By Richard Falk
Why the peoples of the world need the UN: multilateralism, international law, human rights, and ecological sustainability
A Point of Departure
When Donald Trump withdrew American participation from the Paris Climate Change Agreement in early June of this year a bright red line was crossed. Most obviously, there were a series of adverse substantive consequences associated with weakening an agreement that was promising to provide critical interim protection against severe harms to human wellbeing and its natural habitat threatened by further global warning. U.S. withdrawal from Paris was also a rather vicious symbolic slap at multilateralism under UN auspices.
We should recall that the agreement was rightly hailed at the time as the greatest success ever achieved by way of a multilateral approach to international problem solving.
The Paris Agreement was indeed a remarkable achievement, inducing 195 governments representing virtually every sovereign state on the planet to sign up for compliance with a common agreed plan to address many of the challenges of climate change in the years ahead. To reach such an outcome also reflected a high degree of sensitivity to the varied circumstances of countries, rich and poor, developed and developing, vulnerable and less vulnerable.
The Paris withdrawal also exhibited in an extreme form the new nationalistic posture adopted by the United States in relation to the UN System, and a major retreat from the leadership role at the UN that the U.S. had assumed (for better and worse) ever since the Organization was established in 1945.
Instead of fulfilling this traditional role as the generally respected cheerleader and predominantly influential leader of most multilateral lawmaking undertakings at the UN and elsewhere the U.S. Government has instead apparently decided under Trump to become obstructer-in chief.
This Trump/US assault on the UN approach to cooperation among sovereign states and global problem solving and lawmaking is particularly troubling. This manifestation of the new American approach in the policy domain of climate change is particularly disturbing.
To have any prospect of meeting the climate change challenge requires the widest and deepest international cooperation, and is absolutely vital for the future of human and ecological wellbeing. Such a dramatic disruptive act by the United States strikes a severe blow to the capabilities and legitimacy of the UN at a historical moment when this global organization has never been more potentially useful.
The credibility and severity of the threat is magnified by an evident American-led campaign to exert financial pressure to bend the Organization to the will of major funders. When the United States behaves in this manner it indirectly gives permission to other political actors to follow suit, and exerts immense pressure on the UN Secretariat and Secretary General to give ground.
Saudi Arabia has used such leverage to embarrass the UN in relation to both its human rights record at home and its responsibility for war crimes against civilians, including children, in Yemen.
Israel has also been the beneficiary of such delegitimizing pressures, with the UN giving ground by softening criticism, inhibiting censure, shelving damaging reports. Such backtracking by the United Nations weakens any claim to be guided in its policies and practices by international law and international morality.
The weaponization of UN funding politics should awaken public opinion to the importance of finally establishing an independent funding base for the UN by way of some variant of a Tobin Tax imposed on financial transactions or international air travel.
If it is desirable to encourage the UN to conduct its operations in accordance with the UN Charter and international law, UN funding should be removed from the control of governments at the earliest possible time.
It needs to be acknowledged and understood that this unfortunate shift in the U.S. role at the UN preceded the Trump presidency, involving a gradual American retreat from political internationalism, which reflected the outlook of an increasingly sovereignty-oriented U.S. Congress.
Even an environmentally minded Barack Obama was led at the 2009 Copenhagen climate change summit to insist that national commitments to reduce carbon emissions be placed on a voluntary rather than obligatory basis, which was regarded at the time as a major setback in the effort to safeguard the future from the perils of global warming.
The Copenhagen approach was also a negative development with respect to international law, substituting volunteerism for obligation in this major effort to protect human and global interests.
We need to appreciate that international law in its more imperative forms already suffers from the weakness of international enforcement mechanisms. Putting compliance on a voluntary basis dilutes the ethos of good faith that guides responsible governments when giving their assent to obligatory instruments of international law.
