Photo by Michael M. Santiago
Artillery Row

Where is the United Nations?

The world has lost its only credible arena for peace

A war like no other, Putin versus Ukraine, is bound to ask questions of us all. So here’s one to ponder: Where, on earth, is the United Nations, the arena of peace, the go-to forum for a negotiated solution, created by our forebears in the aftermath of World War Two, precisely to avoid a Ukraine, and another world war?

I claim no satisfactory answer. I do have some experience, a decade spent working as an adviser to the UN Secretary-General, after the late Kofi Annan hired me in the midst of another war: Iraq, the year 2003. On the basis of that, what I see today is an organisation, as vital as ever in so many ways, but sadly lost when it comes to the issue that overrides all else — the pursuit of peace.

We take for granted that the UN will deal with the consequences

We take for granted that, when Vladimir Putin launches merciless war on Ukraine, the UN will step up and deal with many of its consequences. Where else do we turn for reliable information on how many Ukrainians have fled the fighting, and to where, and how? Where else can we entrust humanity to act without fear or favour, and support a child, a mother or a grandmother with dementia, suffering in cities under bombardment?

We have come to expect that the UN will be there, and the UN is there. According to my former colleagues, they are bringing resources and human capital, the other vital ingredient, to the desperate millions fleeing Ukraine. To that child trapped in a city under siege, and the mother fleeing with babe in arms, down to the elderly who need a stretcher across a destroyed bridge, out of the vale of tears created by Putin’s war.

We should applaud the work of those UN agencies responsible: the High Commission for Refugees, the Children’s Fund UNICEF, the World Food Programme and so on. I always admired the difference they made; I’d seen it first-hand as a journalist in war zones in Africa and the Middle East that’s why I went to work for the UN. I know they are in the trenches in Ukraine. Bringing the best of humanity to confront the worst, in the words of my UN boss Kofi Annan.

You cannot say the same about the political arm of the UN, however, embedded in the iconic UN headquarters, on the East river in Manhattan, as the crisis over Ukraine consumes our world. Dismay, and despair, are the only emotions about what has happened there in the very building created to prevent war as the ultimate arena for peace.

The stuff of nightmare: the war machine taking control of the peace forum

How else to witness the first week of Putin’s war, late February, when Russia chaired the UN Security Council, and used its veto to silence a Council resolution condemning the invasion of Ukraine? You couldn’t make up such a nightmare, the war machine taking control of the peace forum.

How else to absorb the fact that the Security Council, the fulcrum of the search for peace, had the biggest, lead players abstain on any such condemnation? Think China, largest population on the planet today. Think India, largest populace tomorrow. Both chose to stay silent, abstain, rather than condemn Putin. “Multilateralism is on its deathbed tonight,” said the Kenyan ambassador, to deafening silence.

“It was a farce, a sad joke, a laughing-stock”, to quote one UN veteran talking to me off-record the other day. “It amounts to repudiation of what the UN stands for, namely peace, never again war, nowadays that betrayal of the UN charter is cast as business as usual.” To which voice add the CNN correspondent at the UN, who began his report on the Council with the thought: “another chapter in the book that writes itself, titled: The irrelevance of the UN”.

A sure sign of the UN’s crisis that the major powers blame each other for the organisation’s slide into such irrelevance. The Americans point to Putin’s Russia using its veto repeatedly to prevent global condemnation of Syria while the murderous regime of Bashar Al-Assad crushed opposition in that country’s brutal civil war over the past decade, with massive Russian support.

The Russians, in turn, cite America’s decision not to seek Security Council approval for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, much as George W. Bush had wanted it in the countdown to that war.

The voice of the UN is lost in the cry of war

That led my boss, Kofi Annan, to call the Bush/Blair war “wrong, illegal, a violation of the UN charter”. It was my job, as Annan’s representative in Washington, D.C., to defend him and the organisation. My ears burned with the stark accusation that, to the body politic of the United States, the UN was “irrelevant”. The Bushies chose the word carefully, at that moment of war.

The question now is surely whether the latest debacle, the farce of Russia chairing a Security Council debating Russia’s war in Ukraine, and then insisting the Council discuss its bogus claims of the West arming Ukraine with chemical weapons, will trigger any attempt at change.

The optimists in New York believe it will, returning the organisation to the idea of a UN with a Security Council based not on the landscape of 1945, but today, with seats for the likes of Germany and Japan, Africa and Latin America. Kofi Annan had a hard time selling that in my days with him, not least to the British and the French, who were politically addicted to being at high table in New York, with the same veto as the Russians, and so “global powers” still.

In the meantime the voice of the UN, the voice of humanity, is lost in the hue and cry of terrifying war in Europe again. I could wish for the present UN Secretary-General, Portugal’s Antonio Guterres, to seize the initiative, fly to Moscow and Kiev, take the microphone and appeal on behalf of humanity, to save those mothers and children.

That’s not going to happen, that’s not his way and those days are gone, his people say. More’s the pity. So, too, the tragedy. As we watch the worst of humanity at war in Ukraine, we see a world that no longer has any real, credible arena for peace.

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