Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Refocused: Beijing, Burma, and the UN

In his article, "Burmese Blood is the UN's Shame," Professor Hu Shaojiang of the University of Cambrige's China Research Center reminds us of the real "shame" when it comes to the UN: the organizational composition of the UN allows powerful-yet-irresponsible nations with permanent seats on the Security Council to hijack the entire international political process.

There was essentially only one moment during the six decade-long history of the United Nations, Hu reminds us, that the UN was able to take firm action in response to an international crisis. That was when the Soviet Union boycotted a session of the General Assembly back in the 1950s, unintentionally clearing the way for the Western powers to lock in a vote in favor of fighting North Korea at the outset of the Korean War.

Before and ever since, virtually every renegade dictator, every despotic and backwards government to arise during the history of the UN has been able to find at least one supporter among the five permanent members of the Security Council. In his commentary, Hu illustrates the repeated political hamstringing that has resulted from this dynamic, paired with the notoriously gratuitous veto power enshrined in the UN Charter:

It is the totalitarian Chinese government that is supporting its counterpart in Burma. In fact, back in January, several democratic countries submitted a proposal that the United Nations pressure the military government in Burma to stop political repression. However, China and Russia, as permanent members of the Security Council, vetoed the proposal.

On the eve of the crackdown against monks and civilians in September, a number of countries had proposed a U.N. resolution calling for restraint in Burma, to prevent a repeat of the brutal suppression that occurred in Burma 19 years ago. But again China's opposition put the proposal on the shelf. With the support of big brother China, the Burmese military leaders were especially violent in suppressing the protests.

The United Nations accomplished nothing toward protecting the legal rights of Burma's citizens, once again revealing its incapability in dealing with major international affairs. As a matter of fact, since the United Nations was founded it has almost never played a decisive role in major international issues.

The only exception was in the early 1950s when the United Nations discussed whether or not to fight against the North Korean regime led by Kim Il Sung, which had invaded South Korea. Because the former Soviet Union made a wrong decision and did not attend the meeting, the United Nations had a good opportunity to exercise justice.

During the Cold War period, there was no understanding and no forgiveness among the superpowers. The United Nations didn't have the chance to work even in a superficial function as a rubber stamp. This situation hasn't really improved substantially even now that the Cold War is over.

. . . and so on, and so forth.

It is this same veto power, of course, that has been the central factor in barring Taiwan's government from even observer status in the UN all these years since 1971. Yet political disenfranchisement pales in comparison to the horrendous atrocities that are allowed to run their course, as concerned nations with a respect for international law feel they must pass the buck to the UN for action, only to run into the recurring truth that the UN is inherently unable to act.

China's government repeatedly reminds us that an unrestricted veto is more power than any member of the United Nations is fit to singularly wield. As Hu states:

"Equality among countries" is not equivalent to "equality among governments." If we let totalitarian governments enjoy the same rights as democratic ones that are elected by their citizens' free choice, it is humiliating to people who are deprived of their rights under totalitarian governments. . . .if a country violently suppresses its people's right to participate in political affairs, that country's right to speak and participate in international affairs should be taken away.
Currently, each individual UN Resolution, no matter how token in nature, can be tossed out at the drop of a hat without the slightest need of justification. At the very least, it would seem reasonable for the individual veto power of the five permanent members of the Security Council to be replaced with, say, a single veto that can only be wielded by a 3-2 vote or with the unanimous consent of all five members.

Only when the world's majority of humanitarian, peaceful-minded nations are free to act in concert despite the dissent of a small minority of powerful despots will the UN be a politically relavent institution, and the reward for every nation will be a more peaceful and democratic globe.

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