UNdemocratic – there’s nothing sacred about the United Nations

There's nothing sacred about the United Nations

It’s time to take down the United Nations.

After 60 years of failure we should now realise that to build a just and more equal world we have to tear up the UN charter.

All human beings are born free and equal in rights. That’s what the UN says. But it’s not what the institution is built to support.

The United Nations was constructed as a platform for countries. Governments come to the UN to exercise their power on the international stage. To haggle and barter, to threaten and provoke.

Anyone who has worked at the United Nations will tell you that the spirit from which the institution was born – the idealistic sentiment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – does not exist today.

Sure the same human themes exist: poverty, war, the environment and freedom. But they are fig leaves for the real power games: state representatives trying to secure self-interested deals for their countries.

In a world of unequal power between states, this means the big players – currently the US, China and occasionally Russia – dictate the rules. Everyone else falls into line.

The effect is simple: we have no international body to protect humanity. In a world of increasingly global threats – climate change, migration controls, international conflict and poverty – we’re unprotected.

Take poverty. On every single objective measure of success the UN has failed miserably. Take the 0.7% of GDP target in aid for rich nations to give to poor nations. This was a goal stated in 1970 to be reached by the middle of the decade. 40 years on and we’re still not there. And why should it be 0.7%? Why not 7% or 70%?

Or look at climate change. The world’s scientists tell us that we need to keep global temperatures below a 2 degree rise or face climate feedback loops which will threaten the systems that underpin our survival as a civilisation. Our politicians know this, they actually agree on it. But getting them to settle on the steps they need to take – curbing their carbon emissions – is impossible.  The failure of Copenhagen and the subsequent follow ups in Cancun, Durban along with the Earth Summit in Rio, have shown us that these meetings do nothing except feed diplomat stomachs. They do not take us on the course we need for a global agreement.

Finally, look at Syria and 60,000 dead. As international humanitarians we have to wait for the US, Russia and China to act. These are the same governments responsible for countless acts of oppression throughout the region and beyond. It’s ridiculous and grotesque that we’re expected to wait impotently hoping that a flawed United Nations will deliver a solution. It’s never going to happen.

The structural problem with the UN we’ve known since day one. It’s undemocratic.

The UN is undemocratic for two reasons. Firstly because the only part that can make binding decisions on states is the Security Council, which is dominated by the US, Russia and China who along with the UK and France have vetoes over any decisions. Some people naively think that by reforming the Security Council – maybe even removing the veto – then we’d fix the UN. This thinking is wrong. The UN is also undemocratic because it is states not people who are represented. This means that India has the same vote as Luxembourg on deciding global problems.

Those who think we can reform the United Nations into a democratic world body are dreamers. Institutions don’t reform, they replicate their power structures in everything they do. Even in the International Criminal Court, the result of decades of work by armies of NGOs, the same power structure is replicated. Why are nearly all the indictees African? Why are there no Western leaders in the dock? Why has neither the US nor Israel signed the Rome Statute? Why are neither Bush nor Blair to face trial over the illegal invasion of Iraq? Because even the International Criminal Court is an extension of the same undemocratic UN, replicated in all its deformity into a global court of ‘justice’.

The harsh reality is that we were closer to reforming the UN the day it was formed than we are today. Sure there will be superficial concessions, like opening up membership of the Security Council or other irrelevant changes, but deep democratic change will never come through reform.

Those who call for a reform to the United Nations are not dissimilar to those who believed the authoritarian regimes of Gadhaffi or Mubarak could democratise. Untold millions were spent on programmes to train those regimes on the paths to democracy. Untold millions went hungry and were tortured because of our stubbornness in ignoring the obvious truth. Democracy never comes through reform.

The United Nations is not sacred – we are. If the UN cannot solve the global problems we need it to we should replace it with something that can. A democratic assembly representing people, not states.

The question to all the reformists is this: do you honestly think you can change the UN into the international body we need in the time we have? Every day 20,000 kids die from lack of access to clean water. Every day without a global limit on greenhouse gases we’re slipping towards a point of no return.

Overturning undemocratic regimes doesn’t have to take decades. It can take months, weeks, or even just days. But the first step is removing its sanctity. There is nothing sacred about the UN.

Nothing would be truer to the founding principles of the United Nations than pulling its rotten structure down and building something new. Something democratic.

This is an anonymous opinion piece by a member of the Egality network. If you’d like to write – anonymously or otherwise – on any aspect of global democracy, then please get in touch.