Can the United Nations Stop War?
Has the UN failed to deliver on its founding mission? Follow the discussion with Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report and Robert Naiman, policy director of Just Foreign Policy.
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: This is The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
Seventy years ago the United Nations was founded to protect us from wars. But today from what we see around the world, in Israel, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Ukraine, millions are suffering the attacks of war and dying from it. The United Nations seems to be powerless to save them.
Now joining us to discuss this topic is Glen Ford. Glen is the executive editor of the Black Agenda Report. Also joining us from Urbana, Illinois is Robert Naiman. Robert is the policy director for Just Foreign Policy.
Gentlemen, thank you so much for joining me.
GLEN FORD, EXEC. EDITOR, BLACK AGENDA REPORT: Thank you.
PERIES: Glen, let me start with you. Your reflections on the 70 years we have had with the United Nations in place.
FORD: Well, it’s a–I think it’s kind of a sad day. It’s a birthday as if it were the birthday of a child that died long ago. The United States, of course, as one of the victorious powers in World War II was central to putting together the legal covenants of the United Nations. But today’s foreign policy of the United States looks very, very similar to that of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy when they intervened in the civil war on the side of General Franco against the government of Spain in the years before World War II.
The United Nations was supposed to prevent these kinds of aggressions, to set up a body of international law in which that kind of aggressive warfare and the violation of borders and the sovereignty of nations was something that civilized people did not do. But instead the world superpower today, the United States, leads the way in violating every tenet of international law. And in fact I think the United States can fairly be depicted as waging a kind of war against civilization and its laws itself.
PERIES: And Bob Naiman, let me get your initial reflections on the 70 years.
ROBERT NAIMAN, POLICY DIRECTOR, JUST FOREIGN POLICY: Well, I would say the picture is mixed. Glen is certainly right that the UN has not lived up to the hopes that many had for it was formed. But I think the world is much better off because it exists. It is limited by the power of the big players, of which the biggest is the United States.
But it has acted as a constraint, even on the United States. The fact that the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006 was brought to a close before more people were killed I think partly can be attributed to pressure that was brought to bear on the United States in the United Nations. And today we’re seeing that foreign direct investment in Israel is down by 50 percent last year, Newsweek just reported, attributing that to the war in Gaza and international sanctions on Israel.
So the UN is playing a key role in validating international human rights concerns. We just saw the UN Human Rights Commission came out with a report on the Gaza war that said Israel is likely guilty of war crimes. So this is serving as some deterrent against the United States and its friends like Israel. Not enough. We can’t be happy. More pressure needs to be brought to bear. But I think it would be a mistake to dismiss the UN completely, because I think this is a key arena of struggle.
We, citizens of the United States, have a responsibility for the U.S. government policies directly, and in the context of the United Nations of international law. And we could certainly do more than we’re doing to put pressure on this front.
PERIES: Now, one of the things that the former Secretary General, Kofi Annan, had tried to champion at the United Nations is reforming it. And in fact, he had undertaken a huge task, including reforming the Security Council. But all of that has fallen, in terms of the agenda. And no longer even the General Assembly really talking about it. And I think that is the crux of the issue we are facing. The Security Council itself has too much power, and the superpowers uses that venue to flex their muscles of their own agendas, and not the interest of the world.
Let me take, get your first thoughts on that, Robert, and then Glen, if you could respond to that as well.
NAIMAN: Well, yes. It’s built in to the structure of the United Nations that this group of countries, the Security Council, and particularly the five veto-wielding permanent members including the United States have special power and responsibility in the system. And that’s something that’s very hard to change, because it’s obviously not in the narrow self-interest of these powers to give up any of their power.
However, again I would say this is something that we can do something about. We saw that the United States government dealt a body blow to the credibility of the UN in international law, when it blatantly violated international law in the invasion of, 2003 invasion of Iraq. And then later when the United States wanted to invoke international law, for example, the Russian intervention in Ukraine, the Russians laughed. Said look who’s giving lectures on international law now.
So this is something we can do something about. We saw that in 2013 when the United States, the Obama administration, wanted [inaud.] military intervention in Syria, again in blatant violation of international law, there was a popular outcry in the United States and that intervention was stopped.
So this is not something that we’re powerless about. This is something that we can do something about. We can strengthen international law, and the biggest thing we can do to strengthen the international, [biggest] thing in the United States, is to stop the United States from violating it. Because it has two effects, the direct violation and the undermining of the system.
PERIES: Glen, is the UN reformable?
FORD: Well, the UN will not be able to function in ways that peace-loving peoples would like as long as the superpower feels that it can violate international law at will and the United Nations can do nothing about it.
