Sunday, December 2, 2007

UN and the World Today

U.N. and the World Today:
In Search of Global Identity and Lasting Peace

By N P Chekkutty

Philosopher Isaiah Berlin describes the twentieth century as the most terrible century in Western history. He has reasons to describe it so, because our world dominated by the west developed strategies for the total annihilation of the entire mankind besides decimating all the living organisms on the face of the planet during this century and still remain captive to this mad fury unleashed in the aftermath of the colonial aggressions in the past which culminated in the two world wars.

What distinguishes our world today from the past is the acceptance of the legitimacy of violence and the total impersonal nature of this violence: bombs are exploded by a click of a button, genocides take place with the clinical precision of a brain surgery. Violence has become an aesthetic experience, something like watching a Rambo movie on HBO and devoid of its brutal truthfulness that evoked a response of shock in the human consciousness in its natural environs, it is today an entertainment medium at our drawing rooms, as we evidently enjoyed the scenes of exploding bombs and the mushroom-like plumes in the killing fields during the Gulf war and ever since the cable television became quite popular. It is tragic that in our generation, when war and destruction are neatest to us much more than in any other era in our history and when it could engulf us any day, we are so detached and disinterested about all these happily believing that it happens to other peoples, other countries as if all these explosions are taking place in another plant.

In his celebrated history of the twentieth century, The Age of Extremes, Eric Hobsbawm describes the situation as follows: “The impersonality of warfare turned killing and maiming into the remote consequences of pushing a button or moving a lever. Technology made its victims invisible, as people eviscerated by bayonets, or seen through the sights of firearms could not be…Far below the aerial bombers were not people about to be burned and eviscerated, but targets. The greatest cruelties of our century have been the impersonal cruelties of remote decision, of system and routine, especially when they could be justified as regrettable operational necessities.”

Berlin and Hobsbawm are worrying about a world which fails even to comprehend the kind of inhuman activities that we are indulging ourselves in, the kind of violence that we are unleashing upon our fellow humans, the kind of cruelties being perpetrated on others which often remain hidden and unaccounted for. It is, in short, a world where we are unable to seek and get justice because often the victims are unaware who the perpetrators of the cruel deeds are, why such deeds are taking place because quite literally the violence is becoming wanton and senseless. The problem with our world is that we are unable to fathom to the depths and are hopelessly helpless. The urge for justice is a basic human trait and unless and until justice is done, peace will never be restored. This is a fundamental truth about humanity, still it is the truth that always get neglected in our social and political relations.

The United Nations came out of the chaotic world that emerged from the second world war, and in its six decades of existence it has more or less remained a mute witness to the march of humanity from bad to worse, its efforts to providing a forum for civilized discourse has all but failed, and its dictates do not run where it matters most and look where we have ended up now: we are now in a world where nations and nationalities are irrelevant, where individuals take on empires and the most powerful nations in the world have declared a war on an enemy nowhere to be seen, we are now on the brink of exploding our atomic devices on a bedbug called global terrorism. The most irrational use of violence even by state powers, the apocalyptic phraseology used by global leaders and their God-frenzied detractors in dealing with political, economic and cultural differences, the barbarism of unequal force and its ruthless application -- all these make the present world situation a true and grim parody of the law of the jungle.

Now, the question is what role the United Nations has to and can play in such a world? Or is it worthwhile to think of global politics based on rules, as our experience in the past ages from the primitive era to the past six decades since the termination of the great war tell us frankly that might is right and the only way to go ahead is by the use of force, whether legitimate or illegitimate because in the lopsided world today, there is neither legitimacy nor illegitimacy as what counts is the outcome, the final result. The former colonial forces did it, the present global gendarme the United States does it and all those forces who have pledged to resist them tooth and nail, have accepted this dictum as their own gospel. Ask Usama Bin Ladin or Hezbollah or any other radical group that has perfected this tactics of urban warfare, they will tell you that their tactics have been successful, as they have been able to draw the greatest powers on to a level-playing field of violence and look how they proved their might and superiority in the new game of lawlessness. But who broke the rules? Surely not Usama or Hezbollah, because they are essentially the creatures of a world dominated by cynical western imperialism, the evil designs of world dominance, the nasty racist prejudices of a world dominated by the west. In fact they are the champions of a new world order, where jungle warfare is the only legitimate way to win as we have by our own actions, by the double deals of our national politicians, our global leaders, have redrawn the rules.

