Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The wrong target

Adam LeBor argues in the Times that Sudan should be stripped of its UN membership because of the atrocities its government is visiting on the civilians of Darfur.

His case isn’t helped by the subtitle to the article, which falsely states: “The new Secretary-General has the power to expel these arrogant, bloodthirsty tyrannies.” LeBor himself makes clear in the piece that this would be a matter for the Security Council and the General Assembly.

In some cases, suspension or even annulment of UN membership could be a useful stick to motivate ‘rogue states’ – although there’s often a risk that international isolation can actually strengthen dictatorships domestically. But as he rhetorically concludes his piece, LeBor makes a category error on a par with that of his sub-editor:

“it is realistic to demand that the United Nations takes action against member states that commit genocide… If the United Nations cannot, or will not, stop genocide, then what is the point of its existence?”

The ‘United Nations’ is not some distinct power that can dictate terms to member states. It’s a club of governments who police each other as they find convenient. The Secretariat does have some operational independence, but it doesn’t call the shots.

UN action to stop the Sudanese government – whether diplomatic, economic or military – is a matter for the members of the Security Council. It is these national governments who make the decisions and governments who supply whatever resources are needed. Bush and Blair, despite some bold talk, are disinclined to get too controversially tough. Chirac seems to care little. Putin and particularly Hu have major economic (oil) interests in Sudan, so have good incentive to block punitive action.

The inaction is down to the motives and capabilities of the governments making the decisions, not the structures of the organisation within which they sit. The UN has very many weaknesses, and UN-bashing is often good sport if you’re so inclined (if, for instance, you’ve written a book called Complicity with Evil: The United Nations in the Age of Modern Genocide). But if you want it to act differently, then you have to target those who really run the show.

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