Imagine you were clearing out some old boxes from the attic and came across a membership card to a club you vaguely remember your father signed up for. Being careful in this day and age with whom you associate (or even socialize), you decide to have a quick look to see what has become of that club. Hey – perhaps you could brag about it by sticking the logo up on your Facebook page. After all, the card carries a nice low membership number. There is heritage and foresight potential here (Thanks dad!).
Moments later your excitement is wiped out by a pang of adrenaline rushing into your blood stream: You are officially in bed with thugs, mass murderers, vocal terrorist supporters and other very slimy creatures. It’s right there on the club website. Your name is even listed not far from a guy charged with several counts of murder. Oh horror! What if someone found out and shot off a nasty tweet? Could it be denied? (not a chance!). Could you hide behind neglect (I forgot all about it and besides it was my father who signed me up…) – Oh man, what am I thinking? Dishonoring my father to avoid public disgrace? Get a grip!
With sweaty, trembling hands on the keyboard, you decide to get serious: Investigate, evaluate and act. And to get your breathing back under control. Who issued a membership card to these guys in the first place? And why haven’t they been thrown out? Should you cancel? Is it at all possible?
Well, let’s have a look (warning: The following contains graphic images and strong language not suited for all audiences. Parental guidance recommended).
The UN charter says:
In the preamble:
[That members are] Determined to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small,
To accomplish this (and the other stated aims), the members “Have resolved to combine [their] efforts” as spelled out in the rest of the charter. Among the rules for the club we find:
Art. 1.3: [The purposes of the UN are] To achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion; …
Regarding the question of who approved the membership application of several shady applicants, we note:
Art. 4.1: Membership in the United Nations is open to all other peace-loving states which accept the obligations contained in the present Charter and, in the judgment of the Organization, are able and willing to carry out these obligations.
Art. 4.2: The admission of any such state to membership in the United Nations will be effected by a decision of the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.
That is exactly what happened in the case of an application from a a newly formed independent state in 1956: Sudan. At the time of application, everything looked fine. With recent democratic-style elections and assurances on the conformity of their brand new constitution to the rules of the UN club, nothing stood in the way of getting approved. So they joined the club. Promptly followed by decades of civil war with unspeakable acts of violence.
Then, in 1989 a coup d’état saw Sudan fall into the hands of one colonel Omar al-Bashir who quickly threw the (travesty of a) constitution in the shredder. According to rumor, he used a Blue Nile crocodile that occasionally got an intern or two as bonus. He proceeded to suspend political parties and introduced Islamic Sharia legal code on a national level. Mr. al-Bashir is currently charged with several counts of murder and crimes against humanity at the UN International Court Of Justice. He is the first and so far only acting head of state to hold such a valuable gang badge.
But just how quickly did our club management revoke the membership of this completely non-conform member? They didn’t. Which is why Sudan can be found in listed right along such other members as Sweden, Spain and Switzerland (and right next to Syria for good company). Rather than throwing such members out of the club, management prefer to call on the International Criminal Court to bring charges and drag the perpetrator before a judge. The arrest warrant went out already in 2008 – a mere 19 years after breaking just about every provision in the club rulebook. We’re still waiting for the “UN Police” to swing by his villa and slam some cuffs on him.
Some will argue that the very recent (July 2011) and so far successful, split of Sudan into two new nations (Republic of Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan) is proof that the basic concepts behind the UN works. Really? I argue that acceptance of Sudan as a full member of the UN in 1956 was to a large part instrumental in prolonging the civil wars (yes, in plural) and mind numbing atrocities that continued for more than fifty years. If they had not been granted a seat in the General Assembly, the powers in place would have had a much harder time lobbying around and develop support in the corridors of the UN. In addition, once a nation has achieved UN membership status, it is quite hard for the UN to pass any resolutions regarding “internal affairs” of a sovereign member state. The charter prohibit such action:
Article 2.7: Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter; but this principle shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter VII.
