Friday, January 20, 2006

The UN's Moral Authority

I've argued many times that the UN's commitment to the principles of sovereign equality also inhibits the UN from serving as the moral compass of the international system, as it is incapable of creating and enforcing any kind of serious moral and legal norms. Today, we have a fine example of this in action, as the UN barred Pakistani rape victim Mukhtaran Mai from giving interviews at the UN to several US news agencies. You may recall that Mai, "a 33-year old peasant, was gang-raped in 2002 on orders of a local council for an offense committed by her brother and forced to walk home nearly naked before a jeering crowd. She prosecuted her attackers and became a women's rights leader."

So, why would the UN prevent this woman from giving interviews? Because the prime minister of Pakistan, Shaukat Aziz, was visiting the UN, and, in the words of Shashi Tharoor, the U.N. undersecretary-general for public information, as a "general principle" the United Nations had to take account of the views of a member state. Heaven forbid the UN offend a member nation that allows its domestic courts to sentence a woman to be gang-raped for the crimes of her brother!! Mind you that this is the same Shashi Tharoor who wrote in Foreign Affairs that the UN provides international legitimacy as it "helps establish the norms that many countries -- including the United States -- would like to live by." Tharoor writes, paraphrasing Dag Hammarskold, that "the UN was not created to take humanity to heaven but to save it from hell." Did the UN do anything to help Mukhtaran Mai? The 800,000 hacked-to-death casualties of the Rwandan genocide? The Bosnians in Srebrenica? The Kosovars? The Cambodians? I know there is much the UN does well, like peacekeeping, but it simply cannot deal with problems that involve political entities.

The UN has to choose. Either it can continue to uphold the principles of sovereignty, or it can decide to pursue real law that makes distinctions between good and bad, right and wrong. Now, given the institutional structure of the UN, in particular the veto power of the five permanent members, such a change will never occur. So, pursuit of real international law will have to occur elsewhere. The UN is useless for such activity.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Does the UN even do peacekeeping well? As far as I remember UN troops have been accused of widespread rape, illegal trafficing and general criminal activities in every zone its operated in.

Is that picture of the UN peacekeeping force accurate or the subject of anti-UN bias in some media sources?