Will the UN save us from hell?
It was Dag Hammarskjöld – the second secretary general of the UN, whose plane crashed on a mission to the Congo in 1961 – who set out what he thought was a realistic goal for the organisation: “The United Nations was not created to bring us to heaven but to save us from hell.”
Not only is the UN, along with many other organisations, manifestly failing to save tens of thousands of people from hell on earth, but its own employees have been complicit in some appalling abuses… and are yet to face sanctions.
Such failings will be centre stage as the UN prepares to choose its next secretary general to succeed Ban Ki-moon, who retires at the end of this year. An impressive field of candidates, dominated by women, has emerged. But, as before, the winner will be decided more by horse-trading than merit or performance criteria.
Ban took office in 2006, just after the UN General Assembly had voted overwhelmingly to include a Responsibility to Protect in the organisation’s charter. The UN now had an obligation to protect civilian populations from attack. An early sign of this new commitment was a joint peacekeeping mission by the UN and the AU in Darfur.
Today the mission is on the brink. Its South African contingent is pulling out because of a lack of cooperation from the Sudan government. Three years ago a whistleblower told how senior diplomats had helped cover up the involvement of pro-regime militias in massacres. To date, no action has been taken against them.
In his valedictory comments in March printed in The New York Times, Anthony Banbury, a former assistant secretary general of the UN, refers to the chief of staff of a large peacekeeping mission who is widely seen as incompetent. But, like most senior UN officials, this chief of staff is impossible to sack unless found guilty of a serious crime.
When a highly trained and well-equipped military and intelligence contingent led by France flew into eastern Congo in 2003, they shut down a clutch of venal militias within three months. But after this contingent left, their ill-prepared, poorly trained successors struggled and new militias surfaced to terrorise civilians again. The message is twofold. If we want UN peacekeepers to succeed, they must be highly trained and properly equipped.
Secondly, ways must be found to pay for them because effective peace-building saves thousands of lives and avoids the longer-term cost of states riven by crisis and insecurity. The proposed Tobin tax (0.25% of every foreign exchange transaction) could raise tens of billions of dollars. The costs of organising a credible international standby force would be around $2.5 billion a year, according to military experts.
Meanwhile, the people of Central African Republic are paying the price for the UN deploying poorly trained soldiers with minimal accountability. UN peacekeepers have been found guilty of violating the people they were sent to protect, including raping and abusing young girls. By Hammarskjöld’s measure, the UN has failed and we should demand a remedy. ●