October 2, 2018

JOHNS | Laughter and Silence at the United Nations

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The United Nations opened the 73rd session of its General Assembly last week, an annual event at its New York City headquarters featuring a series of speeches from leaders and dignitaries from around the world. President Trump, on September 25, gave one of the proceedings’ most substantive addresses in which he properly criticized the UN’s many shortcomings, offered a corrective direction for the organization, and articulated a new American foreign policy agenda that for the first time boldly breaks with the globalist vision that has guided (and sometimes ill-served) the U.S. since World War II.

The question is: Did the world hear Trump’s important message?

Based at least on the media coverage, which focused myopically on the unwarranted and cynical General Assembly laughter that followed Trump’s claim that his administration has “accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country,” it appears they likely did not. Of course, after scoffing at Trump, the same General Assembly attendees scurried to have their picture taken with our 45th president, perhaps symbolizing that beneath their public contempt lies a deep respect for American leadership.

It is a respect that is highly advisable. The U.S. is the foundation upon which the UN has been built and sustained. The U.S. was a driving force behind the UN’s 1945 founding and has proven far and away its largest funding source. In 2017, the U.S. contributed $1.2 billion, or 22 percent, of the UN’s vast $5.4 billion budget. While it is conceivable that the UN could exist without this U.S. funding and participation, it would be a shadow of its current self in such a case. In other words, what the U.S. thinks of the UN is no laughing matter; its very future may depend on it.

So what did Trump say? He largely told the General Assembly that it is time to hit the reset button on its operations, which have become unduly obsessed with anti-American and anti-Israel bias, corrupted with financial mismanagement and sometimes fraud, and failed to live up to the bold and laudable goals from its founding charter.  Seven decades since the UN’s October 1945 founding, Trump’s message is largely this: The UN is a global body that continues to squander its vast potential.

UN advocates, of course, would rightly counter that it has proven constructive in facilitating international dialogue, which is valuable as the world confronts ongoing crises from nuclear proliferation to bloody civil wars. The UN’s humanitarian efforts, from the World Health Organization to the World Food Program, also have served noble goals. To be sure, they have saved the lives of many.

Yet, the UN’s failures loom large. Consider the UN’s mishandling of multiple humanitarian disasters: from the genocide in Rwanda to the executions in Srebrenica, investigations have uncovered a series of systematic UN failures. In Rwanda, for instance, a 1999 UN report found that the UN ignored warnings from peacekeepers of the impending civil war. As a result, substantial blame was appropriately placed on UN leadership for the Rwanda slaughter, which proved one of the deadliest human rights crises of our time, taking over a million lives in less than 100 days.

As the UN failed the people of Rwanda, so too did it fail the people of southern Sudan. Aicha Elbasri, who served as the UN spokesperson for the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur, a key UN peacekeeping effort, cited in 2014 the Mission’s “grave crimes against civilians and against its own peacekeepers,” which she said exacerbated the Darfur crisis and were scandalously covered up by a UN reluctant to face the reality of its misdeeds there. As is often the case with UN mismanagement, token investigations were launched but ultimately no one was held accountable.

The UN’s politicization and dysfunction is also glaringly self-evident in its Human Rights Council, where some of the world’s most brutal violators of human rights (Cuba, Venezuela, Democratic Republic of the Congo, et al.) sit in judgment of the world’s human rights conditions and perhaps not surprisingly have spent the preponderance of their time investigating purported rights violations in Western democracies while paying nearly no attention to the world’s most serious human rights violators, such as China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and others.

Two weeks ago, I noted that a million innocent Uyghurs are being held in political indoctrination camps by the government of China exclusively because of their Muslim religious affiliation.  In a logical world, the UNHRC would be passing resolutions condemning China for this mass imprisonment, demanding to inspect the conditions of these camps and calling for the release of the persecuted Uyghur prisoners. Is it doing that? Actually, no. UNHRC has failed to issue any formal condemnation of this vicious human rights abuse by China, and instead continues to offer China representation on the council. China now sits in judgment of human rights conditions in democratically-elected nations whose respect for human rights would more properly be a model for China to emulate.

The same outrageous hypocrisy can be seen by the UNHRC’s inclusion of Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela, which has served as a member of the council since 2015 and has used this positional authority to stop discussion of its own vast human rights violations. Cuba, which has systematically refused to permit human rights inspectors to enter its country and has routinely jailed opponents of its communist government, outrageously also holds a seat.

If one is seeking an objective assessment of the human rights conditions in China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea or Venezuela, the UNHRC would be the last place to turn. Meanwhile, the UNHRC is entering the twelfth consecutive year of its infamous “Agenda Item 7,” a council-imposed mandatory annual review of purported human rights abuses in Israel. No other country has earned this level of scrutiny, including Myanmar, whose military actions against the Rohingya minority were unanimously declared a genocide by the Canadian House of Commons two weeks ago. To the credit of the Trump administration, it ultimately saw enough of this hypocrisy on the UNHRC’s handling of human rights to properly remove the U.S. from the body last June.

Reasonable people can differ in their perspectives and priorities on sensitive matters such as global peacekeeping, humanitarian relief, and holding human rights abusers accountable. But those laughing at Trump last week ought to take pause and evaluate their own house. The UN’s track record in many cases would be even more laughable if so much were not at stake. Sadly, as the UN has demonstrated for many decades, very much is at stake and Trump is right in calling on it to right its ways if it wishes to continue being a beneficiary of the generosity of American taxpayers.

Michael Johns is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Athwart History runs every other Wednesday this semester. He can be reached at mjohns@cornellsun.com.