Canada, one of the founding members of the United Nations in 1945, has been one of its staunchest supporters throughout times good, bad and downright terrible. Seen as a potential counterweight to the most powerful neighbour in the world, most Canadians have stubbornly refused to acknowledge that the UN has demonstrated for much too long that it is incapable of successfully dealing with serious issues of peace and security.
With all the other departments that have been created since the UN's birth -- the UN Children's Fund, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the World Health Organization etc. -- it's easy to forget that the world body's original mandate was to "save succeeding generations from the scourge of war" with a special emphasis on making sure that a Third World War never happened. To ensure that goal was achieved, the combined military forces of the Security Council's five permanent members -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States -- were standing by to quickly sort out any nation that defied the council's wishes. The Security Council, in other words, would be the world's sheriff.
A mere few years after the UN Charter was endorsed, the Cold War dominated international relations and the concept of the permanent five working together in synergy to thwart threats to international peace and security became but a distant dream. In 1948, the UN dispatched modest unarmed military contingents to Korea and the Middle East to assist with election supervision and the maintenance of ceasefires. In 1956, the first lightly armed UN peacekeeping force was sent to the Suez Canal following an agreement that the British, French and Israeli forces would withdraw. For the next 33 years, 13 UN peacekeeping missions were dispatched, primarily to Africa and the Middle East, with varying degrees of success.
Concurrent with the end of the Cold War, the UN endorsed the U.S.-led liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi forces. Building on the success of this intervention, the secretary-general of the day, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, lobbied for more robust UN military action to deal with the multitude of internal conflicts that were breaking out as the constraints of the Cold War evaporated.
What followed was a series of unmitigated disasters the names of which will forever be associated with the UN's lowest point of credibility -- Sarajevo, Somalia, Rwanda and Srebrenica being only a partial list.
Recognizing the scale of the UN's failures, the current Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, convened a series of studies to analyze what went wrong, with a view to recommending improvements regarding how the UN should deal with similar situations in the future. The last committee's report was submitted a few months ago, and its recommendations formed the basis of Mr. Annan's proposals for reform tabled on March 21.
Many of the proposals deserve to be endorsed by the world's leaders when they gather at the UN in September. Eliminating the UN Human Rights Commission (all too often chaired by countries such as Libya and Sudan), clearly defining terrorism and cutting world poverty by half before 2015 all make eminent sense.
Ironically, where the proposals fail miserably, are in dealing with the UN's very raison d'être: international peace and security. The concept of the responsibility to protect, whereby the UN would intervene with force if a sovereign nation was not living up to the obligation to protect all of its citizens, was endorsed by the Secretary-General. Unfortunately, this recommendation would have no impact because of the inevitable procedural rigor mortis within the Security Council as a result of what was not included in Mr. Annan's proposals.
Recommendations are included to increase the size of the Security Council to 24 from its current 15. That would certainly increase the length of the debates, and countries that probably deserve seats based on their growth in influence and wealth since 1945 (such as Germany, Japan, Brazil and India) would feel more included. Nevertheless, absolutely nothing would change when it came to the final decision on any security issue, as the committees and the Secretary-General avoided the veto issue. In a brilliant example of a self-serving procedure, the 1945 UN Charter guarantees that there will be no change to the rules governing which nations have the veto or the procedures governing its use unless all five permanent members agree unanimously. In other words, all it takes is one of the permanent five to veto any proposed change to the rules governing the veto, and the status quo wins the day -- which will be the case.
Like it or not, it is the national self-interests of the permanent five that dictate any and all responses by the UN to issues of international security. That fact has been problematic since the end of the Cold War and will continue to be so. While the UN will continue to make valuable contributions in the areas of health, refugees, children, nation-building and a myriad of other categories, it will continue to fail regarding issues of peace and security thanks to the veto. Canada's foreign policy review, currently under way, should acknowledge this fact.
Retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie was the first commander of UN peacekeeping forces in Sarajevo.