It is possible that for the first time an Indian, Sashi Tharoor, will make it to the top of the world body, provided the same western powers who drew and redrew, wiped off and drew again, the rules of the world by their own whims and fancies take a fancy toward the Indian. It will be a moment for all of us Indians to be proud, as now the world talks of the new century as a century of Asia, or even a century of India and the opinion-builders of the global market, the influential journals like The Economist, the Foreign Affairs, the Time and New York Times have been competing among themselves in recent weeks putting the Indian economic miracle on their front pages; the self-styled custodian of global power politics, the United States, has been eagerly negotiating a nuclear deal with India despite the fact that this country has steadfastly refused to sign the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, which for all practical purposes is a treaty that legitimizes the monopoly of nuclear power among a few global powers, and India on its part is hoping to wrest the permanent seat in Security Council, a coveted position in the global pecking order. All these must make an Indian the suitable person to hold the job in a new world, and Sashi Tharoor is the ideal person to negotiate in such a messy world because of his long experience in the international body, his intimate and personal contacts with the global leaders, his exposure to a world of thoughts away from the tyranny of real-politic, his youthfulness and his personal charm and brilliance. Let us hope and pray that he will be selected to lead the world and the United Nations in these chaotic times. Here I am not being ironic in the way of this famous Chinese curse that you may live in interesting times. We have no option but to face this world for what it is, try to change it, meddle with it, grapple with it, and fail heroically if failure is our destiny. It was Keynes who said that in the long run everyone is dead, and mimicking the great economic philosopher let us say that in the long run every victory is a pyrrhic victory. Waldon is a wonderful refuge, but Henry David Thoroeu’s thoughts from this idyllic world provoked even a Mahatma Gandhi to action, though often he withdrew into himself, listening to his inner voice, silencing himself in his mauna-vrita and his fasts, his abstinence from sound and fury and the pestilence of food and drinks. That perhaps is the right away, and whatever the results the only way open to a man of the world, a person who lives in the days of a post-modern civilization that makes every effort to erase the last trace of civilization from the face of mother earth.

What I am trying to say is that the world is slowly moving away from its traditional understanding about international relations, about global power equations, about civilizational contacts. The United Nations had emerged out of the classical understanding about politics, formed on the bedrock of the firm national foundations, the legitimacy and longevity of nation states and the power and influence of nationalism as an ideology and basis for human interaction. That bedrock is no longer holding, nationalism as a centre cannot hold today as Yates had said so many decades ago in a different context, and new ideologies based on other conceptions, mainly civilizational and cultural are taking deep roots. These new forces, whose mutual distrust and confrontation, that Samuel Huntington described as the clash of civilizations, are now overtaking our world and its environs, deeply uprooting the rules of our global exchange and replacing them with totally new dynamics that are alien to the western understanding about politics and human relations, and are quite contrary to the rules on which the United Nations was founded six decades ago by the winners of the world war, at their Yalta conference in 1945. They built their Berlin wall to keep the world in water-tight compartments, they divided the world into their respective zones to rule over. The new world where winners will remain winners for all times and the losers will submit themselves to their fate till eternity, as envisaged by Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and J V Stalin at the conclave is no longer alive. It is dead and gone but a new one is yet to emerge fully. What we witness today in the streets of Palestine, in the villages of southern Lebanon, in the market places of Bolivia and Venezuela, in the heated debating halls of World Social Forum are the signs of the birth-pangs of a new world. It is quite different from the one the United Nations, as an institution, has seen and understood. It is in other words, a world of subalterns, a world of the dispossessed, a world of the people from the south, the traditional abode of those consigned to live in hell.

Who are the heroes of our world today? At the turn of the century, Time came out with its Person of the Century cover story, and Albert Einstein was their chosen hero, followed by Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Perhaps, the choice makes us realize that the world is still hopeful that peace would prevail, though the contemporary reality gives us little scope for hope. No doubt, all those mentioned above are heroes—heroes of peace, I should say-- but it is a fact quite undeniable that large parts of humanity are now swayed by the ideas of a different kind. It is a world of suicide bombers, those self-styled martyrs who sacrifice themselves to the god of violence, exploding themselves in a busy street or a packed train wagon, so that there may be huge bloodshed, horrible scenes, shattering images for all the world to see. It is an open challenge to the world: sit up and take note. We are here and we will remain here.

Then why do we still think of peace in an era when the most ancient civilization in the world which has produced the Upanishads that made philosophical enquiries into the cause of life and death, cynically calling its atomic explosion programme as the Buddha Smiles? You may say that it is euphemism, but it is euphemism of a wrong kind because this ancient civilization has been practicing a new kind of sectarian and communal politics, embracing enthusiastically the virus of the fascist political ideology in spite of the fact that our civilization has always been vibrant and inclusive. The West looked upon us in the darkest period of its history and India led them to light, with its principled adherence to the hymn, from darkness to light from death to eternity. Now when the world is once again rushing itself to another dark age, India too is following suit with its own brand of sectarian and communal world view expressed in so many ways like the destruction of a peaceful place of worship to tarnishing the image of Buddha as the god of evil embodied in the atomic fission.