In terms of Syria, the United States policy and that of its allies in Syria is near identical to the Italian and German fascists’ behavior against republican Spain in the late 1930s, and the UN seems helpless against it. The point here is not whether the UN is reformable. It’s really about whether the United States policy is reformable. And of course my colleague is correct. Those of us who live here in the belly of the beast can have the most impact on correcting that foreign policy.
We have a president who has actually tried to redefine what war is. Not just the rules of war, but the definition of war. President Obama said after his, after he and NATO had bombed Libya into a state of chaos and oblivion, he said that the United States was not engaged in a war in Libya because no Americans were killed. Well, that’s one hell of a definition of war. And a country that looks at war in this way has to be restrained by some kind of force. And if it’s not the international body, it has to be by its own citizens.
PERIES: Bob Naiman, what do you think of what Glen just said?
NAIMAN: Yeah, I agree–the two go hand-in-hand. I think it’s not one or the other. The more people in the U.S. take responsibility, the easier it is for international pressure to have an impact and vice versa.
So for example, we saw in the case of the 2013 Syrian intervention, one of the things that helped us stop that war, that violation of international law, as when the British parliament voted it down. That was an indicator to many people in the U.S., look, we don’t even have the Brits. This is really something extreme, and we can stop. And also somebody stood up, so we could stand up too.
So I think that–and it’s also the case that people in Europe, you know, like everybody, people are choosing their battle. And if they see that there’s dissent and protest in the United States, then they’ll be encouraged to push hard. If they see that there is, you know, unanimity in the United States then they’re not going to, they’re not going to [push us out].
It’s the case right now, we have just a couple members of Congress that even speak about international law in the context of U.S. behavior. Barbara Lee, I’m not sure who else. That’s, this is something that we could change. We’ve got a 2016 presidential race. Bernie Sanders is running as the alternative to Hillary Clinton. Attractive in many ways. Not talking very much about an alternative U.S. foreign policy.
PERIES: Glen, Bob keeps talking about that we can change things, and my experience of being at the United Nations and working on this very issue of reforming it, if Kofi Annan wasn’t able to change it I don’t feel that we can. Your thoughts?
FORD: Well you know, Bob is, acts as if the non-attack from the air on Syria by the United States, that is Obama backing off from that threatened attack, is a great victory. Maybe so. But the war, the illegal war that he pursues in Syria along with his allies, which is illegal by any definition of international law, any international legal perspective, continues. And the United Nations can do nothing about it.
At the heart of U.S. foreign policy right now is humanitarian military intervention. Responsibility to protect. This is how the United States justifies its aggressions in the world. And the United Nations General Assembly has not mounted a general condemnation of this policy which is opposed to the basic principles of the inviolability of borders, of non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations, and of course against aggressive war, either directly or by proxy.
PERIES: And Bob, let me have you respond to that. One of the things that I would like to note here is that just prior to the war in Iraq the General Assembly at the time chaired by South Africa, largely backed by the Group of 77, wanted to call an emergency meeting to prevent the attacks on Iraq. But the United States sent an envoy to every capital city of the world in order to stop that General Assembly from taking place.
So if the member nations aren’t able to stop the forces of the power of the United States and the superpowers at the UN, why are you saying we can change things?
NAIMAN: Well first of all, let me be clear, I totally agree with Glen that what the U.S. and its friends are doing in Syria now is also a violation of international law. But I don’t think that takes away from saying that what happened in 2013, when the U.S. planned to attack Syria, was defeated. That was a great victory.
So we’re talking about extremely powerful actors who are really determined to do a bad thing. So if we defeat them once, that’s not the end of the story. That’s the world in which we live. But it’s important for people–you know, we’re constantly getting the message from the mainstream media that these people are invincible and resistance is futile. So I think it’s important to emphasize that they’re not invincible, and resistance is not futile. It doesn’t mean we get to [win] every time. Maybe we don’t even get to win half the time. But we do get to win sometimes, and hopefully we build the strength of popular movements, peace movements. Then the wins will be more frequent in the future.
So I think that’s a, that’s a crucial bottom line. No, I don’t think that in any future that we can see, the UN is going to be totally reformed, the United States government’s going to be totally reformed, become peace loving. I don’t expect to see that. But I do hope and expect to see a greater constraint on actors like the United States when they behave badly, or want to behave badly. And I think we do have important precedents for that in recent history.
PERIES: Glen, last word to you.
FORD: Well, I think we ought to point out that the people who really rule the United States, not just government of the day, obviously don’t pay much attention to the United Nations. They don’t tell their corporate media to cover the United Nations as if it is of any consequence. And so Americans are ignorant of the workings of the UN, and treat it as if it is irrelevant because that’s the way the corporate media treats that institution.
PERIES: Gentlemen, I thank you both for your thoughts on the United Nations on its 70th anniversary, and hope to have you back very soon.
FORD: Thank you.
NAIMAN: Good to be with you.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.