There are many angles of interpretation relevant to the startling admission by Ban Ki-moon that he succumbed to undisguised diplomatic pressure when removing Saudi Arabia from the ‘shame list’ of countries whose armies are found responsible the maiming and killing of children, earning them dishonorable mentioned in an annex to the annual UN report on violations of children’s rights. The scale and severe nature of such violations, committed in the course of the Yemeni intervention carried out by the Saudi led coalition of countries is beyond serious doubt, detailed in the UN report and strongly endorsed by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. These most respected of human rights NGOs reacted with moral outrage that the SG would give way to such unseemly and crude pressure, which has the effect of undermining the precarious stature of the UN making visible for all to see how geopolitical considerations outweigh even these most fundamental of humanitarian concerns, the protection of children in war zones..
There is more to this incident than one more demonstration that this particular SG lacks the political will to uphold the integrity and autonomy of the UN. On display, as well, was the crude manner in which the UN Saudi ambassador, Abdullah al-Mouallami, threw around his political weight without enduring any backlash. This diplomat openly is accused of threatening the UN with ‘adverse consequences,’ and also with issuing a warning that UN emergency programs in such distressed areas as Gaza, Syria, and South Sudan would lose their Saudi (and Gulf coaltion) funding. Apparently, rather pathetically, Ban Ki-moon, thought it better to give ground, and so explained removing Saudi Arabia from the shame list until a joint review determined what to do as the lesser of evils. The greater evil the SG suggested would be to lose financial support for vital programs that affect a far greater number of children.
The ambassador made clear that this face saving procedure to review the listing was not to be construed as consenting to an objective inquiry, declaring that the removal of Saudi Arabia from the list was ‘unconditional and irreversible.’ Whether the disclosure of these sordid happenings will challenge the Saudi insistence remains to be seen. What is evident, and offers the world a glimmer of encouragement, is that Saudi Arabia, despite its notorious human rights record, takes seriously enough its international reputation as to make such use of strong arm tactics that are as demeaning as the UN report itself. The SG retreat also shows to the world that being a monetary heavyweight can matter in the UN as much as being a P-5 member or geopolitical leader.
What Saudi Arabia had achieved by relying on its economic leverage, Israel and the United States manage to gain more subtly by persuasion. Both governments leaned heavily on the SG to ensure that Israel would not be on the shame list in view of its violations of the rights of children in the course of the bloody 2014 Gaza War. In an earlier massive attack started at the end of 2008, the SG dutifully buried a report strongly condemning Israel for deliberately targeting UN facilities where Palestinian civilians were receiving shelter. So it is important to appreciate that Saudi Arabia is not by any means alone in applying extra-legal pressure to avoid losing face by adverse findings. The fact that the U.S. special relationship with Israel includes helping Israel cover up such serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights standards is also an added reason for disappointment.
The good news is that governments do their upmost to avoid moral and legal opprobrium as a result of UN initiatives, and this is because it matters. Recall the furious Israeli reaction to the infamous Goldstone Report of 2009 that found Israel guilty of numerous violations of the law of war in the course of its attack on Gaza months earlier, which had the effect of burying the report’s recommendations for further action but did validate the allegations of criminality made in civil society, contributing to the discrediting of Israel’s occupation policies and practices, especially as enacted in Gaza. The bad news is that the leverage of the powerful and rich consistently leads the UN to buckle beneath the weight of backroom influence.
What gives this Saudi event salience is the transparency and effectiveness of the inappropriate behavior, which includes the SG’s unusually candid acknowledgement of what took place, producing a media shout out that encourages a critical assessment of the UN and its leadership. Perhaps, Ban Ki-moon in his final months as SG has decided to tell it like it is, having kept his mouth shut and mostly doing what he was told to do for the nearly ten years that he occupied the highest UN post.
There are two ways to view Ban Ki-moon’s handling of Saudi pressure. The first impulse is to condemn the SG for cavalierly disregarding the values of the UN Charter, human rights, and international law. From this perspective, Ban Ki-moon reinforced his overall image throughout his two terms as a weak international civil servant who is blown in whatever the direction of the prevailing wind happens to be. A second line of interpretation is more charitable, suggesting that Ban Ki-moon was confronted by a ‘Sophie’s choice’ dilemma: either to insist on the integrity of the shame list or balance the competing costs, and thus exhibit flexibility by opting to keep the economic assistance flowing to places of dire need.
