Evangelical Christians and the Politics of the Golan Heights

The United States recently recognized Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights. As part of its coverage of the event, a Christian broadcaster interviewed Secretary of State Pompeo, asking him, among other questions, whether the U.S. president had “been raised [by God] for such a time as this,” and if he could be likened to Queen Esther—a character in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible—who was instrumental in saving the Jews from genocide under King Xerxes. The Secretary affirmed the possibility, and unsurprisingly, the segment raised many eyebrows, including mine. My concern, however, was not the Secretary’s response; it was the question. The invocation of God in the contentious matter and the obvious presumption that the situation was somehow his doing, seemed to close (or at least attempt to) an important debate that Christians, particularly U.S.-based evangelical Protestants, should be having about how they influence Israel’s domestic politics.

Many Christians feel a strong connection to ancient and modern Israel because of their significance in Christianity’s history, theology and, for some, its future. Although hardly unified across denominations, Israel, both as a concept and a nation, remains an important component of Christianity’s self-understanding. And, although that connection is not problematic in and of itself, it becomes so when it hinders Christians from honestly and seriously considering inconvenient facts about modern Israel. Those politico-legal facts and the tensions they present, however, must be resolved, not uncritically dismissed through questionable references to “God plan.”

In this case, Christians must seriously consider the following: First, Golan Heights is Syrian territory. Second, Israel assumed control of the area by military force in 1967 and, for all practical purposes, annexed it on December 14, 1981 at the adoption of the Golan Heights Law. Third, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 497  (just three days later), declaring Israel’s decision to impose its jurisdiction on the Golan “null and void and without international legal effect” and reaffirming the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force under the U.N. Charter. The UN, of which Israel is a member, has never recognized Israel’s control of the Golan, and continues to consider it an occupation. Fourth, the United States (alone and as a permanent member of the UN Security Council), aware of Israel’s singular and very real security challenges and the Golan’s strategic value to that security, has not until now endorsed Israel’s control of the area. In its yearly human rights reports, the U.S. Department of State has consistently referred to the Golan Heights as “Israeli-occupied,” until 2017 (compare reports found here).

Moreover, despite the fanfare surrounding the signing of the proclamation, it appears to make no practical difference—the United Nations will not change its position; Syria and other Arab states will not accept it, it simply aggravates them as widely reported; Israel will continue to control the area and build settlements there as it has for the last several decades; and the usual flares of violence that have characterized the Golan for years will likely continue. Needless to say, the idea of one foreign country giving (or attempting to give) another foreign country the territory of yet another is highly improper in modern international relations (not “miraculous”).

Given these facts, the administration’s decision is puzzling. Statements that formal recognition enhances Israel’s security are unpersuasive.  So, like everyone else, Christians ought to be asking why the US has decided to do this now or at all.

One plausible and persuasive explanation for this puzzle, as many have observed, is the upcoming elections—the first in about two weeks in Israel, and the second in 2020 in the United States. The proclamation gives the impression of a significant foreign policy achievement and apparently pleases the “religious” or “far right” segments of the relevant electorates. If the interview is indicative, many are pleased indeed.

There are two important lessons for Christians in this episode. First, Christians may have the liberty to support whatever political action they choose, but they must be careful about using God’s name to legitimate their preferences. Second, Christians should examine all behaviors and motives because not doing so is to choose gullibility (not faith) and to become perpetually ripe for political manipulation.

Remember the victims of Cyclone Idai

Last week, Cyclone Idai landed on Mozambique, devastating Beira, the country’s fourth largest city, and flooding areas in Zimbabwe and Malawi. As of today, various reports have cited between approximately 300 and 600 deaths, with the numbers expected to rise as the waters recede. The UN reports that “tens of thousands” have lost their homes.

The most immediate needs are for food and water, blankets, and health and emergency kits to help address crush and trauma injuries. Given the heightened risk for waterborne diseases, there is also a need for cholera kits.

Such disasters are particularly devastating for the poor who often do not have access to the benefits provided by social safety nets. It will be a long road to recovery for many of them. To find out how you can help, start here: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/how-to-help-cyclone-victims-in-mozambique-malawi-and-zimbabwe

What’s going on in Africa in 2019?

There is much more going on in Africa besides persistent poverty, disease and political unrest.  Foresight Africa, a 2019 report recently published by the Brookings Institution, presents an encouraging but complex picture. Here are a few highlights.

