This article was written by one of our passionate readers, Mr Alexandros Liakopoulos. The opinions expressed within reflect only the writer’s views and not The European Sting’s position on the issue.
At the end of the Second World War, after the world has discovered the industrialized, methodologically perfected genocide of the Jews, among other peoples, by the Nazi’s monster regime, we all made a pledge to ourselves: “Never Again” we said. Never again will we allow for any nationality, for any leader, for any political party or for any tribe, to proceed with ethnic cleansing operations, genocide and similar atrocities. The result was the creation of the international institutional framework as we know it till this day: the apparatus of the UN, the IMF and the World Bank, along with the recognition later on of the Universal Human Rights. The importance of these developments in those difficult times, when hatred skyrocketed and revenge feelings could be seen as justified was – and still is – indisputable: they signified that for the first time in recorded history the human species committed itself to protect human lives wherever they may be, irrespectively to color of skin, religion, beliefs or nationality. Having said this, it is also indisputable that the institutional provisions bringing the UN in place respected the political realities of the times. The UN came to be as an institution primarily governed not by the General Assembly, but from the Security Council, in which the five Permanent Members became the power holders of the whole organization through their veto power. Those five members were, and seventy years later still are, the USA, Russia/USSR, United Kingdom, France and China, ie the victors of the war and main power holders in the world.
This political composition of the UN did not manage to stop the emergence of the Cold War, which froze the world between the camps of the West and the East, so long as the divergence of the geopolitical, economic and ideological interests of the USA and its Western European Allies on the one side and the USSR and its Eastern European protectorates on the other side emerged. Thus, it was only less than thirty years after the creation of the UN that new atrocities took place during the separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1970-71, which the organization could not stop as the interests of the Permanent Members of the Security Council diverged in the same time human suffering was again inflating. The creation of Pakistan itself, through its separation from India in 1947, also raised concerns of similar scope, for which the UN was of course too young to even consider.
For similar reasons, numerous people around the world have criticized the UN over the years as being passive in many cases – from numerous so-called “proxy wars” during the Cold War era, for human rights violations throughout the decades and so on – but the fact was and still remains that the organization lacks the institutional provisions that would allow it to act automatically, that is without prior vote of acceptance of the Security Council, so to guarantee its mission as the ultimate protector of the value of human life wherever and whenever the need appears. And beyond institutional provisions, the UN also lacks the means to act decisively: the short-numbered “troops” of the UN, the men and women of the blue helmets, are mainly responsible for humanitarian operations and in some extreme cases for peace keeping operations. Their mandate hardly ever reaches the domain of peace building operations, not to mention peace imposing ones. This means that even if the Security Council adopts a decision to act, the UN in most cases asks from some or all of the same Permanent Members of the Security Council to provide their own armed forces so to have its mandate fulfilled. In some cases in the past the organization has also asked from other countries, members of its General Assembly not belonging to the Big Five, to provide their forces as well. However, all countries find it uneconomical and imprudent to risk the lives of their soldiers or their military assets so to protect lives of people with whom they have little or no connection, living in regions where little or no national interests of the troops’ providers are invested. Power holders are not in the humanitarian business; they are in the country running and nation protecting business.
To the above mentioned reality, one more must be factored in: since when the UN is obliged to act decisively the situation mostly urges for fast and efficient responses, it is always preferable that the forces of the main warlords of the world get positively involved, instead of negatively disentangled; that is, it is preferable they find an interest to actively seek for peace, than it is to be demotivated through threats for sanctions in case they stay passive, or – even worse – in case they continue acting in ways that enhances the violence and retaliation, through, to give an example, continuing the sales of weapons. However, I already said that in most of the cases the states find not so many reasons to be motivated to act positively, not at least if their own publics push them not in that direction, or if their own national interests pull them not accordingly. Push and pull incentives may also appear through the actions of their antagonists in the region: in some cases, some of the members of the Big Five opt to act in one direction, in case their geostrategic adversaries, other members of the Big Five that is, have opted to act in a different direction, so to ‘counterbalance’ the leverage of the other party and upgrade their own leverage in the specific region.
All these factors merge to create a reality that mostly attracts lots of criticism against the UN as a whole, while in fact the UN cannot act independently, for the organization can never be more than what its members and its constitution allow it to be. As Aristotle had it “the whole is more than the sum of its parts”; in case the parts disagree and disentangle, this translates to UN’s organizational paralysis, while the parts remain operational.
In 1994 the whole world witnessed the Rwanda and Burundi atrocities through its TV screens. Hutu were killing Tutsi by the hundreds of thousands, but Hutu were also killing other Hutu to a lesser degree (for those interested in the subject through an ecological perspective, I highly recommend Jared Diamond’s “Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed”, Chapter 10 on Rwanda’s Genocide); Tutsi women were being gang raped, their breasts, arms and legs mutilated with machetes at the hands of children-soldiers, bandits and militias, babies thrown in wells, churches and hospitals full of people getting burnt down to ashes after those places have been “marketed” as safe places through national television and radio and then overstuffed with people, and so on. Tutsi retaliation of course emerged and regular battles between the official armies of the parties also took place, while the UN Security Council could not find a consensus to intervene.