It has been common practice to describe America and India as the greatest and biggest democracies in the world. It is a diplomatic cliché, a favoured quote of the speech-writers for the heads of both states as they meet, but what is the reality? Is it anywhere near truth? If democracy is the rule of the demos, or the ordinary people, we must confess that it is simply an ideal and far removed from reality as in both the countries the practice of democracy, as elsewhere in the world, is quite unsatisfactory. In the United States, the democracy they know is the rule of the lobbyists, the monopoly capitalists and the elite. But it calls the shots in the hallowed precincts of world diplomacy, dictates the rules of encounters in an unruly world, forces the world body to toe its line and rush headlong into such catastrophic misadventures like that in Afghanistan and Iraq unmindful of the consequences or the world opinion. If in such a situation, where justice is never to be expected from those who lord over our fates, if a jobless youth from the Gaza strip or a rustic peasant from Becca valley take it upon himself to wrest justice, albeit the way the celebrated hero of Cervantes did it centuries ago, who can be faulted for his actions? That explains why in large parts of the world, especially those away from the western hemisphere, there are heroes other than those mentioned in that Time selection, heroes like Franz Fanon from Algeria, like Che Guevara from Cuba and Usama Bin Ladin from Saudi Arabia. These are the new heroes of a poor and disposed third world, a world hopelessly oppressed which is seething with rage and unhappiness. Is it possible for the United Nations to change the way they live, the way they are looked down upon by the elite of this world? Pray, what has been the fate of the celebrated millennium development goals of the UN, why are we forced to shift the goalposts as the deadline comes? It is normal for those who are left behind to feel that the world body’s concerns are not really about them, they are the abandoned orphans of an unequal world system. There is nothing in the history of our world in the post-war era to prove that the former colonial powers have any concern for those whom they had plundered for centuries and still continue to do so through their unfair trade practices, their world trade organizations, their intellectual property rights and their lopsided subsidies to the rich north killing off the poor peasants of the south. As the WTO talks on farm subsidies hit upon a blind alley in Geneva earlier this year, American exported bombs were exploding copiously in South Lebanon’s fields and Palestine’s alleys while in India, scores of peasants were committing suicide every week unable to face the perils of global market.

Despite the lofty ideals set forth in the UN Charter, a profound feeling has gained ground in the past few decades, especially among the less privileged ones living in the Asian, African and Latin American countries, that the world body is for all practical purposes serving as a club of the elite. Such is the experience in our living memory and our burning experiences, that while the poor people in the war-ravaged and poverty-stricken places like Rwanda and Darfur and East Timor, Lebanon and Palestine were, to cite a few examples, were allowed to fend for themselves till the last minute, the UN peace-keepers and their NATO allies were active when the dogs of war came closer home, say in the Balkans in recent years. They were there with their bombers, and with their troops and active intervention they could bring peace back while curiously they fail even to enforce the UN resolutions with regard to Israel, a country that has become a regional bully in West Asia. It gets unstinted support from the Untied States with its veto power always unsheathed. The UN looks on helplessly.

That in itself is a great calamity. In an age when we speak of human rights, when we think of democracy and principles of equality the United Nations is presenting itself as a classic case of a relic from the past feudal ages with its double standards enforced through its veto-powered security council members and the ordinary ones waiting outside, making up its toothless general assembly. The UN today is a picture of a curious historical anachronism, because its own internal structure is woefully inadequate to address the concerns of a new world which is nursing better aspirations, a more nuanced understanding of human dignity, a sober view of the equality of all peoples in a comity of nations. True, the leaders of the United Nations, especially the outgoing secretary-general Kofi Annan has been acutely aware of these incongruities and he has put forward an agenda for UN reforms. The next secretary-general will have his or her task cut out there, but it is anybody’s guess whether any reforms effort would meet with success, even partial, given the big powers continuing intransigence and their lack of sensitivity towards the concerns and aspirations of the poorer brothers on the world stage.

In every discussion on the global concerns, politics dominate as even after the crumbling of the old colonial system, the international relations remain profoundly imbalanced; a nexus of new forces continue the blatant exploitation of our common resources and plunder of the less fortunate through a variety of means, collectively known as neo-colonialism. The formal recognition of independence of all these former colonies has not brought about any change in their social life, their economic situation remain as pathetic as ever and most of the nationalities are dependent on their former colonial masters. The problems are not only political and economic; there are cultural, ideological and other kinds of bondages which need to be addressed to make humans truly free. The neo-colonialist exploitation through a variety of means, whether through the plunder of natural resources by the multinationals, whether the blatant aggression on oil and other natural resources in West Asian and African countries, whether the rampant polluting of our oceans and even the space for nuclear experiments…all these are new forms of the continuation of the unfair practices of the past. Many of the greatest minds of our age, from Franz fanon to Edward Said, have eloquently written about these great chasms that divide our world, and everywhere on the world stage we witness the battles raging for justice, equality, dignity and the right to say whatever we want to say. We are living in world where innumerable battles are going on, innumerable heroes are emerging, countless martyrs are sacrificing themselves for causes unlimited.