Business and Economic Development

Of the world’s fastest growing economies this year, almost half will be African. There are increasing opportunities for trade and investments throughout the continent spurred on by the African Continental Free Trade Agreement. The growing business opportunities are fueled by a growing and urbanizing population, increased industrialization, improvements in infrastructure, and new innovations in agriculture and mineral resource industries.

Corruption and Governance

Despite persisting concerns about corruption and its impact on institutional stability and economic growth, public governance has been improving consistently throughout the continent over the last decade. Countries such as Cote d’Ivoire, Morocco and Kenya showed the greatest improvements in this area. About 80% of African citizens reside in states that have improved in political participation and human rights. Although Africans continue to be mostly dissatisfied (45%, according to a survey) with the state of democracy on the continent, the organization of elections has steadily improved in a large number of countries. What is yet to be seen is whether these changes result in the entrenchment of democratic governance over time.

Aid and Debt

The report mentioned little about development aid, highlighting instead the growing involvement of China on the continent. One contributor, however, noted that future aid should be used to help “the least successful countries,” with a focus on supporting rather than setting their policies.

Debt continues to have a stranglehold on African states. The costs of servicing debt are increasing and many countries are at risk of debt distress. It is apparent that sustainable financing for the continent’s development will remain a challenge if Africa’s debt is not addressed effectively. Governments and international stakeholders will need to implement better debt management strategies.

Looking Ahead…

Overall, the report presented a mixed and complex picture of the continent. While there are significant improvements in health and other development indicators, youth unemployment remains high as does the need for greater opportunity in education and skills training. The positive economic development trends occur at a time when the World Data Lab notes that this year Africa will be home to 70% of the world’s poor (mostly in Nigeria and the DRC). There are also predictions that by 2030 an additional 13 African states will be among the poorest countries in the world. As dire as these predictions may sound, if the continent takes advantage of the present opportunities, the future may be quite different.


The year in human rights, Christianity and global affairs

It’s been quite a year in human rights, Christianity, and global affairs. The international human rights agenda was dealt a serious blow by the withdrawal of the United States from the United Nations Human Rights Council. We saw in the separation of children from parents at the U.S.-Mexico border a stark reminder of what can happen when states resist their obligations under the Refugee Convention or fail to find and implement solutions that address the root causes of flight from troubled states. We also witnessed the reassertion of women’s rights through the women’s marches and the #MeToo movement. The “Unite the Right” rally that came a year after Charlottesville reminded us of the hidden but potent and menacing racism that persists even in the most progressive of societies, and the yellow vests protests in France continue to remind us of what happens when economic well-being and rights are neglected.

In Christianity, we saw an increase in the number of religious freedom cases in U.S. state courts as well as at the Supreme Court, demonstrating that the U.S., like other states in the West, is nowhere close to resolving the deeply divisive issues arising from the balancing of religious rights with other rights (note the many religious rights cases that have come before the European Court of Human Rights). There were also more revelations and allegations of sexual abuse within the Catholic church and protestant churches. The persecution of Christians also continued as religious restrictions rose globally.

In global affairs, among many crises, we saw an escalation of the Syrian conflict that has brought untold destruction; a continuing famine in northeast Nigeria, Yemen, Somalia, and South Sudan; persisting conflict in Ukraine; political and economic turmoil in Venezuela that has driven out millions; and a continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict whose resolution seems even further after the U.S.’s unilateral declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU) remains as uncertain as its implications for EU stability. The nature, extent and implications of cyberwarfare among states continue to be a growing concern, and brewing beneath it all are concerns about another looming global financial crisis as well as the impacts of improperly managed climate change. All this is happening in the context of a fracturing international order, where the very idea of “international cooperation” has become suspect as more and more nations turn inward.

Despite these challenges, we also saw many positive signs that humanity remains willing to fight for better as its fragile institutions showed remarkable and surprising resilience. This was evident in the women’s marches, the many protests that followed the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and the U.S. Congress’s refusal to simply ignore it; the protests over family separation; how churches continued to assist troubled immigrants, feed the hungry, and serve the spiritual needs of their communities; the Asia-Pacific’s pledge to promote women’s empowerment; and the U.N.’s recent adoption of the Global Compact for Migration aimed at easing the suffering and chaos accompanying present migration trends.

