The Palestinian Authority’s drive for full United Nations membership that Israel Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned would be a diplomatic “tsunami” turned out to be a tsunami in a teacup. In the end, the United States did not even have to cast a veto in the Security Council: The Palestinian statehood initiative failed for lack of the requisite nine votes.
As a consolation prize, Palestine won admission to the United Nations Economic, Social, and Cultural Organization. UNESCO’s long history of politicization, including anti-Israel measures as well as support for a Soviet-backed initiative for international press censorship, prompted the United States and the United Kingdom to withdraw from the organization in 1984. With the Cold War long over and UNESCO’s notorious corruption and mismanagement cleaned up, Washington rejoined the body in 2003, perhaps hoping this gesture of “multilateralism” would weigh against the tide of opprobrium it suffered for invading Iraq without the UN’s approval. Now, UNESCO will again have to make do without U.S. (or Israeli) financial contributions, because the vote giving membership to Palestine triggered an immediate cut-off of American funds.
Yet if Israel came away from this episode relatively unscathed, that was in large part because the UN has addressed itself so one-sidedly and so excessively to the Arab-Israeli conflict for so long that this latest fillip seemed small. After all, what is the impact of one more stone slung in what has amounted to a decades-long, slow-motion ideological pogrom against the Jewish state?
It was in 1974 that the UN invited Yasir Arafat to participate in the deliberations of the General Assembly. Arafat was riding the crest of a terror campaign in the name of the fictitious organization Black September and had been responsible for the slaughter of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. He was the first non-head of government, other than the pope, to be honored with such a request from the UN.
Arafat’s speech is sometimes wrongly remembered for having offered a compromise thanks to its well-calculated peroration, “I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom-fighter’s gun.” The olive branch, however, was extended not to Israel but to its Jewish citizens who, he said, would be allowed to stay on in an Arab-dominated Palestine if they dismantled “the Zionist entity.” The implication was that should they reject this magnanimous offer, they would have to be driven into the sea. “Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand,” he warned. This was received with a standing ovation.
The next year, the Islamic states moved to expel Israel from the General Assembly, as had recently been done to apartheid South Africa. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger issued in response a thinly veiled threat that the United States would withdraw from, or radically reduce its participation in, the world body. Even this might not have sufficed to thwart the move had it not been renounced by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. “Israel must be present at the United Nations if it is to be expected to comply with its resolutions,” he declared.
Instead, the General Assembly, by a vote of 72 to 32 with 35 abstentions, adopted its infamous resolution declaring Zionism to be “a form of racism.” America’s ambassador to the UN at the time, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, noted: “the irony…that this…fallback alternative for [Israel’s enemies] was potentially far more devastating than expulsion. Instead of merely challenging the right of Israel to participate in the General Assembly, the Zionism resolution challenged the right of Israel to exist.”
In that same session, the assembly also voted to create a Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. Eighteen of its 20 original members had voted for the Zionism-is-racism resolution; 16 had no diplomatic relations with Isreal. There already existed a Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Population of the Occupied Territories, created in 1968. No other state’s depredations were the subject of even one dedicated committee—not even, say, the regime of Pol Pot, which had initiated a world-historic slaughter of Cambodia’s population in that same year, 1975—but now for Israel there were two.
The reason for the new body, commented Moynihan, was “to ensure there would be resolutions to vote on next year.” Although this jibe sounded cynical, it proved to be too innocent. The General Assembly soon showed that it needed neither pretext nor context to excoriate Israel, which it has done year in and year out in resolutions by the basketful. The practice did not abate even after 1991 when, with the Soviet bloc gone, the United States managed to marshal the votes to repeal Zionism-is-racism. That same year, several dozen other anti-Israel motions were adopted. In recent years such declarations constitute as many as one fourth of all those voted on by the General Assembly, not counting anodyne motions adopted by consensus. In 2010, they totaled 18 separate resolutions.
The writ of the General Assembly is as broad as all the problems facing mankind, but judging by the allocation of its time and attention, neither disease nor want nor natural disaster nor war nor environmental degradation ranks anywhere near as grave a concern as the sins of Israel.
Moynihan’s comment also failed to anticipate the more concrete consequences of the creation of the new committee. It was followed two years later by the establishment of the Division of Palestinian Rights within the UN secretariat. This added a headquarters and operational staff to the committee’s work of demonizing Israel, underwritten by multimillion-dollar budgets (funded primarily by the United States).
This apparatus sponsors commemorations of “Nakba” day, lamenting the creation of Israel rather than Israel’s independence day—Nakba day’s corresponding holiday inside the Jewish state. It publishes such studies as The Origins and Evolution of the Palestine Problem 1917–1988, which explains that “the Balfour Declaration…can be considered the root of the problem of Palestine.” In addition, the Division of Palestinian Rights convenes four large conferences a year, each in a different corner of the world, which serve to rally and energize anti-Israel forces. More than a thousand NGOs are by now formally affiliated with this process, which has become the engine powering the global “BDS” (boycott, disinvestment, and sanctions) campaign against Israel. In this way, the UN, although sometimes dismissed as a “talk shop,” in fact does material damage to Israel.