What both interpretations suggest is the subordination of UN operations to geopolitical realities, not only as this incident unfolded, but also more tellingly with respect to the underlying structural characteristics of the UN. The manner of choosing a SG, requiring endorsement by each of the P-5, virtually guarantees the selection of a person of weak character and strong ambition. The fact that there have been some partial exceptions among the eight SGs that have so far served is mainly an indication that the gatekeepers have not always succeeded in doing their job of making sure that a person of unshakable moral character is ever selected. Political astuteness, which is understood to me a realistic willingness to be responsive to geopolitical pressures has been part of the job description all along. We can still hope for another Dag Hammarskjold, U Thant, or Kofi Annan who will somehow get through the gate, imparting dignity once more to the office of Secretary General, but from a structural point of view such a happy outcome must still be viewed essentially as an accident.
Closely related is the even more fundamental recognition that the funding supply chains of the UN are tied directly to these geopolitical levers of influence. The UN is kept on a short financial leash so that the leaders of the Organization will not get the wrong idea, and think of themselves as independent political actors owing primary loyalty to the UN Charter and the ideals set forth in its Preamble. It would be a simple matter to impose a tax on international financial transactions or international flights that would generate the revenue needed to fund the entire UN system. This idea has been around for decades, earlier discussed as ‘the Tobin tax,’ named after the Yale Nobel Prize economist, James Tobin, who is credited with first proposing such a tax in 1972. Why it has never happened should not be a mystery. Those who control the UN have no incentive to loosen their grip. Civil society, although supportive of such an initiative, has never been sufficiently motivated to mount the sort of transnational campaign that succeeded in getting the International Criminal Court established despite geopolitical resistance. Absent political will from above or mobilization from below there is no prospect of achieving the degree of financial independence that would allow a SG in the future to react with anger to the sort of demand made effectively by the current Saudi Arabia ambassador.
It is evident that the combination of a discretionary veto conferred upon the P-5, which is a legalized exemption of unlimited scope from UN authority, and the leverage provided by the way the Organization is financed, ensures the primacy of geopolitics in the principal operations of the UN. This is what was intended from the beginning of the UN, and this is what has happened all along. It is written into the UN Charter, which provides the constitutional framework and is veto proof against any geopolitically unwanted modification intended to make the UN more responsive to international law rather than to the grand strategies of its dominant members and their closest friends.
Despite such disappointments and shortcomings, the UN plays a vital role on the global stage, and its contributions, actual and potential, should not be overlooked. The UN provides a forum available to all states, raising to global visibility the concerns of the weaker governments in a manner that can make a difference. The UN also provides the principal auspices for multilateral diplomacy, as in relation to such lawmaking events as the Paris Climate Change Agreement of a year ago.
As an organization of states, the UN fails to address the agendas of the peoples of the world, especially those so marginalized and vulnerable as not to be adequately represented by governments. Proposals for the establishment of a Global Peoples Assembly, parallel to the General Assembly, have been forward over the years, but have not been realized because opposed by the representatives of a state-centric world order that are unwilling to share the formal stage of authority with civil society representatives even as the actualities of globalization have drained power and energy away from states.
Perhaps, the most overlooked, yet significant role of the UN is to be a major player in Legitimacy Wars, throwing their weight on one side or the other in the many ongoing struggles around the world. The UN can also issue reports and gather reliable information that disclose ‘inconvenient truths,’ which are influential with world public opinion, and provoke the sort of awkward responses that led to Saudi embarrassment, followed by anger, leading to the even more embarrassing accommodation by a much compromised Ban Ki-moon. At the same time, the incident also called wider attention to the abuse of children in the Yemen intervention than would have followed by its inclusion in a UN report. Political influence and change work in strange ways, and we cannot yet know whether the disgraceful, yet understandable, behavior of the SG will yet persuade the Saudi led coalition to abandon quietly their intervention in Yemen, or at least modify their tactics.
What needs to be understood is that symbolic issues with law, morality, and justice have exerted a major impact on the resolution of conflicts since 1945. It is the normative revolution principally brought about through the achievement of the right of self-determination that has changed the map of the world, and indicated that the anti-colonial flow of history has shaped the narrative of recent decades to a greater extent even than the series of startling innovations in the weaponry and tactics of warfare. The UN seems weak when challenged by geopolitics, yet its mark on the history of our time is the clearest demonstration that its presence still matters, and will continue to do so despite the likelihood of future weak SGs and in the face of its deep structural failings to fulfill the promise of the stirring words set forth in the Preamble of the UN Charter.