Although these efforts appear insufficient, we ought to remember that hidden behind troubling headlines are much more positive trends. By most measures, extreme poverty is declining and although scholars continue to debate whether we are indeed living in the most peaceful period in human history, it is encouraging that they are having the debate at all. Most of all, the fact that most of us continue to hope and strive for a better world should give us hope for and reason to believe in the possibility of living in one. We can indeed raise a glass and toast to hope this holiday season.

Happy holidays and Merry Christmas!

When governments violate human rights norms

The apparent death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate in Turkey earlier this month should remind us of what is at stake when governments violate basic human rights. Because human rights are flaunted with impunity in many parts of the world, it’s easy to dismiss efforts to reassert their importance as a waste of time, but we do so at our own peril. Violations of human rights norms are inherently destabilizing; they increase the distrust between citizens and governments, weaken institutions and result in fragile states that lack the resilience needed to withstand genuine crises. In our inter-connected global society, such violations should concern us all.

Violations of rights as basic as the right to life represent a regression to the time when governments had and exercised unfettered power over their citizens. It took the horrors of World War II for the world to see the problems with that arrangement and to rectify it by establishing an international human rights regime that limited what governments could do to not just their own citizens, but any human being in their territory. When influential governments persistently flaunt those limits, they make the pre-WW II arrangement appear necessary, even benign. That’s dangerous.

Although it should be obvious at this point in history, it bears repeating that humans need security to thrive. Security frees people to express themselves in the myriad ways humanity finds expression and allows them to be innovative, meaningful contributors to society. When this sense of security is repeatedly violated by a powerful actor who is tasked with safeguarding it, the violation stunts healthy development, corrupts an important relationship, fosters fear and confusion, and inspires the kind of rebellion that is not easily tamed. All governments best remember that.

U.S. (In)stability and Global (Dis)Order: The Upside

As U.S. politics becomes increasingly volatile, there is concern that the country’s instability (or unpredictability) may already be fomenting global disorder. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recently added her voice to a considerable list of voices across the political spectrum expressing this concern. From the outside looking in, allies are trying to understand what appears to be an erratic, incoherent and unpredictable foreign policy while delicately managing what most of them consider their most important diplomatic relationship. From within, there are concerns that despite having the world’s strongest military and economy, the diminution of the country’s prestige is having a negative impact on its ability to lead the globe, and if that persists, the nation’s security will soon be at risk. The latter concern is backed by polls showing the vast majority of people around the world no longer trust the U.S. to “do the right thing” in global affairs. It is not all gloomy, however. There are some gifts in this crisis.

First, U.S. instability is presenting a unique opportunity to test the strength and effectiveness of international norms and institutions. The U.S. has long been the de facto custodian of post-WW II international norms and institutions, having led in their formation and consistently played an indispensable role in their enforcement and maintenance. With the U.S. now seemingly retreating from those institutions, the test of the moment is whether they can stand without the country’s backing. The world now has an opportunity to examine the extent to which international norms have diffused globally or crystallized in international legal affairs and to assess whether the relative order and stability we have enjoyed post-war is a product of real threats of punishment or actual change in understandings of statehood and legitimate international relations (that is, states transformed by ideas). If the explosion of current reports of global disorder is indeed a result of U.S. instability, it would appear the absence of major wars only masked persisting global political dysfunction, a problem that may have contributed to our overestimation of the value of international institutions as global stabilizers. If the test (we can only guess how long it lasts) reveals that global transformation has indeed largely been illusory, we need to rethink international institutions and the manner in which they promulgate international norms. The exercise will be beneficial for long term global order and stability.

Second, U.S. instability is revealing the extent to which the architecture of the post-war global order is ill-suited for the present. The order was based on a series of assumptions about the victors of the war, the most problematic being their perpetual significance, rationality and stability. This assumption resulted in a global system that was overly reliant for leadership on a superpower (backed by a few other lesser but significant actors), and one that lacked effective alternatives should that power (or hegemon) fail, for whatever reason, to lead. Although it appears absurd today, in a largely unipolar world concerned most about the prevention of major wars, the presupposition was sensible. The world, however, has changed and so have its priorities. In this new world, as more states rise, the benignity and judgments of the hegemon are increasingly challenged, sometimes brazenly, and to resolve the most pressing challenges—economic globalization and its management, environment, terrorism, migration and poverty alleviation—more states need to participate both in substance and process. In his book, A World in Disarray, Richard Haass maintained that the U.S. is “not sufficient but necessary” for a working global order. Although certainly a correct assessment of the current situation, U.S. instability is demonstrating the undesirability of that reality for global order. A building is fundamentally unsound if its safety can be compromised by the instability of a single stone.

