An insider’s take on the ineffectiveness of the United Nations Security Council
The United Nations was never intended to be a world government. In a world radically altered by the worst slaughter humanity had yet perpetrated, it was founded mainly as a forum to ensure that the then dominant hatred would not end with the obliteration of most of humanity.
Hardeep Singh Puri, whose long career in the Indian Foreign Service concluded with a posting as India’s Permanent Representative at the U.N. headquarters in New York, was on the Security Council from 2011 to 2013, during which time whole regions of the world underwent cataclysmic upheaval, with apparently unending mass violence causing what may now amount to over a million deaths.
Puri’s terse and often gripping narrative, backed with excellent sources, shines a sharp light on the Security Council’s response — or lack of it — to some of the most terrible events of our day. The illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq does not itself figure, though as a historically disastrous intervention it constitutes a leitmotif for the argument that intervention always fails. In Iraq, the United States-led coalition’s summary abolition of public institutions drove hundreds of Iraqi army officers to join the then embryonic Islamic State, and the destabilisation of Iraq resulted in a hideous sectarian civil war which enabled al-Qaeda to establish itself where it had previously had no presence.
Puri covers Libya in detail. The United States and the United Kingdom had earlier signed oil and arms deals with Muammar Gaddafi, but in 2011, they put pressure on their U.N. missions as the result of a ‘comprehensive and systematic’ Western press campaign to demonise Gaddafi. That made it easy for particular Western powers to peddle the lie, one repeatedly exposed later, that Gaddafi was about to massacre all dissenting civilians in Libya. Russia and China were persuaded to abstain on a resolution which authorised a no-fly zone over Libya but included the phrase ‘all necessary means’ — which the U.S. got inserted at the last minute. The resolution passed with the minimum nine in favour, as Presidents Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy leaned on South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma to support a mandate which included African Union mediation; the AU has played no Libyan role whatsoever. Instead, Western forces rapidly bombed Libya into chaos, Gaddafi was murdered by his captors, and ISIS moved in; they may be collaborating with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and weapons have floodedacross Algeria to West Africa — into Boko Haram’s hands.
The worst results of the war on Gaddafi have occurred in Syria, where about half a million people have been killed in the last five years; four million have fled the country, and seven million have been internally displaced. Syria’s total population is 22 million. The Security Council is paralysed, following Russian and Chinese vetoes, and the Western powers dare not commit ground troops openly.
Within Syria, a bewildering range of factions, militias, and foreign interests makes it almost impossible to foresee anything but more mass killing. That cannot, however, conceal two major outside agendas. In September 2002, Benjamin Netanyahu told a U.S. congressional hearing that removing Saddam would stabilise Iraq and have ‘enormous positive reverberations’ in the region. Secondly, a declassified 2012 report by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency says a ‘declared or undeclared’ Salafist principality in eastern Syria is exactly what several outside powers want in order to isolate the Assad government. One of those outside powers is Saudi Arabia, which Puri shows is helping al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula by brutally repressing public uprisings in Yemen.
When Puri looks elsewhere, he is acerbic about aspects of India’s involvement in the Sri Lankan civil war, and he is equally direct about the Western world’s self-created refugee problem. He also considers the Westphalian idea of sovereignty almost beyond retrieval, with Russia’s annexation of the Crimea as a case in point, and he bluntly says the Security Council can only turn the Responsibility to Protect into yet more interventions in countries the Western permanent members do not like and the other two do not care enough about. That raises wider issues, because Puri’s main arguments are consequentialist. President Clinton regretted blocking U.N. intervention in Rwanda; that may have made the U.S. readier to intervene elsewhere, and in any case consequentialist critiques could be countered by examples of more successful interventions, such as those respectively in what became Timor Leste and in Mali.
Puri does not say much about reform of the Security Council; of course the main problems lie in the willingness or otherwise of the current permanent members to agree that new permanent members should have a veto, or — among other reforms already under discussion — to accept the abolition of the veto power.
One key implication of this badly needed book is that in the event of another global catastrophe, the Security Council in its current form is very unlikely to improve on its existing record; Puri’s analysis will add considerable weight to the arguments for genuinely open and constructive reform.