Beyond this, the Obama presidency boasted of its unconditional defense of Israel at the UN, regardless of the merits of criticism, and even in contexts where the U.S. was willing to voice muted criticisms directed at Israel but only in discreet language conveyed in bilateral diplomatic channels. The UN was off-limits for critical commentary on Israel’s behavior despite the long history of unfulfilled UN responsibilities toward the Palestinian people.
Why the UN is especially needed now
It should be obvious to all of us that the UN is now even more needed than when it was established in 1945.
At least on the surface the UN enjoyed the ardent support of every important government and their publics at the end of World War II. These sentiments reflected the widely shared mood of the global public that maintaining world peace and security required the establishment of global institutions devoted to war prevention.
There existed post-1945 a somewhat morbid atmosphere of foreboding with respect to the dawn of the nuclear age that took had taken the dire form of atomic bombs dropped on two Japanese cities.
The concerns arising from these unforgettable events strongly reinforced and underlay the war prevention emphasis of the UN Charter, and were culturally expressed by such major works of the imagination as Hiroshima, Mon Amour and On the Beach.
This grim mood also lent an aura of poignancy to the memorable opening words of the Charter Preamble—“We the peoples of the United Nations are determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” It was evident that when the UN was established the overriding global preoccupation of public opinion and of governments was to avoid any recurrence of major international warfare, especially in light of the possession of nuclear weapons.
Of course, such an impression partly reflected the absence of adequate representation at the UN and other international venues of voices articulating non-Western priorities. From the beginning the non-Western members of the UN were far more focused on anti-colonialism, development priorities, and the reform of a rigged world economy than on war prevention.
It is worth pondering why the formal legitimating call establishing the UN, as set forth in the Preamble, was phrased as coming from ‘the peoples’ and not from the ‘governments.’
In fact, governments were not even explicitly mentioned in this foundational document. Yet as a practical matter, despite this language in the Preamble, the UN as a political actor has always been almost exclusively an Organization reflecting the will of ‘we the governments,’ and in many cases ‘we the Permanent Members of the Security Council.’
In some situations the ‘we’ over time and in situations of global crises has been reduced to the government of the United States, sometimes joined by its European allies.
In other words, the geopolitical dimension of UN operations has had the effect of moving the actions of the Organization on war/peace agenda items away from international law and the framework set forth in the UN Charter. It has instead given decisive authority to the most powerful members of the UN with the intended effect of concentrating UN authority in the Security Council, whose operations are more subject to geopolitical discipline in the form of the veto than to the mindfulness toward international law.
An understanding of this circumstance underscores the aspirational importance of constraining geopolitics and enhancing the role of international law. Respect for international law in framing UN policy must be increased if there is to be any hope that the UN will eventually fulfill the ambitions and expectations of its strongest supporters in civil society.
As matters now stand these supporters are often caught between being seen as blind idealists that are enthusiastic about whatever the UN does or dismissive cynics who dismiss the UN as a great power charade that is a waste of time and money.
Both of these outlooks seems unwarranted, inducing either an uncritical passivity toward the UN or exhibiting a lack of appreciation of the contributions being daily made by the UN and what could be done to make these contributions more robust.
The UN and a Populist Reform of World Order
Two important questions that all of us, and especially young people should be asking: how can the UN System be made more responsive to the needs and wishes of people and less dependent on the warped agendas of many governments?
And how can the Organization be made more responsive to international law and less of a vehicle for geopolitical ambitions?
To make the relevance of positive global populism more concrete we can ask: ‘Would the establishment of an assembly of civil society organizations or a global parliament along the lines of the European Parliament be helpful from the perspective of world peace and global justice?’
What follows are several daunting questions concerning the feasibility of such a proposal: “Can the political will be mobilized that would be needed to make realizable such a UN reform?” “Even if a UN Peoples Parliament were established would it be allowed to exert significant influence?”