Third, U.S. instability is providing an opportunity or giving other states permission to rise. This may be interpreted unfavorably as representing U.S. decline, but the rise of more is good for global order. Though there are concerns that an anarchic multipolarity (as almost always assumed it will be) is likely to increase competition and conflict, U.S. unpredictability is demonstrating that unipolarity (or something close to it) is not inherently more stable. In fact, it can be more volatile because it lacks the effective checks and balances that a well-managed multilateral multipolarity could provide. Although many states currently lack the capacity or will to take on global leadership, it is apparent that the world needs to be working toward the creation of an alternative global governance model in which no single state is indispensable and effective decision-making power is spread more broadly. This can only happen if more states rise to the challenge by strengthening themselves first and then positioning themselves to be meaningful participants in global leadership. Many are recognizing the opportunity. Germany’s Angela Merkel has repeatedly noted the need for Europe to take its destiny into its own hands; Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, has thanked the U.S. for its seven-decades long global leadership, noting that the rest of the world should chart its own course and Canada must take on a greater role in the “strengthening of the postwar multilateral order;” Mexico, Chile and Peru have joined the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a move former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Albert Fishlow reportedly interprets, among other trade-related actions, as Latin America “trying to separate itself from the U.S. as much as possible;” and China, as one observer noted, is quietly assuming a greater global leadership role. The alternative is for states to continue to follow the hegemon hoping, fingers crossed, that it will remain rational, benign and indeed powerful.


A Reflection on Poverty, Migrants, & International Responsibility

In November 2017, CNN broadcast its report on the auctioning of migrants in Libya (the International Organization for Migration first reported the exploitation of migrants in 2016). The images were particularly offensive and jarring because they depicted a practice thought long gone in a world where “human rights” is the professed global ethic. Sans auctioneers, the images were quite familiar—disheveled, visibly tired and emotionally and physically battered dark-skinned men, many of them young, with eyes registering empty stares or that dignity-sapping combination of shame and helplessness. The world had seen some version of them in Australia (and Papua New Guinea), Israel, northern France, along the US-Mexico border, and so on. They had elicited pity and, depending on other contextual factors, sparked moments of outrage. The persistent poverty and desperation behind the images, however, have yet to spark the kind of outrage that might be needed to compel change.

Despite reports of significant progress in reducing poverty (mostly in China, Indonesia, and India), 11% of the world’s population, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, still lives on less than $1.90/day, the international poverty line (IPL). Moreover, even states designated (low or high) “middle income countries” like India, continue to have high poverty rates. Last year, the World Bank added two new poverty lines of $3.20 (lower middle-income IPL) and $5.50 (upper-middle income IPL) to capture the “relativity” of poverty. A 2016 study showed 32 lower middle-income countries having a median poverty line of $3.21/day and 32 upper middle-income countries a median poverty line of $5.48/day (29 high income countries had a median line of $21.70/day).

The problem with these metrics, and statistics on poverty generally, is that they give only an impression of the extent of deprivation; they convey nothing of the lived and felt experience of poverty. It is one thing to know that 815 million people are food insecure and quite another to experience hunger persistently; to know that some countries have unemployment rates of 30% or more and to experience persistent unemployment in a poor country where there are no social safety nets; or to know that children in poor states continue to die from preventable disease and to experience illness in a country without viable healthcare systems. Moreover, outside the world of economic development research, it is difficult to discern the difference between “poverty” and “extreme poverty” in global context, whether such distinctions are justifiable, and if a person experiencing one would find it qualitatively different from the other. It is apparent, however, that poverty breeds desperation; the kind that compels people to get on flimsy boats or poorly ventilated vehicles with unscrupulous smugglers and take their chances on rough seas or through scorching deserts. The inability to convey that felt experience of poverty in numbers often causes those removed from it to understand it with clinical detachment, obscuring the urgent need for redress and consistent international cooperation.

