blair argued for humanitarian intervention on the grounds that the UN had a ‘responsibility to protect’ peoples experiencing persecution or being oppressed (Jenkins, 2016: 1). These sentiments inspired by UN intervention in the Kosovo Conflict in 1998-1999 led the UN to introduce the Responsibility to Protect. This international political principle was ratified by all member-states of the UN at the 2005 World Summit (Yoshida, 2013). The Responsibility to Protect aims to prevent war, crimes, ethnic cleaning, genocide and crimes against humanity. It has been suggested that the decision to adopt the principle of Responsibility to Protect indicates that international affairs are increasingly influenced by the liberal theory of political thought, which promotes equality and liberty for all peoples.

It could be argued that the establishment of the Responsibility to Protect in the UN Charter means that it must act in the case of the Syrian Conflict. This is because under Responsibility to Protect, nations such as Syria have primary responsibility for mitigating conflict within their borders, but it is the secondary responsibility of the UN Security Council in instances where a nation fails to do this. Intervention in the case of Syria would seem to be in line of the ideal of liberal intervention developed by Blair and Clinton that would involve first world countries such as the UK and the United States taking part in voluntary wars in order to solve long-term conflicts and get rid of regimes that are hostile to the world order (Jenkins, 2016). On the other hand, it does not appear that the Responsibility to Protect counted in the case of Syria as no consensus has taken place in the region that would allow the UN to take even mild action in this instance (Gill, 2013). Another reason why the Responsibility to Protect has not led the UN to take action in the case of the Syrian crisis is that this example does not justify intervention as it would not benefit any of the influencers in the UN, reflecting realistic thinking in this instance (Yoshida, 2013). Thus, this example can be understood as realism in action. For this reason, Adams (2015) argues that the lack of action taken by the UN and its principle actors in the case of the Syrian crisis is not an example of the failure of the principle of the Responsibility to Protect, but is an example of the imperfect nature of the nations put in charge of implementing it.

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