The Gap Between the UN and Political Reality

The End of World War II: Americans celebrating victory over Japan

A world without war.

That was the dream of the United Nations' founding fathers. They had lived through World War II and they didn't want a repeat of the atrocities and destruction they had witnessed. They wanted permanent peace for future generations.

It never happened.

Seventy years have now passed since the creation of the United Nations, and war goes on, conflicts simmering here and there and exploding now and then. And the authors of those conflicts go unpunished, in spite of the UN efforts.


Because there is an apparently unbridgeable gap between the United Nations' lofty goals of peace and justice and political reality on the ground.

A gap that has never been larger as demonstrated by the most recent episode in the  Omar Hassan al-Bashir saga, the President of  Sudan who is on the run from the International Criminal Court since he was indicted on charges of war crimes,  crimes against humanity and genocide in 2006, at the express request of the UN Security Council.

Everything began with the Darfur tragedy, for which Mr. Bashir is held responsible - a tragedy that recalls the Rwandan genocide and began to draw the world's attention in 2002 as several hundred thousand deaths were reported, and the victimized South Sudanese population was massively displaced, with millions forced into refugee camps or across the border.

Darfur - IDP camp (Photo: Mohamed Moukhyer)

For nearly ten years now, Mr. Bashir has been escaping the long arm of international justice -  it is proving to be a very short arm indeed.

What happened on Monday June 15, 2015 hardly made a ripple in the media that merely reported the facts (see Reuters). It appears that only the New York Times made a serious effort at analysis (see Somini Sengupta's article here).

Here are the facts:  Mr. Bashir fled the African Union summit meeting he was attending in South Africa, aboard a military plane, just ahead of an arrest order. What is shocking is that this ignominious flight happened with the complicit help from the South African government that deliberately ignored the order of its own High Court to prevent Mr. Bashir's departure.

And to think that South Africa was one of the founding countries of the International Criminal Court, one of the first to ratify the Rome Statute when it became operational in 2002. What has happened? Why this change of heart?

It would seem that South Africa - along with the African Union, essentially a "brotherhood" of African leaders intent on defending each other's impunity - has turned against the ICC, accusing it of unfairly singling out African leaders for prosecution.

How much truth in this accusation? Is the ICC really biased against Africa?

Hardly. To begin with, the ICC staff includes Africans, and they occupy top positions. The ICC Chief Prosecutor is a remarkable woman judge from The Gambia, Ms. Fatou Bensouda, sworn in in 2012, but she had served as ICC Deputy Prosecutor since 2004.   Before joining the ICC, she had worked for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda - she is well versed in the intricacies of genocide prosecution.

Deputy Prosecutor.jpg
ICC Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda (Wikipedia photo)

How true is it that the ICC has unfairly focused on Africa?

Leaving aside the democracy deficit of the African continent (and therefore a high likelihood that its leaders might come under prosecution), it is a fact that "nine situations", all of them in Africa, have come under official investigation by the ICC and 36 people have been publicly indicted. Proceeding against a third of them have been completed, two were condemned, one acquitted, and the rest variously dismissed (three died).

But the ICC's work is not exclusively focused on Africa, as the following map shows:

Green: official examinations; light red: on-going preliminary investigations; dark red: closed preliminary investigations (as of September 2014, source: "ICC investigations" by ICCmemberstatesworldmap102007.png: User:Glentamara, User:Athenchen, User:Curtis Newton, User:Sneecs, User:Nightstallion, User:Sesmith, User:Snocratesderivative work: AndrewRT (talk) - ICCmemberstatesworldmap102007.png. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
The ICC is presently engaged in "preliminary examination" of "situations" in Afghanistan, Colombia, Georgia, Guinea, Honduras, Iraq, Nigeria, Ukraine and aboard three vessels involved in the Gaza flotilla raid. That's two African countries out of nine (Guinea and Nigeria) and charges against the President of Kenya,  Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta for his alleged role in the ethnic violence that followed the 2007 election (it led to 1,200 deaths) were withdrawn  on 13 March 2015.

Uhuru Kenyatta, President of Kenya (AFP photo)

The problem in a nutshell: the International Criminal Court, designed to prosecute heads of state responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity, has no power to arrest anyone and is totally dependent on the goodwill of the "international community", i.e. the Big Powers. In particular, the Big Five in the UN Security Council - since that is the only UN body that can call on military assistance.

The ICC has no one else to turn to. And the Big Five are divided: on one side, the UK and France who support  the ICC; on the other side, the US, Russia and China who don't.

Yes, you read that right: on this particular issue of international justice - trial of heads of state responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity - , Americans have sided with the Chinese and the Russians. Mr. Putin must be very happy - no doubt another reason why he feels free to do as he likes with Crimea and the Ukraine.

Although it had indicated at first that it would sign on, the US never ratified the Rome Statute, the foundation act of the ICC - with the arrival of Republicans in power, there was a change of heart.

