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The United Nations and a moral paradox of equality of nations

By Jeroboam Shaanika
Committed to spreading the peace dividend and to saving "succeeding generations from the scourge of war," the founders of the United Nations set themselves an ambitious agenda: "to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours". Nevertheless, since the creation of the Organization in 1945, the scourge of war has been perpetual; and tolerance amongst nations has been elusive. For sixty-six years, sound bites of commitment to peace have been contrasted by opposite actions of some member states. In keeping with the promissory note of the United Nations "to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained," many in the world have looked upon the United Nations as an organization that inspires hope and restores the shattered confidence in the brighter future. However, for far too many times, the high expectations have turned into high disappointment.

Once again this September, world leaders will converge in New York for the annual ritual of the United Nations General Assembly general debate. Since the formation of the Organization sixty six years ago, many world leaders have trekked on yearly pilgrimages to the Headquarters of the world body for the debate the wellbeing of the people of the world. On every pilgrimage, leaders have made promissory statements "to reaffirm fundamental rights and worth and dignity of human person and equality of nations both large and small". Despite the loftiness of these commitments, the gulf of inequality between powerful and weak nations continues to widen and increasingly becoming almost impossible to bridge. These inequalities are reflected in practical reality characterized by the interactions between large and small nations.

Large and small nations view things differently, even though they face similar challenges.

Reforming and overhauling the United Nations to reflect the reality of the world today is marked by disagreements instead of collective harmony. The reality of the world today is viewed through the prism of geopolitical power and influence; relegating those without power and influence to the periphery of global decision making process. Hence the reform of the United Nations is entangled in the geopolitical web of competing agendas. This is a complex challenge due to fact that reform of the United Nations is overdue. It is very clear that the current composition of the UN Security Council does not take equitable geographical representation into consideration.

The Reform of the United Nations, particularly the Security Council, is dragging on perpetually like scorpions in a bottle, circling one another with tails high up. It is a situation of mutual avoidance because touching the tail end of the other scorpion will be deadly. Therefore, Reform of the United Nations is interpreted differently by various regional groups and some individual member states. To the developed countries, management and budget reform are seen as top priorities while the developing countries view development agenda and inclusiveness as top priorities.

The reality is that we all share a common heritage of planet earth, breathe the same air and depend on its water and land resources found on both the surface and beneath it. The issues and challenges facing our world today are greater than ever before and require undivided attention and outmost urgency. It is a cocktail of issues, some of which are complex while others are less complicated, but still entangled in the web of confusion. So what else is likely to be on the agenda during the upcoming annual pilgrimage, apart from the official agenda?

There is no single continent that escapes the harsh reality of challenges confronting our world today. These challenges are multidimensional. They range from failure of our various responsibilities towards climate change, fiscal stability and most all; peace and security. Europe is struggling to find ways to cope with the growing financial crisis, which threatens fiscal stability of the Euro-zone. This of course, is more of challenge to human capacity to plan and deliver through various interventions.

On 11 March this year, Japan was hit with a magnitude of 8.9 earthquake, resulting in a massive tsunami, which cased devastation on coastal cities and towns. Thousands of people died and thousands more were made homeless.

The tsunami also caused damage to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which alarmed not only the immediate neighbours of Japan, but the rest of the world as well. Incidents like these are stark reminders of the insecurity that Mother Nature can inflict on planet earth.

The harsh reality is that we do not know when these disasters will strike; it is prudent therefore to remain alert and desist from actions and practices that are likely to contribute to factors that can lead to the disasters, such as climate change. At the end of March, Germany announced plans to abandon nuclear energy completely within 11 years.

Whether this decision was a reaction to the Fukushima incident or whether it was already in the works, history would probably remember it as inseparable from Fukushima. What are the lessons to be learnt from these challenges and how well is the world prepared to avert or respond appropriately and effectively to similar challenges and problems?

As leaders from all over the world converge at the United Nations Headquarters this September, they need to reflect seriously on challenges of the past year and chart a new course for the upcoming year. It is high time that we take issues of climate seriously. If we take stock of the disasters that Mother Nature has unleashed on the world recently, we would find that we all face a shared threat to our way of life. Large and small nations in different parts of the world, from Australia to the United States, experienced their share of natural disasters.

Australia was hard hit by severe floods in Queensland and Victoria. Furthermore, there were threats of cyclones in far the north Queensland and across northern Australia. While the western parts of Australia had to grapple with the bush fires, the United States has become prone to excessive flooding and severe winters, in addition to drought, which fuel bush fires.