We should remember that some past successful undertakings, such as the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC), seemed utopian when proposed, and thus we should not be easily dissuaded if a project seems worthwhile. But we should also be aware that the ICC once established and operating has been chasing the mice while ignoring the tigers, which gives rise to another version of this clash between sentimentalists overjoyed that the institution exists at all and realists who believe that the ICC has surrendered to geopolitical forces, thereby betraying its overriding mission of administering justice as called for by non-compliant behavior.
For several years in the 1980s I participated annually in a large public event held in Perugia, Italy under the banner of ‘A United Nations of the Peoples.’
It made me wonder at the time whether the world was not being divided up into three distinct identies:
• ‘The Geopolitical Person’ who was increasingly dominating world politics, including the UN;
• ‘The Davos Person’ who at the World Economic Forum was mounting strong pressures on all governments to privilege the interests of market forces, essentially banks and corporations, above that of their own citizens, and
• ‘The Perugia Person’ who was on the sidelines whispering words to the grassroots community conveying the needs and aspirations of ordinary people, and by so doing, highlighting problems of poverty, peace, environment, biodiversity, health, and justice.
In one sense, my analysis is an argument for a concerted public and grassroots transnational effort to magnify the Perugia whisper until it becomes a stentorian voice that is heard and heeded within the halls and conference rooms of the UN in Geneva and New York.
Is such a call for positive global populism desirable, and if so, are there practical steps to be taken to make it happen? Will states feeling UN pressure reopen the withdrawal option, and weaken the Organization from the governmental end?
Reviving War Prevention
As it turned out, the onset of the Cold War made it exceedingly difficult for the UN to be effective as a war prevention institution almost from the day it was established, although over the years it made many quiet contributions to peace when political conditions made this possible. The effort to prevent a third world war fought with nuclear weapons was mainly left up to the rival governments of the U.S. and the Soviet Union, relying on geopolitical arrangements that on occasions of confrontation sent periodic chills of fear down the collective spine of humanity, especially in Europe and North America.
Global security was conceptualized around the abstract idea of deterrence, which was most simply understood as the prevention of a major war by the exchange of mutual threats of devastating retaliatory strikes with weaponry of mass destruction by these two superpowers with capabilities that were sufficiently resistant to preemptive first strikes to keep the capacity for retaliation entirely credible.
This fundamental doctrine of deterrence was called ‘Mutual Assured Destruction,’ and more familiarly known by the ironically apt acronym ‘MAD.’ It amounted to a paradoxical permanent mobilization for war with the overriding goal of preventing the outbreak of war, which did strike the peace community as rationality gone mad, really mad.
MAD was tied to a destabilizing ongoing arms race justified by a security rationale. Each superpower both sought to gain the upper hand and above all acted to make sure that its rival did not acquire ways of destroying its retaliatory credibility.
This unstable and permanent war footing, always susceptible to accident and miscalculation, lasted throughout the Cold War, dominating the security policy of leading UN members, and as a side effect marginalized the UN Security Council in the peace and security domain. The intense ideological antagonisms between the Atlantic Alliance and the Soviet Bloc generated a series of geopolitical standoffs that made it almost impossible for the Permanent Members of the Security Council to reach agreement about who was responsible and what to do whenever international conflicts turned violent.
The world has avoided such a catastrophic war up to this point by a combination of prudent statecraft and good fortune. There were several close calls that make it apparent that it is grotesquely reckless to normalize the present role of nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the nine current nuclear weapons states.
When the path to nuclear disarmament was abandoned, the leading global states resorted to a Plan B, a nonproliferation regime tethered to the Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968 (NPT), negotiated under UN auspices.
It was advertised as essentially a holding operation designed to give the nuclear weapons states ample time to negotiate, as they were obligated to do, a reliable supposedly disarming treaty regime.
With the hindsight of almost five decades, it has become evident that the commitment to nuclear disarmament embedded in Article VI of the NPT was never implemented, and quite likely was not meant to be.
Accordingly, 123 non-nuclear states have taken a new initiative to propose a denuclearizing Plan C within the confines of the UN, a step opposed by 36 members, with an additional 16 abstentions.