Chapter VII deals with international peace and security, so unless some argument can be made that killing thousands of people within the borders of a recognized member of the UN threatens peace beyond its borders, the UN will have close to zero options for doing anything about it – other than “strong language”. As every kid learn at an early age: Sticks and stones may break my bones but words…. Well, for fifty years there was a lot of “sticks and stones” business going on in Sudan. Not to mention AK47s and machetes.
Therefore, regardless that the northern and southern part of Sudan had never had much in common at all, they were one sovereign nation to the UN. That produced two civil wars and decades of fighting with well above two million dead – the highest since WWII. The world and the UN watched and wrote “strong language”.
In hindsight, everybody has perfect vision, but in this case it would require mole-like blindness not to see what would happen. Sudan, a region forever ruled over by various external entities, couldn’t possibly fuse into one country. Once they gained independence in 1956 (with immediate UN membership in birth present), the explosion between the predominantly Muslim north and the south, consisting of a mixture of Christian and indigenous beliefs, was inevitable. The shooting (and machete hacking) broke out even before the ink had dried on their constitution and UN member card. Had the UN held back on granting membership, it is likely that the conflict would have found a resolution much earlier because that sort of trouble inside the borders of a non-member is easier to deal with within the rules of the charter. The UN could have welcomed two new members instead of watching how millions died from bullets or famine, decade after decade.
Others got their membership card by being in the right bar at the right time: The Opera house of San Fransisco, spring of 1945. A couple of Syrian emissaries saw the light and went in to see what was going on. The show that year was the “Creation Of The United Nations”. On 26 June that same year they signed the UN charter along with 49 other founding members. Evil tongues say they pushed their entire three months worth of room service onto the Russian tab. Countries like Sweden or Finland signed up later. Others much later: Germany got their membership in 1973. Some as late as this year: South Sudan! Once again the UN cannot wait to send a membership card out. Of course North Sudan kept the original card and carries on as if nothing much has happened. The UN seem to have no intentions of reconsidering or (perish the thought) revoke the card. No matter they have precious little to show in terms of conforming to club regulations and their head of state is wanted for an impressive list of crimes at the Hague. They also play host to some rather nasty activists who have a habit of blowing things up all over the world.
The question that begs is “Just how far into Hypocrite Country should we go in the name of keeping some sort of dialog going?”. I mean, look at the front page matter again: Members sign up to
“…promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion;…”.
It doesn’t say “..except in your own country if you don’t feel like it”. In fact it says:
Art. 2.2: All Members, in order to ensure to all of them the rights and benefits resulting from membership, shall fulfill in good faith the obligations assumed by them in accordance with the present Charter.
The problem was and is article 4.1
That article says not a word about democracy! In fact there is no word anywhere in the charter about democracy. So membership is open even to the most brutal dictators as long as they are
“peace-loving states which accept the obligations contained in the present Charter and, in the judgment of the Organization, are able and willing to carry out these obligations”
… Peace-loving?!. Yessir! We love peace and harmony so much we kill anyone in sight susceptible of disturbing our version of it. Especially week-ends. There is no excuse for disturbing our peace during week-ends. And we do that regardless of skin color, nose length or whether they accept to have sex first or not.
Article 1.3 also has some problems:
“promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”
However, the rest of the charter is void of any definition of the precise nature of “Human Rights” and “Fundamental Freedoms”. Which leaves oppressive corrupt regimes to say “Sure. In our court yard you have the right to do as you are told and shut up – if you are a man. If you are a woman you have no rights whatsoever”. That last part is most often left out (it sort of goes without saying that women…).
How the driving forces behind the UN charter back then – all of them powerful democracies and recent victors of a world war – could manage to forget the issue of democracy is a mystery. Or maybe they didn’t forget. Maybe they wanted a club with lofty language on ideals, principles and such but in reality didn’t have the stomach for it. Perhaps they thought that by inviting all the thugs in too, there would be a place where dialog was possible. Sorry to say that it has turned out to be a dialog between the deaf. But worse: It has turned out to be a public display of just how hypocritical the leading nations and their democracies were and still are.