For a long time, human rights proponents have tried to persuade governments that not only does poverty make people vulnerable to human rights violations, it is the most scandalous of them all. While acknowledging the complexity of its causes, they have argued that poverty is not just some unfortunate reality, but also the result of policy choices made at both domestic and international institutional levels; that the mismanagement of economic globalization exacerbates the problem by increasing the level of economic/income inequality within and among states and is a potent source of continuing injustices; and that it does matter that others have more, especially in cases where it can be shown that few have much more precisely because others are deprived (directly and indirectly), not in spite of it. For their part, governments have largely rejected the idea of poverty as a human rights violation citing the difficulty of assigning clear duties and obligations. The adoption and widespread ratification of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights has done little to change the fact that governments still largely view these rights as social or development goals rather than as rights. Together, these realities have not only compromised the international system’s ability to hold actors, be they state or non-state entities, accountable for actions that cause widespread economic deprivation, but they have also reinforced the deeply problematic view that global poverty reduction efforts are only a matter of charity rather than justice.

The manifestation of the challenge of poverty within the migration context at a time when nationalist sentiment is surging in most parts of the developed world has been unhelpful. Political narratives of “economic migrants” coming to “take our jobs,” “bring crime,” or “destroy our culture” have drowned serious discussion in the public square about the root causes of global poverty and meaningful solutions. This has an unfortunate double-edged impact: it further marginalizes vulnerable people, deepening their insecurity and desperation and entrenches the problematic belief that rich states have nothing to do with their condition. Although there are many bases for assigning international responsibility for poverty reduction, to far too many, it is improper to suggest the developed world bears any responsibility for the condition of today’s global poor. “Slavery and colonialism are over, deal with your corrupt leaders, get yourselves together, and move on already,” the popular argument goes. If only it were that simple.

While it is indeed true that poor states bear responsibility for improving their condition, they do not and cannot bear it all.

The world is more economically-integrated than ever. This integration has ensured, for better or worse, that the policy choices of a single influential state can have global impacts. Developed states dominate global economic fora and direct the vast and complex arrangements undergirding the global economic system. They use that influence to enforce their preferences often with little regard to their potential impact on the wellbeing of people in less economically developed states (LEDS). Though certainly not without controversy, some notable examples of these realities include the adoption of intellectual property rules that compromise poor states’ ability to provide affordable medicines to their populations (whether the 2017 amendment to World Trade Organization’s IP rules is making a difference is yet to be seen); the granting of agricultural subsidies to farmers in prosperous states that negatively impact global food prices and the livelihoods of farmers, who represent a large share of the population, in poor states; the excessive competitiveness pushed by corporations and adopted by influential governments in international fora that tends to negatively impact labor standards in LEDS; the adoption of policies favoring privatization, also pushed by states at the behest of powerful domestic special interests, that sometimes hinders access to essential goods in poor states; and the long-term unemployment suffered by segments within LEDS upon implementing WTO-driven trade liberalization policies in vulnerable industries.

There are also cases as when the increase in the production of biofuels by the European Union and United States resulted in a dramatic increase in world food prices, reportedly plunging an estimated 100 million people into hunger. Other related concerns include how influential banks in developed states continue to receive and use ill-gotten funds from corrupt leaders from poor states despite the widespread ratification of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, which prohibits illicit financial flows; how developed states contribute significantly to global emissions of carbon dioxide and are making investments to protect themselves from climate change’s many risks while offering LEDS that have contributed least to the problem a pittance, leaving them bearing the brunt of the consequences (economic or other); and the myriad ways through which some developed states have destabilized the politics of targeted LEDS for their own political ends and the resulting economic impacts.

The aforementioned cause considerable damage. To then characterize “helping poor countries” only as an act of charity is problematic. In fact, these realities suggest “development aid” is but a binky—necessary because it soothes, but ultimately, without also addressing substantive structural injustices, changes little. Arguments that things will get better in the long run if we continue implementing the same policies are unpersuasive because of the indeterminacy of the “long run.” Are we not already in it?

