UN: when activism stands in the way of good

THE UNITED NATIONS can be both a wonderful and frustrating organisation. Maybe it was intended to be such – useful but also a stumbling block – and a place of recourse for all manner of people, groups, states.
John Rwagatare
John Rwagatare

THE UNITED NATIONS can be both a wonderful and frustrating organisation. Maybe it was intended to be such – useful but also a stumbling block – and a place of recourse for all manner of people, groups, states. 

The weak run to it for protection against the more powerful and sometimes get some level of protection. In this way a modicum of civilised conduct between nations has been maintained. The world might still be a jungle and the fittest muscle their way around quite a bit, but the full savagery of the law of the jungle has largely been prevented.

They also go to it for support in various areas of socio-economic development. People in the developing world generally appreciate the work of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), World Health Organisation (WHO), UNICEF and other UN specialised and humanitarian agencies. 

The powerful too seek UN support – well, not really, actually want to manipulate it towards a national position. They usually go to it to seek global endorsement for blatantly unilateral, even illegal actions.

In the recent past unilateral military action by a country or bloc against another one has been taken to the United Nations to receive international blessing. That was the case with the French when they sought United Nations’ approval for creating Zone Turquoise in 1994 ostensibly to protect civilians, but in reality to help genocidaires kill more of their victims and later escape into Zaire, now DR Congo. That has been the same story in Libya and Iraq.

Sometimes the powerful want to punish a smaller country for such crime as standing up for what it believes in, or for refusing to be bullied. They go to the UN to get permission to wield a stick to flog the offending country. Many times they get their way and sanctions or other punitive measures are imposed.

In a sense, the UN, whether it is doing its work or carrying out orders of others, can be both useful and a hindrance and frustrating to all its members. Over time it has developed a certain amount of arrogance and insensitivity.

However, members of the UN are ingenious and have often found a way around the frustrations.

For instance, the weak occasionally gang up and make such a din that the powerful back off – for a while at least. 

In the past, the United States has threatened to withhold its massive financial contributions, and on some occasions actually did, unless the UN reformed its administrative structures.

The US pretext was that the UN was a creaking top-heavy bureaucracy that moved ever so slowly.

The real reason, however, was that the UN sometimes refused to do the bidding of the United States.

Eventually the Unites States had its way and some reforms were made. More importantly, the United Nations now nearly always does what the US demands.

Ironically, as the UN administration was being reformed, mainly at headquarters, other functions and responsibilities for the organisation were being created. High Commissioners, rapporteurs on diverse sectors, special envoys to nearly every region of the world, groups of experts and many others have been regularly named to serve the UN.

All manner of activists, lobbyists, advocates of various causes – ranging from gender equality to environment and wildlife conservation, animal, gay and rights of minorities to various issues of health – have been hired in this manner. 

On the surface, their appointment seems spot on because of their assumed passion for their chosen areas and a reputed independent streak. In reality, however, they are agents of powerful nations and interests. Their hiring is simply another way of dressing national interests in global garb; presenting narrow national issues as worldwide concerns.

One of these special people was in Rwanda towards the end of January to assess the level of freedom of assembly in this country. Maina Kiai – his official title is a mouthful: UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association – duly moved around the country, met some officials but spent more time with convicted criminals. And when he made his interim report, it reflected  more the views of the convicts than those of law-abiding citizens.

Now one may not doubt the good intentions and strength of conviction of people like Kiai. After all he spent most of his professional life on the battle-field for human rights in a Kenya that was different from today’s East Africa. Obviously his time in the trenches is bound to colour his vision of government and bias his judgement and report.

Predictably, he got some things on Rwanda wrong. For example, his definition of a dissident in the Rwandan context is way off the mark. He accused the government of harassing dissidents by branding them corrupt. The order here is mixed up. What Kiai calls dissident were first charged with criminal offences, including corruption and abuse of office before they started “opposing” the government. They were criminals first before they became critics of the government. Their supposed dissidence is a function of criminal acts, not of principle.

Equally faulty is Kiai’s prescription that anyone who wants to demonstrate should be left to do so as they wish. That does not happen anywhere in this world. Ask the “Occupy Wall Street” or the London protesters. They will all testify how they were removed from those areas by riot police with batons raining on their backs. Yet no special rapporteur has been invited or sent to New York or London.

The UN does a lot of good things. Even appointing people like Maina Kiai is a good thing. It should, however, appoint people who are more open-minded and therefore likely to be more objective. Hiring people focussed on a single issue is the wrong recipe.


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