Not deterred by initial mistakes, the UN set out to add some clarifications to the charter. This time the radioactive “Democracy” word was used. And lots of ink was used to spell out what was meant by “Fundamental Freedoms” and “Human Rights”.
The update – new “Democracy” feature and “human rights” plugin
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights came out in 1948 and was voted in the UN General Assembly. Forty-eight for and eight abstentions. All eight non democracies. The reason is easy to spot: Article 21.3 says:
“The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”
Yikes! That smells pretty much like democracy! Then things got even worse: In December, 1966, the ICCPR was voted (International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights). With lightening speed – a mere ten years later – on March 23, 1976, it came into force. The agreement talks at length about things like freedom, equality before the law, the right to vote – even for women – and much more. Unfortunately, it does not explicitly stipulate that women have the right to drive cars – something Saudi Arabia is grateful for. Today there are a mere handful of nations that haven’t signed. You would be forgiven for thinking that members lagging a bit on these new requirements would either hand in their card or rush to get their house in order. Forgiven, because when sovereign states solemnly sign an agreement they supposedly have some honor to preserve. They wouldn’t sign if they didn’t mean it. Would they?
Syria have entered into these agreements by “accession” which – according to the UN definition of terms means:
“Accession’ is an act by which a State signifies its agreement to be legally bound by the terms of a particular treaty. It has the same legal effect as ratification, but is not preceded by an act of signature.”
One would assume that means Syria – a founding father – somehow meant it when they entered into accession. But apparently honesty, integrity and genuine intent are just so much irrelevant garbage. And not just for Syria: When the UN saw that all these signatories and accession parties had zero effect on actual behavior, they did … nothing. Once again the leading democracies had managed to put in writing important principles and worthy rules but failed miserably in any sort of application. Didn’t even try. The hypocrisy index went off scale and has stayed there ever since.
Note that to this day the UN hasn’t (dared) set up straight-forward performance indexes for democracy and human rights with regular monitoring and updates. Yet, that would be a natural thing to do now that so many countries have signed up on documents spelling out what such ideals actually mean. In the name of putting action behind words and make sure all peoples of the world knew what progress was being made.
Talk the talk and walk the walk
We have reached a point where it is no longer possible to “hear what the UN says, ’cause the noise from the actions drown out everything else”.
Let it be said out loud then (sign language in window insert): Treaties come and go. As do diverse international bodies of governance of such treaties. Whole libraries are filled with such stuff. All obsolete. And for good reasons too: The world evolves and so must agreements and institutions evolve as well. Perhaps it is time for the democracies on this planet to hand in their membership card and form a new club. One in which we walk the walk. Democracy (three paragraphs) and basic human rights (another three paragraphs or so) and some simple transparent provisions for annual inspection of members adherence to the rules. It shouldn’t take much really.
Such a club does not prevent trade, diplomatic dialog or other forms of contact with non members. It simply makes it clear what we’re talking about. And it ought to bring the hypocrite-meter down a good notch or two as well.
In The Arab League, many countries are gathered who have no problem saying “we the Arabs”. Which is fine. There are plenty of cultural, religious and other reasons why they would want to have a club of their own. But so should democracies. If we want to promote democracy and human rights and other values we hold dear, we should turn our back to the babel tower that is the UN and be clear about who we are and what we stand for. It seems there might even be several new potential members among the Arab League nations…
Excellent news in fact! But let us have a look at the relevant constitution papers and slow down to see if what is written on so much paper become actual reality. As the Chineese Premier Zhou Enlai answered in 1972 to the visiting US President Nixon’s question on what his take was on the effect in Europe of the French Revolution:
“It’s too early to tell.”
Perhaps we don’t need to take quite as much time to let things settle – even though … you never quite know with the French.