When the United Nations was founded in 1945 the world’s conscience had been sufficiently pricked by the horrors of WWII and the Holocaust that states committed to work together in good faith to not only maintain peace, but to also promote human rights and global economic stability and well-being. It is way past time to take the latter commitment a lot more seriously, especially as it relates to LEDS. A good starting point is acknowledging controversial inconvenient truths, the most significant being that an unfair global economic system may indeed account (not to a negligible degree) for the large disparities in wealth between nations. This must be followed by the hard work of compelling the creation of mechanisms to hold all governments accountable for the myriad ways through which their actions or omissions result in persistent economic deprivation. Or, we can pretend “it’s their problem” and simply sigh the next time we hear about the exploitation or deaths of some poor migrants in some hot desert, some place in the world…


How to Increase Worldwide Support for Human Rights

In a speech delivered at the Jacob Blaustein Institute in New York this month, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, expressed concerns about the “growing belief . . . that somehow human rights are inconsistent with the world today.” Citing what he called “the growing flirtation with realism” (or is it “principled realism”?)—which presents power as the ultimate determinant in international affairs—the Commissioner warned that the world had already seen the devastating consequences of this worldview, particularly when it is combined with “chauvinistic nationalism,” balance-of-power politics, and a belief in the effectiveness of threats of violence and ultimatums. With leaders increasingly sidelining human rights concerns, he argued the solution was in expanding worldwide popular support for universal human rights by better informing the public of their critical importance and role in upholding global peace. To succeed, however, the Commissioner’s strategy must be combined with a concerted effort to address three problems now deeply embedded within the international human rights architecture.

First, the human rights system must improve its enforcement mechanisms. Human rights norms are notoriously underenforced. The existence of nine core human rights treaties, an expansive system of treaty bodies, and review/monitoring mechanisms has done little to change that. This problem has delegitimated human rights norms in the popular imagination, making them seem, instead, like rainless clouds—everywhere but offering nothing. The many human rights reports submitted to treaty bodies for country reviews and to the Human Rights Council for its universal periodic reviews consistently show that underenforcement is largely the result of the vast power gap between governments and their citizens and the lack of effective mechanisms to hold governments accountable for violations. Because there are significant structural obstacles to improving enforcement, universal human rights proponents must devote more resources to finding innovative ways to reduce the impunity gap. Without improvements in enforcement, the system fails to answer the “so what” question, making it irrelevant to many.

Second, the system must promote social, economic, and cultural rights. For too long, civil and political rights have been emphasized at the expense of socioeconomic rights. In so doing, the human rights system has not only downplayed a central concern of two-thirds of the world’s population, but, given the contentious history of the human rights Covenants, it has also unwittingly reinforced the perception that it prioritizes the preferences of the West. It is significant that the individual complaint mechanism for the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights was created in 2008 at the adoption of its protocol (entering into force in 2013) while that of civil and political rights was created in 1966 (entering into force in 1976). Although the system recognizes the problem and has instituted Special Rapporteurs and independent experts on various aspects of socioeconomic rights, these efforts do not go far enough. The political debate about the validity of socioeconomic rights may persist, but the question is settled in international human rights law. The universal human rights agenda ought to reflect this in bolder ways.

Third, the movement must become more inclusive. The Commissioner correctly noted the persisting view that human rights are an “esoteric stream of international law, promoted mainly by Western idealists, leftists, liberals…” That view, which is held not only by some government leaders, as the Commissioner indicated, but also by a significant proportion of laypeople worldwide, speaks to not only why some shun or ignore human rights norms, but also to the sense of alienation that is increasingly accompanying them. The leading scholars, lawyers, and policymakers at the vanguard of the most influential human rights-promoting institutions tend to indeed lean left, and in many ways fit the common description of “elite.” This is having a two-fold impact: it is increasingly (a) slanting the universal human rights agenda left and (b) alienating a significant percentage of the world’s population whose values lean right, dampening their enthusiasm for a regime whose many norms would ordinarily fit their own value systems. This point should not be mistaken for a repackaging of the cultural relativism argument; it is rather an observation about the narrowing of the human rights lens. This should concern the movement not only because it robs it of significant voices as it fights to assert its relevance, but also because it represents the loss of the political ambiguity that once accounted for the broader, though imperfect, support the idea of human rights enjoyed in the aftermath of WW II. If the movement does not become more inclusive, the universal human rights agenda will lose rather than gain popular support.

