Sunday, July 30, 2006

On the United Nations

The United Nations isn't a world government. I really wish people would stop trying to treat it like one.

First there's the issue of UN resolutions. There's a tendency to describe them as impartial rulings of a democratic world body, and people who bring them up are sending the subtle rhetorical message that "the internationally recognised authority on these issues is on my side". Unfortunately the process of creating UN resolutions is hardly democratic: besides the tendency for authoritarian governments to act in the interests of their national government rather than the interests of their nation's people, the existence of veto power by the permanent members means that any decision is ultimately only made if the five Great Powers that won World War II approve of it.

Even if the actual creation of a UN resolution were democratic, one reason why UN resolutions can fail to be implemented brings an aspect of liberal democratic government into sharp focus by its notable absence from any aspect of enforcing a UN resolution: in liberal democracies, final authority to determine what is the correct interpretation of a legal document rests in the hands of an independent judiciary. In the US, this role is so important that the judiciary is described as an arm of government that is co-equal with the legislature and the executive. In the UN, final authority to determine what is the correct interpretation of a UN resolution does not exist.

And so you can get Lebanon and Israel having conflicting interpretations of UN Resolution 1559, with Israel claiming that Israeli withdrawal is complete but Lebanon is not living up to its obligation to disarm Hizbollah, and with Lebanon claiming that Israeli withdrawal is not complete and that Hizbollah is not a "militia" but a "legitimate resistance movement" and therefore is not covered by Resolution 1559 at all. Absent a formal judical body who can impartially interprete a UN resolution, and expect to have that interpretation binding on all parties to a resolution, this sort of lawyering over exact meanings will inevitably occur, significantly hindering the achievement of the actual goals that a particular UN resolution is aiming to reach.

All this doesn't even take into account the ability of the UN to enforce resolutions. This is the criticism most frequently levelled at the UN by its critics, which seems odd to me as it's the problem for which the UN is least responsible: the lack of enforcement isn't due to some systemic inefficiency in its structure so much as the fact that none of its members provide the UN with the resources that it would need to perform such enforcement. The near-sacred status given to national sovereignty within the UN is a hindrance of course, but that hindrance can be, and has been, overcome when the member states of the UN have wanted to put national sovereignty aside in favour of otther considerations. It's just that they're almost pathologically predisposed not to do so.

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