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UN Chiefs Silenced by Big Powers with Vetoes

Protests in cities across the United States including in New York city. Credit: UN News/Shirin Yaseen

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 9 2020 (IPS) - The massive protests in more than 120 US cities over racial injustice and police brutality went global last week– amidst presidential threats of military force on demonstrators in Washington DC.

At the same time, there were continued political demonstrations against the imposition of authoritarianism in Hong Kong by the current dominating military power there: China.

According to Cable News Network (CNN), “sickened,” “shocked and appalled,” “horror and consternation” – “are words we’re used to hearing from US presidents and diplomats to condemn despotic regimes”.

“But these are from leaders in the UK, the European Union and Canada, respectively”, to describe the brutal killing of an unarmed African-American in the streets of Minneapolis which triggered protests worldwide.

But will any UN Secretary-General – past or present – have plucked up courage to condemn the political leadership either in the United States or China, two veto-wielding permanent members in the Security Council, in such harsh terms?

”Never,” says a former Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN, “particularly, if a Secretary-General is planning to run for a second term —where the threat of a veto hangs over his head”?

Still, will a limit on his tenure be an answer to the problem, as laid out in a 1996 study, which recommended that the General Assembly adopt a comprehensive new policy, including a single, seven-year term, to free the Secretary-General from re-election stresses and pressures.?

Stephen Lewis, a former Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations and Deputy Executive Director of the UN children’s agency UNICEF, told IPS: “I don’t think it much matters whether it’s two five-year terms or one seven-year term”.

That’s not the problem with the Secretary-General’s tenure, he pointed out.

The problem is that both Ban Ki-moon and Antonio Guterres have paid no attention to the three most important words that open the Charter of the UN: “We the peoples”…

“They both pay homage only to governments; it’s as if ‘the peoples’ of the world don’t exist. As a result, there is neither transparency nor accountability”, said Lewis, who was a UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, and later co-founder and co-director of AIDS-Free World.

Guterres, he said, hides behind the Convention on Privileges and Immunities, or with willful arrogance refuses to answer questions put to him.

“Thus, when asked why he’s silent on the turbulence in the United States, and in particular the excessive use of force, he defers to his spokesperson who provides fatuous nonsense in response.”

It was exactly the way Ban never felt the obligation to tell the truth about cholera in Haiti, nor to feel it necessary to explain why the $400 million fund was effectively abandoned, he noted.

Perhaps one of the few exceptions in the 75-year history of the UN was former Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt who paid the supreme penalty of being vetoed out of a second term —even though he garnered an overwhelming 14 of the 15 votes in the UN Security Council. But the US ingloriously vetoed his claims for a second term.

As he recounted his running battle with the US in his book titled “Unvanquished: a US UN Saga,” Boutros-Ghali had the singular distinction of being the only UN chief who never received a second term in office because he paid a heavy price for the courage of his convictions—even though he admits he was forced to occasionally cave in to the dictates of the US.

The 1996 study sponsored by two major think tanks implicitly accused some of the world’s big powers of manipulating the election of the Secretary-General so as to ensure that U.N. heads are political creatures with no minds of their own.

“It is impossible to escape the impression, that many governments, including some of the most powerful, do not want a strong, independent leader as Secretary-General,” said the study published under the auspices of the New York-based Ford Foundation and the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation of Stockholm.

The authors of the study – Brian Urquhart and Erskine Childers, both senior UN officials – said the selection of the Secretary-General is quite literally part of “an old-boy network.” “The United Nations is an intergovernmental organisation, and governments have no intentions of giving up control of it.”

Thomas G. Weiss, a Distinguished Fellow, Global Governance at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, told IPS the same proposal was part of the “1-for-7-billion campaign” (of which Weiss was a sponsor). http://www.1for7billion.org/

“Boutros Boutros-Ghali would have been a perfect candidate, “enfant terrible” for 7 years instead of modestly behaved for 5 years. It made sense in 1990 and in 2016 for the reasons that you cite”.

“Guterres has been running for a second term since January 2017” (ever since he took office), he noted.

“He has disappointed many of us by being so invisible. We should recall former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who prided himself being the “invisible man.” He got two terms. Guterres is using the same strategy,” declared Weiss, Presidential Professor of Political Science, Director Emeritus, Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at The CUNY Graduate Center. Weiss’ most recent article in PassBlue is titled “Will the UN make it to 100?”

Lewis argued there is no freedom of information in the UN, and that’s what gets governments like Sweden frustrated and thinking of shortening the SG’s term.

“The Secretary-General should be required to hold an open press conference at least once, preferably twice a week, with a critical media corps to ask questions. If that were the case, the entire culture of his office would change.”

“It’s his behaviour rather than his longevity that needs reform,” declared Lewis.

In a hard-hitting article titled “As Protests Sweep the US, the UN Tweets Platitudes”, Dulcie Leimbach, a former editor at the New York Times and founder of PassBlue, a widely-read web publication covering the United Nations, wrote: “Amid curfews in New York City, constant marches and protests, sirens from the streets and helicopters whirring above, the United Nations top leader, António Guterres, has not appeared before the media to say anything directly about the convulsions exploding across the five boroughs and far beyond. Instead, he has relied on his spokespeople to provide responses.”

Leimbach also wrote that the lack of direct reference to the killing of George Floyd, and the turn of events here in the city and elsewhere, extends to the UN Security Council, the General Assembly, the US mission to the UN and other national delegations. Only the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, a Chilean who is based in Geneva, has directly addressed Floyd’s murder.

“But when it comes to criticizing the US or other great powers who control the UN, Guterres has built a reputation of making vague statements or letting other UN experts, from human-rights chiefs to refugee bosses — not a new reaction — to comment on the latest problem or conflict violating international law or overriding universal rights”.

Asked to comment further on UN leadership, Leimbach told IPS: “For the UN to remain relevant in our ever-increasing polarized world, it needs to have a woman running the organization for a change”

That would show it is flexible and accountable to half the world’s population as women need to be running global organizations to ensure their equal rights.

The symbol of having the UN led by a woman — the right woman — would be profound, she declared.

Asked for the Secretary-General’s views– on whether the attacks on journalists and innocent civilians at US demonstrations last week were violations of human rights– UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters June 5: “Look, we have already spoken on that.”

“ The Secretary-General, I think, has mentioned that in his tweets, and … our position really is the same globally, is that people have a fundamental right to demonstrate peacefully, that the law enforcement should use restraint, and… but there is a fundamental right of peaceful demonstration that needs to be respected all over the world and that… it’s not … this is something we say whenever we get asked about demonstrations and violence.”

Asked about a proposal by a group of parliamentarians from Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand for a Special Envoy on Hong Kong, he said; “Look, we haven’t received anything, as far as I’m aware, officially. There are procedures and precedents on the appointment of… and I speak here in very general terms, on the appointment of special envoys, special representatives and I will… and, obviously, involves all the parties involved in that issue, but I will leave it at that.

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

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  • Joan Russow

    Perhaps the time has come to dismantle the UN security council which violates a fundamental principle of the Charter of the United Nations- the principle of sovereign equality.

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