Wresting the U.N.’s Significance from Dotards & Madmen

It has been a few weeks since the conclusion of the General Assembly’s 72nd session. Most years, the event is remembered for its often entertaining absurdities. This year’s memorable absurdity was Donald Trump’s calling, from the UN’s podium, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un “Rocket Man,” to which he responded by calling Trump a “dotard.” Later, Trump responded by calling Kim a “madman.” Ordinarily, this would not be much to write home about, but with 60% of the American population believing the UN is doing a “poor job,” such high-profile spats tend to not only divert the world’s gaze from the seriousness of the forum, but they also reinforce negative perceptions of the organization, deepen skepticism about its effectiveness, and contribute to its persistent underappreciation. Perhaps, for a change, we should consider briefly the value of this unique organization.

Before this post is mistaken for an ode to the UN, I will acknowledge the organization’s significant structural, procedural, and operational weaknesses. The most glaring being its inability to restrain its most influential members; the democratic deficits of the Security Council; biases against some states; a bloated budget and an unwieldy bureaucracy; and the inability to effectively enforce international norms. Moreover, self-inflicted wounds like the sexual abuses of UN peacekeepers (the 2015 report can be found here) and the cholera debacle in Haiti and its associated accountability challenges have tarnished the organization’s image as have the ironies of human rights-abusing states being members of the Human Rights Council and the world’s largest arms exporters being permanent members of the Security Council. The UN has also been sidelined in the making of consequential international policy by fora such as the G-7, G-20, and international financial institutions, reinforcing the perception that it is not particularly effective.

Often lost in assessments of the UN’s effectiveness, however, is an appreciation of its politico-legal architecture and its implications for the organization’s operation. The 193-member intergovernmental organization has an independent legal personality, but it remains a voluntary association of sovereign states, doing the bidding of states and, except in few and very carefully prescribed cases, refraining from intervening in matters considered within a state’s domestic jurisdiction. Its founding instrument, the UN Charter, labored to make that point. This arrangement constrains not only what the organization can do, but also how it does it. When states turn a blind eye to refugees and asylum seekers, the UN can only prod them to do more; when states fail to agree to a unified strategy, as continues to happen with the Syrian conflict, the UN is unable to effectively address difficult problems; when states complain that the organization is bloated and ineffective but refuse to enact reforms, the organization remains stagnant and ineffective; when states use finances to pressure the organization into moving in their preferred direction, the organization’s critical independence is damaged, deepening its credibility crisis; when influential states continue to use their “right to veto” to shield allies from arguably justified UN censure, the Security Council’s role of enforcing the organization’s critical security and military decisions is compromised and the UN’s primary purpose is hobbled. States’ failures become the organization’s failures.

With people most dissatisfied with the UN’s peacekeeping efforts, we must ask what kind of peace the organization is expected to maintain. Should the Charter’s Article 1 goal of maintaining international peace and security be interpreted as maintaining complete tranquility in all places, at all times? If not, how much upheaval is permissible before the organization can be legitimately accused of failure? Is it success that since its founding in 1945, there has not been a third world war? Is it sufficient that the organization engages the many ongoing conflicts by providing a forum for parties to address their differences and sending peacekeepers when/if those differences escalate into conflict or must it also guarantee results? Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary-General of the UN, famously noted that the organization “was created not to lead mankind to heaven but to save humanity from hell.” If we adjust our expectations and accept that realistic interpretation of the organization’s mandate, we find that the organization enjoys notable success for which it is not given nearly enough credit.

Through its many funds and programs, the UN is on the ground throughout the world, in the most desperate places, delivering humanitarian aid and filling in the gaps where states have failed to fulfil their duties. It is also proactively addressing destabilizing social, economic, and political conditions by promoting human rights, sustainable development, and international law. The International Court of Justice, the UN’s main judicial organ, also continues to hear and resolve contentious cases between states. Notably, this year the UN adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Although nuclear-armed states show no interest in ratifying it, guaranteeing, as the Nobel Committee noted, that the treaty will not “in itself eliminate a single nuclear weapon,” it remains significant because it provides a basis for setting a new and important international legal standard that nuclear weapons are not allowed. This matters because, contrary to popular belief, states do comply with international norms most of the time. With North Korea flagrantly violating the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, from which it withdrew in 2003, it is easy to overlook that many states that are party, are not.

Lastly, with the UN incessantly ridiculed for being “all meetings and talk,” it is worth noting that it is through meetings and talks that it attempts to harmonize the competing interests and priorities of its members (who represent 7 billion people with different languages and cultures). That apparatus makes “talking” a necessity and agreements, whatever form they take, an achievement. If only dotards and madmen could see that.