Even the unenforceable resolutions of the General Assembly, moreover, inflame the conflict between Israel and the Arabs. One important obstacle to peace is the Arab conviction of being in the absolute right. I have visited 10 Arab countries, making altogether more than two dozen visits, and have participated in many conversations and arguments on the subject. No adjective comes quicker to the lips of my interlocutors in referring to Israel than “illegal,” by which they often mean nothing more than an Israeli action condemned by the General Assembly. Although, of course, the Arab states themselves initiate these resolutions, the imprimatur of the UN reinforces their conviction that justice rests perfectly on their side, militating against compromise.
If the answer to the proverbial solipsistic question—“Is it good for the Jews?”—is thus abundantly clear when it comes to the United Nations, the larger tragedy is that the UN is not much good for anyone else either, except perhaps for tyrannies whose abuses get whitewashed in UN forums and those thousands of individuals who have found sinecures at the UN.1
Certainly the UN has offered little comfort to the myriad victims of human-rights violations around the world. The election of Libya, then ruled by Muammar Gaddafi, to chair the Commission on Human Rights made headlines in 2003. But this was in keeping with a long, less publicized history of dictatorial and even totalitarian regimes being awarded that office. Not only had Communist Poland and Bulgaria held the post at various times, but so had the phantom states called the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (two of the three memberships granted to the USSR to secure Soviet assent to the creation of the UN).
While Israel was excoriated in a handful or more separate resolutions each year, powerful or well-connected states escaped even slaps on the wrist, no matter how egregious their abuses. Thus the People’s Republic of China, whose government has taken the lives of more of its own citizens than any other in history, was able in all years but one to prevent its behavior from so much as being placed on the agenda for discussion. And that one year, it escaped all censure.
Only states that were relatively isolated or fell out with others in their own regions—for example, Burma, Haiti, Somalia, Burundi, and Iran—had to endure the occasional critical resolution, usually couched in diplomatic language that contrasted starkly with the multifold sharp condemnations of Israel. On the rare occasion that a negative word was addressed to Cuba, for instance, its government was first praised for its “efforts to give effect to the social rights of the population despite an adverse international environment”—i.e., the U.S. embargo. That being said, the resolution went on to “invite” Havana “to make efforts to achieve similar progress in respect of human, civil, and political rights.”
Ultimately, as this hypocrisy became more widely known, Secretary General Kofi Annan concluded that it “casts a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole.”
Perhaps the most outrageous aspect of the Human Rights Commission’s targeting of Israel was its outright endorsement of terrorism. During the second Palestinian intifada, year after year it “affirmed the legitimate right of the Palestinian people to resist Israeli occupation.” Leaving no doubt about what the term “resist” implied, relevant resolutions invoked an earlier General Assembly resolution that asserted “the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples against foreign occupation by all available means.”
As this makes clear, it was not the Commission alone that supported terrorism, but also the General Assembly. Nor was this stance taken only during the intifada. As early as 1970 Secretary General U Thant appealed for clarity on the issue, saying “a criminal act is judged by its criminal character and not for its political significance.” Thirty-five years later, Kofi Annan made a similar point: “The right to resist occupation…cannot include the right to deliberately kill or maim civilians.” But over all this time, the Islamic states have blocked any unambiguous denunciation of terrorism in UN forums.
Here, too, something more than “mere words” is at stake. The scourge of terrorism in Israel and elsewhere depends on young idealists of a perverse sort who are ready to kill and die in order to accomplish something that they are convinced is good and for which they know they will be admired. Is it far-fetched to suppose that such thinking is encouraged by the knowledge that various governments and even the United Nations endorse this view?
If the UN is bad not only for the Jews but also the victims of terrorism in general as well as the victims of tyranny, it has even proved deleterious to the states that dominate most UN bodies—the poorer or so-called developing countries that constitute the Non-Aligned Movement. Founded in 1961, the NAM soon commanded a majority in UN councils and has often functioned as a bloc. Today, it comprises 120 of the UN’s 193 member states. (A key reason that the UN is so hostile to Israel is that the 57 members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation constitute in turn a decisive bloc within the NAM.)
Three years after NAM was born, it spurred the creation of UNCTAD, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, a permanent body led by Argentine economist Raul Prebisch, the thinker who devised something called dependency theory.
“If I was to single out one thing which slowed down the pace of progress in my time,” said Prebisch, “it would be this conviction about…the sanctity of market forces.” Instead, he preferred “collective rationality,” that is, government planning. Dependency theory held that economic relations between rich and poor countries worked ineluctably to the detriment of the latter.
