Monday, September 14, 2015

Report on the Work of the UN

The annual Report on the Work of the Organization (A/70/1) is one of the rare UN documents that gets media attention.

That is because it is submitted to the opening session of the General Assembly every year and its Introduction reflects the Secretary-General’s primary political concerns. 

The Report itself is a distillation of many departmental submissions and traditionally it has been a committee-designed horse, its ill fitted parts of varying worth and integrity.

The Introduction to the 2015 Report is remarkable for several reasons. 

At the top of my list is that it makes no mention of a major change in UN policy announced sotto voce in the penultimate section of the Report itself: “The United Nations advocates a rebalancing of the international policy on drugs, to increase the focus on public health, human rights, prevention, treatment and care, and economic, social and cultural measures.” 

That is the closest the UN has ever come to calling for an end to the prohibitionist approach to psychoactive drugs which has for over a century failed in its main purpose while rewarding organized crime with sky-high profits. It is certain to raise expectations that the 2016 General Assembly special session on drugs will rewrite international drug policy.

The Introduction is notable also for completely ignoring drug trafficking, money laundering and organized crime, the triune that funds terrorism and most contemporary conflicts. 

Some of its statements are also outrageously false. Looking back over the UN’s seven decades it says “we have much to be proud of” because the “world has avoided global conflict on the scale seen twice in the first half of the twentieth century” and numerous “smaller wars were averted or brought to an earlier end.”

The truth is that well over 100 million people have died in the conflicts of the last 70 years, far more than in the two declared “World Wars.” Many societies have been torn apart by war and many hundreds of millions of lives ruined. Those grim realities have been generally invisible because international mass media pay little attention to the poor countries that have borne the terrible toll.

The claim that the UN has prevented and ended wars is ludicrous when even a cursory review can reveal the consistent impotence of the Security Council in the face of prolonged and widespread carnage. The cause of that failure is no mystery: the Council’s permanent members have been the primary beneficiaries of war; they provide almost all the world’s weaponry and reap enormous economic and political advantages from instigating proxy conflicts.

Another dishonest claim in the Introduction is that the past year has seen “significant progress” towards the interconnected goals of ending poverty, bringing climate change under control, and agreeing on “shared approaches to funding and implementing a new development agenda.” In fact, the UN’s endless talk on those issues has resulted in nothing but arid, hollow texts.

The authors of the Introduction are also inexplicably confused when it comes to telling about the “enormous strides” the UN has made in “building the long-term foundations of peace.” 

On the one hand they ascribe undeserved credit to the Organization for raising “millions out of extreme poverty” and empowering women, both national processes, with a marginal UN role.

On the other hand, they make only one passing reference to the UN’s undisputed and major success in advancing human rights and international law. 

The 70th anniversary is surely an occasion to celebrate that despite the many tyrannical regimes in its membership the Organization has created and codified more international law than in all previous history. It has been the primary designer, architect and advocate of a body of law that now extends from the abyssal depths of the sea to outer space and covers every individual on earth with the mantle of universal human rights and protections.

Strangely too, the report makes no mention at all of another major UN achievement, the creation of an integrated statistical framework that makes global problems visible. Without it the world would be incapable of policy and strategy in every vital area.

On contemporary problems, the Introduction is frank: “age-old problems persist,” and new ones are proliferating. “Inequalities are growing in all societies,” the “poorest of the poor” are being left farther behind, and there are shockingly violent crimes of violence against women and girls, especially as “a tool of war.” Climate change has “only begun to show the potential severity of its impacts.” Overall, problems have become more complex in an “increasingly fast-paced and interconnected world where opportunities “abound” but “risks are greater and more contagious.”

The description of the world situation in 2015 is vivid:

“During the past year, more people were displaced than at any time since the Second World War. Desperate migrants risked everything to flee from hunger, persecution and violence, only to meet with death, discrimination and greater desperation along the way. Conflict and crisis engulfed millions of people in Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, Darfur, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gaza, Libya, Iraq, Mali, Somalia, South Sudan, the Syrian Arab Republic, Ukraine and Yemen. Millions faced the brutal tactics of violent extremists such as Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab and Da‘esh/Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), while many foreign fighters found the message of such groups alluring enough to join their cause. Environmental degradation, pollution and resource depletion continued almost unabated around the globe. There was little progress on the long-stalled disarmament agenda. Countless people died of curable diseases, went to bed hungry, buried children who might have been saved with basic health care, and in many other ways suffered avoidable, unacceptable levels of deprivation, fear and hopelessness.”

The section on Disarmament notes both the quick UN action to neutralize Syria’s chemical weapons and the 19-year lassitude of the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD), the world’s only multilateral negotiating forum on arms issues.

Finally, the Report takes no note of the tireless and powerful role of civil society in international affairs. Without the largely volunteer-driven agendas of civil society organizations the UN's State-centred processes would lose an essential humanizing element; it would be impossible for the Organization to hold out the hope that the idealism in the Preamble to its Charter will eventually come to life in global governance. 

The authors of the Report could have made all those points easily by quoting from a statement made last March in the CD by the 100-year old Women’s International League for Peace and Freedomx. Some excerpts:

“For the last few years, my organization, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, has been permitted to deliver a statement to the Conference on Disarmament to mark International Women’s Day. For years before that, our statement was read out to the CD by the sitting president. This is the only time of year that any voice from civil society is allowed inside the CD chamber. And this may be the last time our voice is heard here.

“Dear colleagues, … let me explain to you what it is like being the only civil society organization that still pays attention to the CD. Last week, for the high-level segment, I had to make a detour on my way to the gallery, because security wouldn’t let me through – I would have been too close to the chamber in which about 20 minutes later a high level dignitary would be speaking.

“Even after any regular plenary session, I have to wait outside the Council Chamber for someone from the Secretariat to hand me the statements that you delivered, because I am not allowed into the room. This practice, by the way, was never an official decision. In 2004, it was decided that civil society was allowed on the floor, before and after the meeting. That changed without an official decision ever being put on the record.

“These are but a few of the indignities that civil society experiences at the CD. We do not experience them at other disarmament forums—not at First Committee, not at meetings of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, not at meetings of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

“So, you can imagine our delight when Ambassador Lomónaco tabled the draft decision to increase our access to and engagement with the CD. And I assume you can imagine our disappointment, to put it mildly, when you started discussing that draft decision. Aside from the sexist, degrading remark about “topless ladies throwing bottles of mayonnaise,” the level of disrespect to civil society and disconnection from the outside world demonstrated by the debate over this proposal was astounding.

“Many of you have expressed your appreciation for our work over and over again. And we do enjoy working with you towards our collective goals. But at the moment that it mattered, some of you put process over progress. Member states that pride themselves to be open, democratic societies said they needed more time, had some more questions, wanted some changes, and in the end could not agree ...

“We in WILPF have thus decided that it’s finally time to cease our engagement with this body. While the debate over the proposal to amend the CD’s engagement with civil society was important in terms of timing, it is not the key reason that we have come to this decision. 

"This is a body that has firmly established that it operates in a vacuum. That it is disconnected from the outside world. That it has lost perspective of the bigger picture of human suffering and global injustice. … We can no longer invest effort into such a body.”