The United Nations — what is it good for?

by Claude Salhani

Critics of the United Nations will tell you that it is a large bureaucratic organisation with nothing but highly paid bureaucrats, who, despite the money they spend, accomplish little or nothing.

They have also been accused of standing idly by while ethnic cleansing was carried out in certain parts of Africa or in countries that once formed Yugoslavia.

The problem facing UN forces is that, typically, they are given a pretty tight mandate. They are there as peacekeeping forces or as observers, not as an intervention force. In that capacity, they can only observe and report to the UN Security Council.

It is true that the United Nations has become a mega-beast but, over the years, it has saved lives and that is something no price can be put on.

After the second world war, smaller conflicts began to erupt as the Cold War got into full swing. The smaller regional conflicts represented a real danger because the actors were generally backed by nuclear-armed superpowers.

Hotspots around the world commanded the United Nations’ attention. In particular, the Middle East, with all its explosive elements, politics, oil and religion, figured high on the UN agenda at maintaining peace around the world.

Of the 193 member countries, the UN General Assembly attracts many world leaders. The annual event allows smaller countries the opportunity to address the assembly where more prominent leaders, such as the presidents of the United States, Russia and China also appear.

Since he has been in office, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has attended every General Assembly meeting, heading there armed with PowerPoint presentations, including maps, graphs and charts showing locations of Iran’s hidden nuclear programme.

This year, pre-occupied by an election in which he failed to win the majority, Netanyahu has been obliged to forego his yearly General Assembly performance.

Like many similar generalised events, the General Assembly offers leaders of countries considered to be archenemies of the United States and the West a soapbox from which they address the world from a prestigious dais otherwise inaccessible to them.

In that context, leaders such as Libya’s former strongman Muammar Qaddafi or Cuba’s long-time ruler Fidel Castro have shared their vision of their political worlds.

It allows leaders to visit the United States, a country they may otherwise not be allowed to visit even if the visa granted to such people prohibits them from travelling more than 25 miles from Columbus Circle.

However, the General Assembly yields no real power. That is reserved for the UN Security Council, which includes five permanent members — France, the United Kingdom, China, Russia and the United States — and ten revolving members, who serve 2-year terms.

It is in the Security Council where resolutions are passed and usually ignored by the countries concerned because even the Security Council has few tools by which to enforce its resolutions other than to impose sanctions through individual countries. It is here that politics at its highest level is played out and a single word can change the course of history.

A case in point is UN Security Council Resolution 242 issued in efforts to bring Arabs and Israelis to the negotiating table. Adopted unanimously by the Security Council on November 22, 1967, after the Six-Day War, Resolution 242 was to become the basis of future negotiations between the Arabs and the Israelis.

The preamble refers to the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war and the need to work for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East in which every State in the area can live in security.”

Paragraph One “Affirms that the fulfilment of Charter principles requires the establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East, which should include the application of both the following principles: Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict…”

Let us stop right here, because it is the wording in this line of text that has stalled the attempts to achieve peace in the Middle East.

There was much bickering over whether that resolution should say from “the” territories or from “all” territories. In the French version, which is equally authentic, it says withdrawal “de territoires,” with “de” meaning “the.” Arabs and Israelis remain to this day sharply divided over a small word that has held up peace in the Middle East.

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