Thus UNCTAD advised poor countries to erect barriers against commerce with, and investment from, the rich while demanding more foreign aid in the name of a New International Economic Order. It urged citizens of these countries to rely on their governments to mobilize economic resources. In that era scores of newly independent states, largely African, suffered an extreme shortage of highly trained personnel, and the wisdom of the UN carried immense weight. Largely as a result, most of the developing countries pursued statist and autarkic policies that caused decades of economic stagnation. Only when the “little tigers” of East Asia—South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong—demonstrated that the route out of poverty lay in exactly the opposite direction from that prescribed by UNCTAD were Prebisch’s theories abandoned, allowing the developing world as a whole to begin achieving real economic progress.
The UN’s worst failing, however, is in regard to the purpose for which it was created—namely, to preserve the peace. As envisioned in the UN Charter, the Security Council would have at its disposal a powerful military force that it could deploy against any miscreant state that launched aggression or threatened to do so.
This juggernaut would be made up of units contributed by member states and would be commanded by a Military Staff Committee comprising chiefs of staff of various national armed forces. The history of this body serves as a microcosm of the entire story of the UN as a bulwark for peace. When the UN was 18 months old, General Matthew Ridgway reported on the progress of talks to bring the envisioned UN force into being: “[The military staff committee] has dogged along like a hound on a dusty country lane. You are sure by watching him that he had some purpose and distinction, though neither are apparent. He attracts little attention and the dust he raises quickly disappears.”
Nearly a half century later, this body was still a source of mirth. Abba Eban, who had served as Israel’s ambassador to the UN, wrote in 1995:
The five generals and eight admirals of the military staff committee, brilliantly uniformed and bemedaled, would hold ritual meetings a few minutes long at the beginning of each month. The chairman would call them to order, announce that no speakers were scheduled, and propose adjournment. A new chairman would take office the next month according to alphabetical rotation.
Though this might be slapstick, the hollowness of the Charter’s envisioned military structure has serious consequences. The UN Charter is the core of contemporary international law, which commands deference in our own law2 and even stronger obeisance from some of our allies. The theory behind the Charter is a kind of social compact in which individual states surrender their traditional autonomy regarding the use of force and in exchange receive the Security Council’s protection.
Article 51 of the Charter leaves a limited realm for autonomous action. It recognizes “the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense” to repel “an armed attack,” but only until the Security Council has restored peace. The feckless reality of the UN is that on only two occasions has the Security Council acted against an aggressor (namely, with respect to Korea in 1950 and Kuwait in 1990), and on both occasions, the UN, having no force of its own, authorized action of collective self-defense led by the United States. In other words, the Security Council acted under the provision of the Charter intended for situations when the Security Council cannot act.
Nonetheless, the Security Council’s supposed monopoly on the legitimate use of force has been held out as an obstacle every time in recent years that the United States has considered military options. At this very moment, for example, should the situation in Syria develop in ways that lead to the consideration of any kind of U.S. intervention, voices will be raised to say that this requires Security Council approval, as was forthcoming regarding Libya. But such authorization vis-à-vis Syria, with its close ties to Moscow, is almost unimaginable, and therefore so too is U.S. action, however desirable.
This litany of failures and derelictions on the part of the UN does not mean that the organization can do nothing right or useful. The High Commissioner for Refugees has succored millions, and UNICEF has vaccinated many of the world’s children. The World Health Organization has helped eliminate smallpox and polio and turned back the Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic.
The UN has even done some valuable peacekeeping projects, albeit of a narrow kind, in places such as El Salvador, Namibia, and Mozambique. These were situations in which the parties to a conflict were ready to end it, except for their strong mutual distrust. In such cases, a lightly armed UN force can oversee the transition to peace, collecting weapons and assuring each side that the other is keeping its commitments.
What the UN has not been able to do, besides stop wars between states, is to enforce peace within states when the parties are not willing. After fiascoes in the 1990s in Bosnia, Somalia, and Rwanda, an exasperated Kofi Annan, then the head of UN peacekeeping, distilled the lesson: “Peacekeepers must never again be deployed into an environment in which there is no cease-fire or peace agreement.”
Most of the good work that the UN has done might as well have been done by independent agencies. And what little could not be done without the UN is outweighed by the harm the organization does to human rights, to Israel and the prospects for Middle East peace, and to America’s ability to defend the peace, which has been the real balance wheel of world order since World War II.
Can the organization be reformed? It can. In fact, it has already been reformed dozens of times, starting in the 1940s. These are some of the highlights of recent decades: A 1993 General Assembly resolution on “Restructuring and Revitalization of the United Nations in the Economic, Social, and Related Fields” began by invoking 15 previous resolutions to the same effect.3 Also in 1993, Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali organized a major reform “working group” funded by the Ford Foundation, followed by another in 1995. Then his successor, Kofi Annan, produced a reform program that was adopted by the General Assembly in 1997, which in turn was followed by two separate overhauls in 2002 and 2003.
