Kevin Rudd’s ahistorical fears for the UN

By David Bosco

Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd may not be the next United Nations Secretary General but he remains a prominent voice on the future of the organization. In his capacity as chair of the Independent Commission on Multilateralism, he just produced a sweeping new report on the state of the UN. He depicts an institution that is vital to world peace—and in great peril:

The uncomfortable truth is that while the UN today is not broken, it is in trouble. The danger is that it is starting to drift into irrelevance as states increasingly “walk around” the UN on the most important questions facing the international community, seeking substantive solutions elsewhere, increasingly seeing the UN as a pleasant diplomatic afterthought…The UN, like many old institutions both national and international, is being overwhelmed by the major systemic changes and challenges now buffeting the international community at large.

This kind of analysis will be familiar to anyone who has read past “Whither the UN?” reports. The organization always seems to be overwhelmed, underfunded, and on the verge of crisis. How strong is Rudd’s new claim that the UN faces a “drift into irrelevance”? And are the threats to the organization any more pronounced than those it has faced in the past?

To his credit, Rudd compiles a thoughtful list of the organization’s achievements and the various ways in which it has been useful. But he ultimately finds little comfort in this litany. On balance, he sees evidence that the organization is being marginalized. His bill of particulars includes a weak UN performance on Iran, Ukraine, North Korea, and Syria. These examples of dysfunctionality have something in common: they are issues on which major powers have (or had) strong–and sharply diverging–interests. It is no surprise that an organization with the great-power veto built into its structure will have trouble grappling with crises that feature disagreement between its titans.

Rudd also sees lingering effects from the Iraq War and the American decision to fight without Security Council approval. He describes that war as a damaging departure from the norm that the Security Council must bless armed intervention not in direct self-defense. “The modern precedent [the Iraq War] has created has paved the way for other interventions to occur without Security Council backing,” he writes. But the norm of Council control was quite weakly established, even in the post-Cold War. Rudd neglects to mention, for example, that the 1999 Kosovo intervention–which compelled Serbia to give up part of its territory!– also lacked Council approval. And where is the evidence that Iraq has paved the way for other interventions? Viewed in the broader historical context, it is striking that a United States bent on military action even paused in an effort to get Council approval.

Several of Rudd’s other indicia of organizational crisis are products less of marginalization than of hyperactivity. For example, he lashes the organization for sexual abuse by peacekeepers and for bringing cholera to Haiti. These charges are fair, but they are in large part a symptom of the frequent use of peacekeepers. The UN has more than 100,000 peacekeepers in the field, many more than at most points in its history. It’s no secret that the organization struggles to find equipped, trained, and vetted troops for these missions. But the missions keep coming, hardly a sign of an organization on the brink of irrelevance.

Some of Rudd’s other criticisms–an inconsistent response to human rights violations and atrocities–are fair enough, but they again beg the question of whether the organization is any more guilty than in the past. In fact, there’s strong evidence that the UN’s human rights machinery, for all its faults, is more active and assertive than it has ever been. The Human Rights Council is arguably more effective than its predecessors, and UN special rapporteurs help shed light on many domestic abuses that the organization once ignored.

None of this means that the UN’s performance cannot improve, of course, and Rudd includes thoughtful and informed proposals for reform. One doesn’t need to think the organization is in crisis to take them seriously.


About David Bosco

Assistant Professor at American University's School of International Service. Contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine. Author of Rough Justice: The International Criminal Court in a World of Power Politics and Five to Rule Them All: The UN Security Council and the Making of the Modern World
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