As with the NPT, the UN is again providing the venue and encouragement for the negotiation of a draft treaty to prohibit the use of nuclear weapons (2017 BAN Treaty; Convention to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons), leading eventually to the elimination of all nuclear weapons. This initiative enjoys the support of most non-nuclear governments, but will not pose a serious challenge to nuclearism until public opinion is effectively mounted.
As yet the BAN approach is not supported by any of the nuclear weapons states nor by those governments that base their security on holding a nuclear umbrella over their country.
Beyond this overriding concern with nuclear weapons, the Perugia Person should be using the UN to raise questions about globally unregulated arms sales and rampant militarism as practiced with post-modern weaponry and tactics, what might be regarded as a Plan D framework.
In this vein, the UN and its civil society supporters could begin to explore the potentialities of a nonviolent geopolitics appropriate for a post-colonial, post-Cold War world order in which the global policy agenda finally takes seriously several biopolitical challenges with respect to which traditional instruments of ‘hard power’ are totally irrelevant, or worse.
If we wish the UN to fulfill its potential it is essential that the negativity of right-wing populism be countered by affirmative visions generated by a rising progressive populism. Such progressive populists, rather far removed from traditional left politics, need to keep in mind the biblical admonition: “a people without a vision perishes.”
Serving the Human Interest
Overall, there has been a failure of the UN to live up to the expectations and hopes of its founders when it came to enhancing the quality of international peace and security. At the same time, the UN has vindicated its existence in numerous other unexpected ways that have made its role in human affairs now widely regarded as indispensable, but still far below what was and is possible, necessary, and desirable.
The UN validated its existence early on by offering the governments of the world a crucial platform for articulating their grievances and expressing their differences. The UN became the primary arena for inter-governmental communication. The UN, especially by way of its family of specialized agencies that have evolved over the decades has done much excellent unheralded work at the margins of world politics.
These activities have made vital daily, often unheralded, contributions to the global common good in such diverse areas as human rights, economic and social development, wellbeing of children, environmental protection, preservation of cultural heritage, promotion of health, assistance to refugees, and the development of international law, including international criminal law.
The UN also has provided the best available venue for cooperative problem solving associated with complex issues of global scale that reflect the uneven circumstances of sovereign states. This flexible dynamic of practices within and outside the UN provides the fabric of everyday ‘multilateralism,’ that is, the reliance on collective mechanisms for policy and law formation by representatives of sovereign states that in countless ways contribute to problem solving and life enhancement in social settings ranging from the very local to the planetary.
A strong confirmation of the value of the UN arises from the fact that every government, regardless of ideology or relative wealth and power, has up to now regarded it as beneficial to become a member and remain in the UN. True, Indonesia briefly withdrew in 1965 to announce the formation of a parallel organization of ‘newly emerging forces,’ but within a year at its request was allowed to resume its membership without even passing again through the normal admission process.
Within international society, the greatest sign of a recognition of diplomatic stature has become the election of a country to be a term member of the Security Council for a period of two years. This record of universal participation is truly extraordinary, especially when compared with the disappointing record of the League of Nations. There have been no sustained withdrawals from the Organization as a whole and when the former European colonies obtained political independence they shared a uniform ambition to join the UN as soon as possible and exert some influence on global policy, especially with respect to trade, investment, and development.
These efforts by the enlarged Third World membership reached their peak in the late 1960s and 1970s. A vibrant Non-Aligned Movement pursued its policy goals within the UN, its energies concentrated on the effort to create a New International Economic Order that would level the playing field internationally for trade and investment. This radical reform effort was centered in General Assembly activism, and prompted a formidable backlash led by the most industrialized states.
