You have to feel slightly sorry for Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general of the United Nations. He is a pleasant and soft-spoken diplomat with the best of intentions, who seemingly can do very little to halt the Syrian civil war, which has resulted in upwards of 120,000 deaths in the past 2 1/2 years.
Not that Ban Ki-moon is anything like the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield, but he and the UN just get no respect.
Most recently, either Syrian President Bashar Assad's government forces or his rebel foes opened fire on UN inspectors who were attempting to determine if Assad's regime used chemical weapons, as U.S. President Barack Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, have charged.
The same goes for the UN trying to stop the development of nuclear weapons in Iran. Its leaders have been playing a futile cat-and-mouse game with UN inspectors for years. To buy more time, they state they will permit the inspectors to visit Iranian nuclear facilities, but then prevent them from doing so.
As the CEO of the UN, Ban urges and pleads for dictators and presidents to heed his orders and adhere to the UN mandate to maintain international peace and security. He has told Obama that a unilateral U.S. military strike on Syria would be a violation of international law. And, he has pressed Assad to transfer his chemical weapons to a safe locale where they can be destroyed under international supervision.
Assad now has accepted this proposal (first suggested by John Kerry), but only after significant pressure was brought to bear on the Syrians by their Russian allies. Whether Assad will follow through or whether he is merely stalling remains to be seen. Obama is sceptical of Assad's sincerity.
In any event, the UN and Ban have been relegated to the background. The secretary-general is frequently in the unenviable position of being the powerless chief of a near-powerless entity, which requires a drastic overhaul if it is to have any future relevance.
During the past six-and-a-half decades, the UN through UNICEF and its other associated organizations has accomplished much good in areas dealing with children, world health, and refugees. As a global peace-keeping force and a defender of human rights, however, it remains a hostage to its founding principles and creators. You would have to go back to the Gulf War of 1991, after Iraq invaded Kuwait, as an example of concrete action by the UN, a rare display of unity among its member states.
U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill, who conceived the UN in the Atlantic Charter of August 1941, did so with the prime objective of replacing the defunct and impotent League of Nations, which during the 1930s had been unable to stop the militarization of Germany and the outbreak of the Second World War.
The UN, as its 1945 charter declares, was established "to maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace."
In a perfect world where everyone agrees to the same standard of international law and justice, and where right and wrong are similarly perceived, the charter makes a lot a sense. But from the beginning, the UN was hampered by two age-old issues.
First, the "big three" who had vanquished Germany -- the U.S., Britain and the Soviet Union-- along with France and China, set themselves up as the five permanent members of the influential UN Security Council, each holding a veto over council decisions. Almost from the start, this was a recipe for bickering and dysfunction. The Soviet Union, and now Russia under Vladimir Putin's rule, as well as China, have rarely seen eye-to-eye about much, including how the current crisis in Syria should be resolved.
Related to this is the second factor and arguably the key impediment to decisive global action. Like the League of Nations, nothing is more important to UN members than national sovereignty and the guarding of lines on a map, no matter how tenuous they might be. Once those borders have been established -- modern Syria, for instance, is a creation of French colonial power in the '20s and '30s -- it is as if they have been set in stone. According to one view, no country has the right to interfere in the affairs of another (the inspiration for Star Trek's sacred "prime directive" of non-interference in another alien culture).
So hallowed has been this principle that it has made it next to impossible for the UN to fulfil its other essential objective set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948: stopping genocide and gross human rights violations.
On the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in January 2005, Kofi Annan, Ban Ki-moon's predecessor, pointed out the world had still not learned the lessons of the Holocaust.
"On occasions such as this, rhetoric comes easily," he stated. "We rightly say 'never again.' But action is much harder. Since the Holocaust, the world has, to its shame, failed more than once to prevent genocide."
Annan was specifically referring to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in which approximately 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered, while the UN (Annan was head of the UN's peacekeeping department in 1994) debated endlessly about what actions it should take. It also left Canadian Gen. Rom©o Dallaire, the head of the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda, without proper manpower and in an almost hopeless situation. Only his courage and ingenuity prevented even more killing.
In the wake of the genocide in Rwanda, the UN ostensibly bolstered the UDHR with the Responsibility to Protect or R2P policy, a dictum that challenges a country's right to slaughter its own people. Yet R2P was largely ineffective in Darfur, as it has been in Syria. "If mass atrocities in Syria are not a case for R2P, then there is no R2P," argues Irwin Cotler, a former Liberal minister of justice.
True enough, but the problem remains that the structure of the UN -- with Putin as Assad's protector on the Security Council -- makes following through with a significant R2P intervention fairly unlikely. Destroying Syria's chemical weapons will not stop the war or the bloodshed. (Added to this is the fact that a military attack on Assad's government will only aid the cause of the Syrian rebel forces, which consist of al-Qaida and Islamic extremists)
Despite the contentions of R2P detractors that the policy is merely another example of western arrogance and an attempt to force western principles on everyone else, it has validity. There are indeed universal human rights principles that should and must be adhered to. But as long as R2P is wholly dependent on UN action, the organization's numerous deficiencies will continue to thwart its implementation -- and the world will be the worse off for it.
Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in a historical context.