Some “Malthusians” were then speaking about “nature providing its solution to the population pressure” in Rwanda and Burundi, for those were – and still are – countries with fast growing populations and limited resources, low education level, poor and very low standards of living. Yet, hardly the commentators ever mention that these are not built-in attributes of those societies, but actually the results of long historical and social processes which do not happen in a vacuum: they happen within the wider parameters of the environment, history, international relations, economic and political and social realities and so on. Some then even spoke as if the Rwandans and the Burundians were the children of some lesser gods, “cursed” with “periodic tribal violence” which is – supposedly – inherent to African peoples. Yet, the facts remain: more than one million people, under the softest estimates, lost their lives in a very brief period of time, more millions fled their country and became refugees, hundreds of thousands of children became the perpetrators of the atrocities, more hundreds of thousands of adults were also implicated in them one way or another, and the two countries were devastated while “the whole world was watching”. Nevertheless, even after what had then happened and despite the fact that the Big Five had all condemned the events and the academia had seriously analyzed what and why and how had happened, we still seem not to have learned our lesson, or, even if we did, we did nothing whatsoever to exclude the possibility of similar events taking place again and again and again.
Nowadays a new forthcoming genocide is in the making, this time in South Sudan. There, an ongoing civil war is taking place the last three years, having started only two years after the country became independent from Sudan in 2011 and having escalated since last June-July, when the President of the country, Mr. Salva Kiir Mayardit, of Dinka origin (about 36% of the population belong to the Dinka tribe) has dismissed his vice-president Mr. Riek Machar, of Nuer origin (about 15,6% of the population). Dinka and Nuer are the two most populous tribes of South Sudan, but not the only ones. The rest are the following: Shilluk, Azande, Bari, Kakwa, Kuku, Murle, Mandari, Didinga, Ndogo, Bviri, Lndi, Anuak, Bongo, Lango, Dungotona, Acholi (2011 est.). While the main accusations of mass rapes and murders so far, which the President denies as Hutu Rwandans and Pakistani also did in the past, mostly implicate these two tribes, it is by-design of the conflict only too plausible that the rest of the tribes will also be implicated and victimized sooner or later, one way or another: either as perpetrators or as victims.
Last month, after a ten day visit to South Sudan of its Commission of Human Rights, the UN has warned that the “world’s youngest country” demonstrates patterns reminding of Rwanda. UN troops and humanitarian assistance missions were either attacked or blocked from reaching their destinations and delivering their assistance, while whole villages were burnt down, women gang raped, people executed, and mass populations led to exile mostly in nearby Congo, following hundreds of thousands of exiles of the last three years. The UN asks for the world to intervene, while the world expects the UN to intervene and stop the genocide before it becomes widespread. A pattern of non-interference emerges through this vicious feedback cycle of illusional expectations. The USA, to its credit, urged the rest of the members of the Security Council to adopt a resolution backing the intervention. Yet, since either the rest of the Permanent Members find no interest in the region, or have divergent invested interests to the conflict due to the rich oil production of the country, no similar decision is so far made. Once more, the Big Fives’s interests seem to diverge, while human pain, agony and suffering seem to converge and emerge exponentially. And I wonder: why is that? What needs to be done so that “Never Again” becomes an all-embracing reality at the place of “Again and Again and Again”, which has become the periodic rule of the game?
Multiple propositions may be made and all are debatable of course, but here are some of them that could serve as a starting point:
- The General Assembly of the UN should be invested with decision-granting powers similar to the ones of the Security Council; whenever the latter fails to act, the Secretary General could take the subject to the former and vice versa.
- The veto power of each of the Permanent Members should be altered to a simple majority of the Permanent Members, ie. three out of five of them should agree on a resolution for it to become binding for the rest.
- France and UK should no longer be Permanent Members; the EU must take their place. If Brexit does occur, the EU should replace just France.
- A representative of the African Continent should have Permanent Member status in each term.
- India and Japan can be considered for Permanent Member status as well.
- Member countries’ budgetary obligations towards the UN should be uplifted and the organization should be invested with peace building capacities and means: yes, it is time for a UN army with the power to impose its solutions whenever its power of persuasion proves not sufficient!
A lot of points can be added to this short list of necessary measures and a lot of arguments for and against all of them can be raised. Yet, something needs to ultimately change for the organization to start reflecting current needs and not seventy-years-old political realities that have become outdated, have expired short of speak, and therefore are creating more negative than positive effects. As long as nothing changes, humans around the world will pay the price with their lives and the environment with the devastation the war footprint always leaves behind. Not changing anything does change the world for the worse, each time with more and more severity. The cost of inaction is bigger than the cost of action. Too little too late suffices not anymore. And the sooner we will realize it as a world public, the sooner the world may become invested with a sophisticated, sensitive and responsible public indeed.
As the South Sudanese drama escalates, the time-window for conversations closes and the time-avenue for action opens up widely. If this action becomes not organized, institutional and logic, it will become explosively autolytic and catastrophic. For when the pressure builds up without any escape path for decompression, any system will explode. And when human systems explode, genocides become realities. Let’s not allow it this time. Let’s once again say “Never Again”, this time meaning it for real. For if we once again fail to properly correspond to the emerging realities, they will ultimately pay us back with the same price, failing to correspond to our needs, wills and targets, leading to negative spirals, deaths, environmental decline and suffering. Is this the reality a species claiming to be logical, moral and ethical deserve to construct for itself and the legacy it will deliver to its offspring? Should this be the case, “collapse”, in Jared Diamond’s sense, is only too visible for the whole of our species’ not-so-distant-future and not only for the “children of the lesser gods”.