Nearing theend of his 10 years at the helm of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon spoke frankly about the state of the world and his successes, failures and frustrations as UN chief. In an interview with The Associated Press, on Sept 13, 2016, “U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says he’s disappointed by many world leaders who care more about retaining power than improving the lives of their people – and can’t understand why Syria is being held hostage to “the destiny” of one man, President Bashar Assad.”
This is the first time a UN chief has candidly, not mincing words, disparaged the world leaders, especially from the so-called ‘Big Five’, for failing to resolve the Syrian crisis, among others. The dire situation in Syria is a tip of the iceberg. But why is this a disappointment to Ban, or why is it a dead end?
To begin with, the failure to resolve the Syrian crisis is solely attributable to the UN Security Council, in particular. The bone of contention of this conflict lies in the divergent interests of five Permanent Members of UN Security Council.
On the one hand, Russia has used its veto powers four times to block resolutions on Syria whose current regime it sees as a potential trading partner, and therefore one it can’t afford to lose. On the other hand, the US and its allies support moderate Syrian rebels who are fighting government forces. And, at the end of the day, it is civilians who are suffering. Just as the saying goes ‘when elephants jostle, what gets hurt is the grass.’
In all fairness, UN has made numerous attempts to resolve the crisis. First, by nominating former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan as the first UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, before replacing him with Lakhdar Brahimi, an Algerian diplomat. Both gentlemen resigned precisely because they were failed mainly by Russia and the US. They both asserted that their mission was made impossible due to hopeless division by the proxies over how to end the crisis. Various peace talks were held in Geneva, but made little headway to end the crisis. Following the resignation of Brahimi, Ban appointed Staffan de Mistura, a veteran Italian-Swedish diplomat, as the new special envoy tasked with seeking a peaceful resolution of the ongoing conflict in Syria. Given the lack of a common position by the proxies, Staffan de Mistura is most likely to follow in his predecessors’ footsteps.
To Rwandans, the above impasse isn’t a surprise given the genocide tragedy that happened in Rwanda in 1994 as the global community stood idly even as people were systematically being slaughtered in broad day light. Yet UN’s inaction is not only attributed to the organisation but also to Secretary-General. In fact, I would go along with those who cast a share of blame on him for not speaking out against the inaction and hypocrisy of the ‘big fish’.
Ban further said that “it’s unrealistic to expect any Secretary-General to be some almost almighty person”, because the UN member states make decisions and the UN chief implements them rather than implementing his own initiatives and policies. This is true to some extent but it can’t be interpreted naively that the UN Secretary-General has no role to play or authority to assert. Considering the mission of both Annan and Brahimi, they did all they could, but they never shied away from finger-pointing at those who made their mission fail.
Again, during the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi in Rwanda, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the late former UN Secretary-General, and Kofi Annan, who was then the Under-Secretary-General for peacekeeping, had powers to avert or halt a humanitarian catastrophe in Rwanda but chose not to do so by not extending the mandate of MINUAR or deploying an additional force. Needless to say, the huge blame goes to the UN, but more particularly to the ‘big fish’, plus the UN chief.
Divergent self-interests of Permanent Five is the main reason why UN SC is often in gridlock to resolve many crises around the world. In fact, they care more about their self-centered interests and less about saving the lives of people in dire situation.
The UN has been criticised for being ineffective. Nevertheless, this hasn’t changed the status quo. Now, if Ban claims he’s been disappointed by the ‘big fish’, what expectation can we have in the next Secretary-General to turn things around? There is a strong sense within the organisation that the next UN chief must be someone who can revitalise an organisation seen as obtuse, unaccountable and ineffective. To simply believe that the next Secretary-General will do what others haven’t been able to do is far-fetched. Each of the permanent members has veto powers, and must agree on a candidate amenable to all. It will then be approved by a final vote at the General Assembly, essentially rubberstamping the UN Security Council’s decision. Anyway, let’s wait and watch if the next leader will change the status quo.
The writer is an international law expert.