It is next to impossible to refer to all these in such a short piece. We must, however, focus on a few important aspects which are most essential for the survival for a civilized world. First, the arms race. We are sitting on a stockpile of arms, nuclear and non-nuclear, that can destroy our poor mother earth many times over. When this nuclear arms race was launched by the United States, followed by the Soviet Union and the other big ones in the security council in the late forties and early fifties, we were assuring ourselves that the balance of forces, which is ironically described as the mutually assured destruction or MAD, would keep the world going. Then when the Soviet Union crumbled under its own weight, people like Fukuyama were assuring the world that from now on the rules of history are no longer the same; it will not be what Marx described as the perennial clash of the two formidable enemy classes that will decide the course of human history, but a unipolar and uni-dimensional world that will see the end of dialectical action in history. That however has not been the case going by what happened in the past one-and-a-half decades when we saw the complexities becoming more acute, the bi-polar world instead of becoming unipolar has emerged as a multipolar one and new players are there clamouring for a place in history. Now all kinds of arms are there for everyone to pick up, even nuclear power is a street secret, making our world much more unsafe. The United States instead of rising as the most responsible power on earth is behaving quite contrary, as if it has lost its mental equilibrium. It is the global street bully of our times. Thinking about arms race, the world peace movement will have to strongly condemn the discriminatory nature of the international treaties like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ) which are apologies for the big power nuclear monopoly. As a peace activist pointed out at the 60th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing at a world conference against nuclear bombs, at Hiroshima in August 2005, these treaties do not even remotely address the issue of present nuclear danger nor do they adversely affect the interests of nuclear-weapons powers in any manner whatsoever, and instead are primarily directed at containing any future nuclear threat that may emanate from the presently non-nuclear states. In other words, the nuclear-weapons powers want to keep their arms intact and they want to keep them exclusively for eternity. It is also to be noted that among the permanent members of the security council, except for China which has declared a no-first use policy, all others—US, Russia, UK and France—have the temerity to pursue a first-use policy against even non-nuclear powers even as they speak of the threats from countries like Iran, Iraq and South Korea, the ‘axis of evil’ in the eyes of George Bush.

A second point that needs to be stressed is the question of environment. Only a few weeks ago, the American Academy of Sciences gave its approval to a major study that came to the unmistakable conclusion that global warming is a clear and present threat. This study is the culmination of decades of efforts to prove beyond doubt what the scientists and environmental activists have been suspecting for long, that our planet is slowly melting. The world had taken notice of his serious threat and earlier when the ozone layer was under threat an international crisis management effort was launched with immediate results. The Koyto Protocol was a very positive move and the efforts put in by global bodies like the UN and its other arms in this regard have been immensely fruitful. But here again, the lack of concern and political nitpicking is the real problem and often the big powers seem to be the real stumbling blocks in finding a lasting solution to the threat to our planet.

A third point that would require special attention is the question of human right and its central role in a new world if we are keen to ensure that justice is done and justice is seen to be done. Writing on the forty years of the Amnesty International, Stephen Hopegood has pointed out that in the late sixties when this pioneering organization was being set up, international bodies like the United Nations were keeping aloof describing the human rights activists as terrorists in disguise. The Amnesty came into being following world wide protest against the inhuman ways in which prisoners of conscience were often treated, even in the West as the case of the Portuguese students whose fate became a watershed in the history of human rights movements in the sixties. The UN was then a club of the nation states most of them run by tyrants or semi-tyrants, dictatorships or totalitarian rulers and they had nothing but contempt for the ordinary people who clamoured that their voice be heard. But soon the situation changed, thanks to the heroic efforts of the silent majority, and by the mid-nineties even the UN came to recognize the significance of such civil society initiatives and it adopted its own human rights charter, a major step in the movement for protection of civil and human rights.

That in short is a tall order: ensuring an honourable seat for all the peoples of the world in the global arena, reforming the highly bureaucratic structure of the United Nations establishment, ensuring a more equitable social order, bringing hope and succour to the people through humanitarian and military efforts, preventing the world from committing a nuclear harakiri…all these are the tasks lying ahead on the political front while on the other areas equally arduous tasks like stopping the world from a watery grave as the oceans rise in global warming to ensuring the minimum needs of life to all. But who else is there to take up such tasks other than the United Nations today? So for the UN and for all those who still have faith in the future of humanity, there is nothing we can do but to struggle on and persist, refusing to submit to cynicism. After all, it is a pleasant surprise that the humanity has indeed survived so far in the face of the suicidal mania it had always expressed in its history.

(N P Chekkutty, executive editor of Tejas, a Malayalam daily, earlier worked with Indian Express, Kairali TV and Madhyamam.)

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