ICC: Green, signatory states; yellow, non-ratified; red, non participating

With America withdrawing from the ICC, the dream of ever achieving a just world was shattered.  The ICC was intended to break the vicious barrier of impunity that defends political leaders since the dawn of History: Criminal heads of state have always gotten away - literally - with murder. If you're an average citizen and kill someone, you face your country's justice. If you're a head of state and kill people by the thousands or millions, you don't. 

Mr. Bashir is as bad as Hitler or Stalin or any of the other criminal autocrats you can think of. And he knows he can escape, that he will always escape as long as the UN has no teeth. As long as the Big Powers who can stop him won't do it.

Worse, the Big Powers welcome him. In 2011, Mr. Bashir made a successful trip to China where he was received "like a brother". He may not dare to visit the US (not yet), but South Africa gave him a warm welcome. According to the Sudan Tribune (as reported in an article by Global Research, an outfit that believes the ICC is a small, insignificant court, a product of Western Imperialism) the Sudanese foreign minister received assurances from his South African colleague that South African authorities were "proud of the participation of President al-Bashir and that they are responsible for protecting him”.

At the African summit, Mr. Bashir was among friends.

Small wonder that when Mr. Bashir returned to Sudan he was given a hero's welcome by his supporters. 
Supporters welcome Bashir upon his return from S.Africa (Reuters)

This is why I am moved to write a book about the United Nations. Seventy years after its foundation, the dream has turned sour, we are as far away as ever from a just, peaceful world.  People cling to their nationalistic passions and continue to embrace dictatorial leaders that can only promise a repeat of the horrors of the past.

The United Nations was meant to provide mankind with a future and every day it looks like that future is receding further. Let me quickly add that I don't think any book I may write will make much of a difference to the future of either mankind or the United Nations.

But I believe that it could help to shed some light - even a little light! -  on what is really going on, what the stakes are.  And I am not quite as desperate as I sound. I do believe that in the long-run Man's goodwill and better instincts will prevail over senseless violence and destruction. Ultimately, Man is a builder, not a destroyer. And that is what the UN is about, building a better, more just world, where people don't kill each other and don't go hungry.

And you know what? The UN draws to itself people who believe in this, people for whom all those big words - human rights, human dignity and freedom - are not empty words. Those are the people who work within the UN system - oh yes, not everyone believes in those pretty words, but many do, I know, in the 25 years I worked for FAO, I met so many of them. And slowly but surely, those are the ones who make a difference.

Like the ICC, now under attack in Africa. It has to retreat but it has hidden powers it can count on to continue the good fight. First, it draws on highly competent and dedicated people who believe in the ICC mandate: consider the situation, here we have an African Chief Prosecutor, a skilled judge who's been at it in various tasks since 2004 and hasn't stopped working because the "situations" under investigation happened to be located in Africa.

Second, it can count on a body of international law to sustain its cases. And if it is lacking in physical clout - a police to arrest people, a prison to detain them - it can call on the UN Security Council to force collaboration from UN member states: those states have signed onto the UN Charter and they must comply, even and including those who haven't ratified the ICC founding treaty or have opted out.

Again, what you have here is the power of international law.

And there's always hope that the United States will "wake up" and realize how uncomfortable it is to find China and Russia as your bedfellows on all matters pertaining to the ICC. The day the US ratifies the Rome Statute  will be the day the ICC will no longer be considered a "small, insignificant court" by African states.

All these fledgling attempts to make the world better amount to what  I call the United Nations' "soft power" - because the UN is acting softly, often silently, but it is there nonetheless, even when the Big Powers ignore it or try to block it. In that sense it deserves the term "power".

The UN's soft power is a small light in the night, like a candle that a strong wind can flicker out. But it can be nurtured and strengthened. Many people in civil society organizations are aware of this - from major charities like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to international NGOs like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch -  and they see it as their task to strengthen it.

Which brings us to the third party in the UN game or rather, the "first" party: national governments, those who signed on and feel that they are the prima donnas of the UN system. After all, the UN was created for them, to provide a forum for discussion as a way to avoid war. They too use "soft power", financing certain UN agencies and programmes over others, pushing their own candidates in top management jobs, shifting the agenda and promoting "consensus" on questions of interest to them, and, in the case of the Big Five, blocking resolutions at the Security Council - all  in order to "control" the system.

So UN politics boil down to a game between three contending parties: the member states attached to their national identity, the UN staff attached to UN values and civil society as a watchdog (but also at times pushing its own agenda).

How that game is played is what my book is about.

The result? Soft power UN-style: Slowly things move forward - very slowly. It took nearly twenty years of efforts to get to the Climate Change conference in Paris at the end of this year - and with still no assurances of achieving any serious agreement. And the ICC? It's so new - only 12 years of activities, it's too soon to tell...

By now, you've no doubt guessed it:  "Soft Power" is going to be the main title of my book.  I'm still working on the sub-title... Suggestions welcomed! Actually, I welcome any comment, I'd love to know what you think, whether such a book would interest you. And as I write it, I plan to share with you my journey through the UN, its past, present and new challenges as they occur - like this one, about the ICC and Mr. Bashir.

And if you have any questions, please ask, don't hesitate.