Improving the UN's Ability to Act
Morton Abramowitz and Thomas Pickering
From Foreign Affairs, September/October 2008
Summary: The UN must streamline its decision making process so it can start backing up its lofty words with action.
Morton Abramowitz is a Senior Fellow at the Century Foundation and former U.S. Ambassador to Thailand and Turkey. Thomas Pickering is Vice Chair of Hills & Company and has served as U.S. Ambassador to six countries and the United Nations.
In May, Cyclone Nargis struck southern Myanmar (also known as Burma), killing over 80,000 people and leaving millions homeless and in dire conditions. For weeks after the storm, Myanmar's military junta blocked and delayed international relief efforts while doing little to aid survivors.
Despite heated condemnation from capitals throughout the world, the international media, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), Myanmar's government was exceedingly slow in allowing foreign aid and foreign relief workers into the affected area. Myanmar -- already a humanitarian disaster before the cyclone -- has once again starkly exposed the international community's inability to face down governments that massively mistreat their people. It is time for the international community to reduce the disparity between words and deeds.
In the past few decades, there have been remarkable advances in the fields of human security and human rights. Democratic governments and civil-society organizations have increasingly spoken out against wanton human rights abuses, violence against minorities, and the dangers of unchecked state sovereignty. Terms such as "never again" and appeals for "humanitarian intervention" and a "responsibility to protect" have become commonplace as concerned countries have sought to prevent man-made crises or halt them before they descend into mass violence. Treaties such as the United Nations' Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and an international criminal judicial system have been developed to limit states' power to harm their own citizens and their neighbors.
In the face of certain humanitarian disasters, such as Serbian violence against Albanians in Kosovo during the late 1990s, the world has reacted strongly to end the atrocities. Some international efforts have come too late: in Bosnia in the 1990s, Sierra Leone at the turn of the century, and Liberia in 2003. And there are ongoing humanitarian emergencies today in repressive states such as North Korea, Sudan, and Zimbabwe and broken states such as Somalia. These countries have remained largely immune to international pressure; meanwhile, their citizens continue to suffer. Rising public concern, media attention, and pressure from grass-roots organizations have helped ensure that governments do not simply avert their gaze. All of this attention has also helped produce significant diplomatic activity (as in Darfur) and has generated large sums of money to assist refugees and displaced people fleeing violence and ruin. Unfortunately, it has not been enough to put an end to the worst crises.
In an ideal world, noncoercive efforts would produce better behavior. But states persecuting their own people are rarely responsive to peaceful gestures. General sanctions also have their limitations; they tend to hurt already-suffering populations and have little impact on government policies, as was the case in Iraq during the 1990s and as is happening in Myanmar today. Sanctions that target regime leaders (especially their finances) are more promising, but preventing leaders from entering the United States or doing business there -- two cookie-cutter sanctions Washington often employs -- does not seem to have much of an impact.
MOVING BEYOND RHETORIC
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