Small Island developing nations face more uncertainty as result of climate change. Their survival is increasingly being discussed with no solution insight yet. In May this year, Columbia University brought together leading intellectuals in international law and climate change to New York for an international conference devoted to the legal rights of inhabitants of small island nations threatened by climate change. What would happen if these island nations were to be submerged as a result of rising oceans caused by climate change? Is there any legal recourse? The fears of small island states are well founded and are part of challenges facing the United Nations today. They cannot be simply wished away.

Africa continues to experience untold sorrow wrought by either natural disasters or conflicts - all requiring the objective attention of the United Nations as the guarantor of international peace and security.

Many questions have been raised about the role of NATO in the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1973 on Libya. Instead of protecting civilians, the resolution has been used as a fig leaf for regime change in pursuit of parochial interests. The use by the western military alliance of its superior air power as virtually the air force of the rebel group resulted in the massive aerial bombardment and destruction of infrastructure as well as loss of human lives in that African country.

In Somalia the tragedy and untold sorrow which befell on the nation after the fall of President Mohammed Siad Barre more than 20 years ago continue to inflict pain on the people of the country. Peace has been elusive ever since then and vanished when the Harakat Shabaab al-Mujahidin took the country hostage. The United Nations has abandoned the people of Somalia to the efforts of inadequately funded and equipped African Union peacekeeping force. The international community should show the same intensity of interest as it does in other world conflicts.

Now the worst famine is threatening the livelihood of millions not only in Somalia, but the whole of the horn of Africa, again begging the world for a response.

Whether we all agree or disagree, the fact remains; international law is currently being bent and applied selectively. More worrisome is the scramble over the resources as appears to be the motive behind the "selective concern" for human rights as currently being demonstrated in Libya.

The interest in the events in North Africa and the Middle East generally is in sharp contrast to the forgotten plight of the people of Palestine, which also cries for the intervention of the United Nations. Despite the fact that the incoming President of the Sixty-Sixth Session of the UN General Assembly has chosen "the role of mediation in the peaceful settlement of conflicts" as a theme for the upcoming session, the events in the Middle East are likely to pose another challenge to the already swelling list that demands mediation.

The moral paradox is that, since 1947 when the General Assembly passed Resolution 181 calling for the British-ruled Palestine Mandate to be divided into a Jewish state and an Arab state, the situation in the Middle East continues to be a stain on conscience of the United Nations. The people of Palestine have for far too long been aspiring and hoping in vain for the creation of their own state.

The hopes and aspirations of the people of Palestine to establish a viable state continue to face stiff resistance and the path to peace is increasingly being covered with thorns and potholes, making the realization of a state of Palestine a difficult goal. On 17 December 2007, Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad presented the Palestinian Reform and Development Plan (PRDP) at the Paris Donors Conference. This was a three-year plan aimed at laying the foundations for a future Palestinian state and building its infrastructure and economy.

This plan has been widely endorsed by donor governments, including the EU and the United States, along with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank; but there has been no meaningful action.

One of the challenges faced by leaders at the upcoming general debate of the UN General Assembly, therefore, is whether or not to admit the State of Palestine to the Organization as its 194th member.

Procedurally, any country seeking to join the United Nations applies for membership through the UN Secretary-General, who in turn refers the application to the UN Security Council to make a recommendation to the UN General Assembly. Should the UN Security Council endorse the membership application;

it is passed to the General Assembly for the country to be admitted if the Assembly has no objection. If a vote is requested, admission requires a two-thirds majority which is about 129 of the current 193 member states.

It is clear that the problem remains within the Permanent Members.

During the general debate at the United Nations General Assembly last year, US President Barack Obama expressed hope that a Palestinian state could be admitted to the United Nations by the time world leaders gather for the 2011 session.

The point was later clarified that it was only an expression of hope by President Obama and not a declaration of support for the Palestinian initiative The High Level Session is scheduled to open on 21 September 2011, but the prospects for the establishment of the state of Palestine remains in doubt.

This is despite the fact that more than 130 countries have already recognized the state of Palestine on the basis of the pre-1967 war borders with East Jerusalem as its capital. The world leaders need to express their commitment to the UN charter and demonstrate leadership on this matter.

The moral question before every leader and the peoples in their respective countries is: Are the people of Palestine not entitled to inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

If they are; why then deprive them of the same rights which the United Nations Charter acknowledges and confers on all peoples of the world?

Jeroboam Shaanika is a Namibian civil servant, however, the views expressed here do not reflect that of the Namibian government, but entirely his own.


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