The TV show “Community” recently had an episode largely dedicated to two groups of students competing to run their school’s Model UN program. The episode concluded with a win by the team that was less reality-based, as a political science professor (at the community college around which the show is centered) stated that the UN is a “fundamentally symbolic organization founded on principles of high minded rhetoric and empty gestures.” This snark seemed most appropriate given its timing: as world leaders line up for the annual speeches in September and October, as Palestine’s membership status was being hotly debated, and as the UN Security Council could not agree to sanction Syria for its repression.
The issue of Palestine as a member of the UN is entirely symbolic (although not entirely meaningless), as the US and Israel essentially recognized Palestine in previous agreements. Further, even as it gains international recognition, Palestine will join the ranks of states that have less than full control over their own territory. Statehood, as recognized by the UN, will not change too many facts on the ground. Somaliland has managed to get by despite the lack of recognition, and the list of non-recognized countries is getting longer all the time from Taiwan to Abkhazia and beyond.
Of course, we should not be surprised that Russia and China would veto a resolution addressing human rights. It is more surprising that they let the Libya resolution go last March. Of course, they now bear the scars of that resolution, as France and its allies took that resolution and ran with it. The important point here is that China, in particular, gets to vet the world’s decisions about the application of human rights standards.
Why do I find this at all problematic? If I had never moved to Canada, I would have just laughed at the Community episode and moved on. But having moved outside of the US, I was surprised to find that Canadians (and folks elsewhere) tend to think that UN approval is a stamp of legitimacy that might be required for international interventions. While nice as an ideal and convenient when one already does not want to participate in an invasion of Iraq, it means that one’s foreign policy becomes subject to the whims of the veto-holders on the Security Council. And, excuse me, but the idea of Putin or the Chinese having a veto on American or Canadian foreign policy is not terribly appealing. As it would not be appealing for many countries to essentially grant the US a veto.
We are far from a world in which each veto-holder at the UN is seen as representative, well-governed, and fair. These are not Supreme Court justices but powerful countries with their own interests. China is hardly democratic, Russia is pretty flawed (especially with the Putin return to power, as if he ever left), and the US showed that its leaders are not bound by the rule of law during a semi-emergency.
I am not suggesting that the UN be reformed so that there are no vetoes at the UNSC, nor am I arguing that we should restrict who holds the vetoes. Hoping for either or both would be ignoring the institutional logic of the vetoes—change is not going to happen. No, what I am suggesting is that we might not want to over-rate the legitimacy and power of the UN and the Security Council. While the UN and the Security Council are important fora for presenting messages and for trying to win global popularity contests, they should not be seen as arbiters of justice. The presence of Libya and other repressors on the Human Rights Council reminded us that these organizations do not have membership criteria tied to suitability or fit with the avowed standards of the organization. As long as we also remember that is the case for the UN Security Council, we would be alright.