Columns - Inside the glass house

UN: Political lows amidst economic, social highs

By Thalif Deen at the united nations

NEW YORK -- After 15 long years of closed-door bickering, a UN Working Group remains irrevocably deadlocked on how to revamp the most powerful political body in the Organisation: the 15-member Security Council.

Japan, India, Brazil and Germany have been unsuccessfully knocking at the wood-panelled door for more than a decade now. But the door remains tightly shut to the four countries on the short list. Their entry into the august chambers of the Security Council as new permanent members is mired in such deep-seated controversy -- triggered mostly by those who have been shut out of the short list-- that no meaningful changes are likely to take place in this generation. Or perhaps the next.

While Asia, Latin America and Europe have pretty much come up with their candidates -- with predictable opposition from Pakistan (to India's membership) and Italy (against Germany), the Africans are still unable to agree on any candidates at all (with contending countries that include South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt).The Working Group, in characteristic UN jargon, is called the "Open-Ended Working Group" (meaning that it is open to all 192 member states). But the Group has been facetiously dubbed the "Never-Ended Working Group."

The UN building

Sri Lanka's Permanent Representative to the UN Ambassador HMGS Palihakkara says the situation has been best summed up by an anonymous diplomat who described the reform of the Security Council as "one of the most successful failures of the United Nations." While the UN has remained paralyzed in the political field -- Palestine, North Korea, and more recently, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, Myanmar (Burma) and the genocide in Rwanda and Srebenica-- the remarkable successes of the 65-year-old world body have been primarily in the economic and social arenas.

A new study, the first intellectual history of the United Nations scheduled to be released in September, credits the world body with ideas that have "proven crucial to improving the quality of life on the planet."

Many view the United Nations as a "rigid bureaucracy without sparkle, wit or creativity." And the general public - heavily influenced by the mass media - "sees a travelling circus, a talk shop and a paper-pushing enterprise."

But international organisations, the study points out, live or die by the quality and relevance of policy ideas they put forward and support. While the World Bank and the International Monetary (IMF), two sister institutions of the world body, have documented their histories, the United Nations has been remiss.
The result is the birth of the UN Intellectual History Project (UNIHP) undertaken by the Graduate Centre of the City University of New York (CUNY). The achievements listed in the 16-volume historical study, titled "UN Ideas that Changed the World," cover human development, the environment, health and education, gender empowerment and human rights, among many others.

The Human Development Report, launched in 1990, was the first to initiate the idea that development policies should place more value in improving the quality of people's lives and less on growth measured by gross domestic product (GDP) statistics. The series has continued over the last two decades.
The UN's contributions to environmental debates have been described as "revolutionary", including the awareness that climate change is to a large extent human-made: "a dramatic transformation of conventional wisdom." The Law of the Sea, which limits the ocean space belonging to sovereign nations, was the creation of the United Nations.

The eradication of the deadly disease small pox, which was accomplished over a period of 11 years under the aegis of the World Health Organisation (WHO), is a "miracle of global cooperation" that saved millions of lives. The study also says that the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights made human rights central to public policy and scrutiny.

The co-authors of the study, which followed about 10 years of intensive research, include Thomas G.Weiss, Presidential Professor of Political Science at the CUNY Graduate Centre; Richard Jolly, Honorary Professor and Research Associate of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex; and Louis Emmerij, a Senior Research Fellow at the CUNY Graduate Centre.

Asked about the UN's political failures, Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, said: "The question has to be asked, Who considers the UN a failure?"

Certainly Palestinians recognize that the UN has so far been unable to hold Israel accountable for its violations of international law and specifically UN resolutions and has been unable to wrest control of Palestine-Israel diplomacy out of US hands and into the control of the UN.

"But those same Palestinians recognize that the UN remains the one arena of struggle where Palestinians have a voice on the international stage (even if Palestinian diplomacy has badly misused it in recent years)," said Bennis, author of 'Challenging Empire: How People, Governments and the UN Defy US Power.'

She said Palestinian refugees are the first to recognize the crucial role that UN humanitarian assistance has played in providing the Palestinian refugees -- now in the millions -- access to not only basic food and shelter, but health care and crucial education and job training.

This is "not an acceptable replacement for all those human rights that remain out of reach, but a necessary role", she added.

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