The backlash took many forms including the formation of the Trilateral Commission as a strong undertaking led by American economic elites determined to hold the line on behalf of capitalist values, procedures, practices, and above all, privileges. Membership in the UN nevertheless continues to be regarded as not only advantageous for the legitimacy it confers on states, but because it offers weaker and less experienced countries invaluable rights of participation in the full range of UN activities, including access to knowledge and technology required for successful transitions to modernity.
Global Populism as a Threat to the UN
Yet despite all of these achievements and contributions the UN is again under sharp attack these days, especially by its most powerful member, the United States. Donald Trump and several other autocratic leaders around the world uniformly belittle the UN role in world affairs because they regard the sovereign state to be the ultimate source of political authority and deeply resent external criticisms of their own domestic behavior.
These leaders are currently promoting ultra-nationalist agendas that are chauvinistic, anti-immigrant, hostile to international law, and are especially hostile to all forms of individual accountability and state responsibility for human rights violations.
This is not only a problem associated with the emergence of right-wing populist leaders enjoying domestic support.
It is also a feature of dynastic autocracy, most prominently associated with the kind of regional geopolitics being promoted by Saudi Arabia, seeking hegemony over the Arabian Gulf, crushing democratizing forces even if Islamic in outlook, and waging war against any political tendency perceived to be increasing Iranian influence anywhere in the region.
With respect to the UN, Saudi Arabia in particular has been following the lead of the United States, hinting at withholding financial contributions, and even bluffing possible withdrawal from the Organization, if Saudi policies should become subject of critical UN scrutiny, no matter how flagrantly these policies violate international human rights standards and the norms of international humanitarian law. Israel should also be grouped with states that push back against any and all efforts to hold them accountable. This search for total impunity with respect to UN activity gains traction to the extent endorsed by leading states.
A characteristic illustration of the detrimental global effects of this recent wave of populist nationalism revolves around the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
Although Paris fell significantly short of what the scientific consensus insists as necessary if global warming is to be properly limited, it still represented what a broad consensus of informed persons regarded as a crucial step in the right direction, and a serious show of commitment to the momentous task of transforming the carbon world economy into a sustainable and benign energy system in a timely manner. For this greatest of UN multilateralist achievements to be repudiated by the U.S. Government because Trump contends that it is a bad deal for America is dramatic evidence that the UN is under assault, and what may be worse, seems increasingly leaderless and ready to submit.
This disappointment and concern is greatly magnified by the intimations that Washington intends to withhold funds from the UN, as well as threatens to boycott and defund activities and organs that reach conclusions that do not correspond with U.S. foreign policy, especially when it comes to Israel.
A prime target of this Trump demolition brigade is the work of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that is under intense attack because it is alleged to devote disproportionate attention to the wrongs and crimes of Israel. Such criticism besides sidestepping the question as to whether Israel is generally guilty as charged, also overlooks the fact that the British dumped the Palestine problem into the lap of the UN after World War II, making the fledgling Organization responsible for the transition from colonial subjugation to political independence.
Such a direct responsibility was not imposed on the UN with respect to the decolonization any other national territory, and it has never been able to carry it out its assigned task in a manner consistent with the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people. From a truly objective point of view, the UN has not devoted too much attention to Israel, and the Palestinian struggle, but too little. It has not gotten the basic job done, resulting in prolonged, massive, and intense Palestinian suffering with no end in sight.
In other words at the very time that the peoples of the world need a stronger UN to uphold the challenges of the present era, the Organization is under an unprecedented attack from ‘the Geopolitical Person.’ It is now time for ‘the Perugia Person’ to step forth with a strong sense of urgency and entitlement.
Affirming this ‘necessary utopianism’ will give us confidence that the challenges of the present can be surmounted through the mobilization of people acting in collaboration with governments dedicated to upholding global public interests in tandem with their own national interests.
For these revolutionary energies to be released within the confines of the UN will only happen in response to a new surge of grassroots transnational activism. Such a surge could foreground the hopes, dreams, and demands of people around the world, and especially the youth who have the most at stake. It has been both my pleasure and my honor to have this opportunity to meet with you today.