Revelations of corruption in the Iraq oil-for-food program, the most damaging scandal in the UN’s history, prompted the most ambitious of all UN reform projects. Kofi Annan appointed a High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change, which delivered a comprehensive report in 2004 that was largely incorporated into Annan’s own overarching proposals presented in 2005. Although the relationship between the UN secretariat and the U.S. is often contentious, and this was certainly so during the tenures of Annan and George W. Bush, on this occasion the two parties worked shoulder-to-shoulder to put across the changes Annan proposed.
It was all to no effect. The number of supernumerary agencies was not reduced. The Military Staff Committee was not abolished. And Annan’s push to get the UN to condemn terrorism unequivocally once and for all was defeated. The signature reform of Annan’s package was to abolish the embarrassing Commission on Human Rights and replace it with a new Human Rights Council. The method of constituting the council and the structure of its meetings were intended to ensure greater integrity in its deliberations. The result? After five years, the new council has criticized egregious human rights violators even less frequently than the old commission did, and it condemns Israel even more. Indeed it has made the “Human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories” a permanent and unique item on its agenda. The other eight or nine items are procedural or topical, and not focused on any particular country.
But if the UN is impervious to improvement, it also cannot be made to disappear. Neither can the United States withdraw from the organization because to do so would shift all debate from the UN’s failings to America’s obduracy. What, then, is to be done?
America’s best strategy is to encourage the UN to wither on the vine. This will not be achieved by going it alone but by nurturing other forms of international collaboration.
The UN was dreamed up during World War II for the purpose of preventing another world war. What did in fact prevent it was NATO and America’s alliances with Japan and other key countries. The enlargement of NATO and its gradual willingness to take on missions outside its own territory, in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and now Libya are promising developments. The question of opening NATO to non-Atlantic states—for example, Japan, Australia, and Israel—deserves consideration in the hope that this alliance may play more fully the role that the UN has proved unable to fulfill of protecting the peace.
The Community of Democracies, which has held periodic congresses since its founding in 2000 as a forum for democratic countries, could possibly become a meaningful international body. It currently has no formal structure, but its natural function would be to support people fighting to democratize dictatorial countries and to provide a voice on human rights that would offer real comfort to victims of tyranny. This would contrast with the mockery of the UN’s Human Rights Council.
Collective diplomatic engagement need not mean formal organizations. In most international crises, negotiation or mediation has been undertaken by ad hoc assemblages of concerned states. In Central America in the 1980s, there was the Contadora group; in Bosnia in the 1990s, the contact group; in North Korea in the past decade, the six-party talks; in Iran, the five-plus-one; in the Middle East, the Quartet; and so on. Much of this diplomacy has not succeeded, but it still makes more sense for intervention to come from small groups of affected states than from an unwieldy 193-member organization.
While the UN and the League of Nations have shown that global organizations are useless for political purposes, in the economic realm the story is different. Grand assemblages to which all may belong, such as the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, have demonstrated their worth.
Contrary to the false debate that posits “unilateralism” as the opposite of devotion to the UN, in reality our choice is between the straitjacket of the UN and other forms of multilateral action. The fallacy that underlies the UN is analogous to much statist thinking—that large, formal, bureaucratic structures will enable states to work together. In reality, such structures often defeat their proclaimed purposes, creating obstacles and distortions. This baneful effect is exemplified by the Palestinian Authority’s stratagem of seeking UN membership as an alternative to negotiating peace with Israel.
International cooperation remains of great value. America and the world will benefit more by it. And less by the United Nations.
1 UN rules require that “the salaries of professional staff [be] set by reference to the highest-paying national civil service,” which is currently determined to be that of the United States. An undersecretary general of the UN, of which there are more than 50, is paid slightly more than a member of the U.S. cabinet, and receives in addition allowances for housing, medical care, and school tuition for offspring. UN employees are exempt from taxation. In a particularly nice touch, the UN makes provision for those of its staff whose home country fails to exempt their income from taxation: In those cases, the UN makes an additional payment to cover the taxes. What do these well-compensated individuals do? Former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh said in 1993 after serving the UN for a year as undersecretary general for administration and management that the organization was “burdened with an inordinate number of supernumeraries—those serving in high-paying permanent contracts without any specific job assignment.” Little if anything has changed since; nor is it likely to change because the organization’s political dynamics demand that jobs get apportioned by region and country rather than by the necessity of the function or the qualifications of the applicant.
2 In the case called Paquete Habana of 1900, the U.S. Supreme Court asserted that “international law is part of our law.”
3 For this example I am indebted to Rosemary Righter, an editor at the London Times and author of a fine 1995 book on the UN, Utopia Lost.