Because of the failure of the League of Nations in preventing war, it was replaced after the Second World War by a new and stronger upgrade in the form of The United Nations (UN). Since the setting up of the UN in 1945, the membership has increased steadily. At present the UN has 193 member states. Most believe that only official member states of the UN can constitute as being sovereign. However, according to The New Internationalist World Guide there are 243 countries. This shows that many countries such as Palestine are not recognised as being sovereign states and thus their people are not being fully represented within this international institution.
This is just one of the many criticisms made against the United Nations. The claim that ‘The UN seeks to create a just and prosperous world through common action.’ Has been hindered many times by failures and flaws within the UN. Let’s continue on with a prime example of UN failure that is the Palestine case. The United Kingdom: an important member of the UN, was the initial leader in establishing the ‘Jewish Homeland’ through the Balfour Declaration that is now officially internationally recognised as the State of Israel.
It was only a statement of British Policy initially, but it became legally relevant when it was written into the British Mandate for Palestine by the League of Nations. This is where the root of the issue began as from then onwards there was a large influx of Jews. Many of these immigrants were survivors of the Holocaust and were promised ‘A land without a people for a people without a land’. (Weizman cited in Muir 2008: 55).
Yet, it was not a land without a people and the Arab population expressed disapproval in November 1918 at first anniversary celebrations of the Balfour Declaration. They felt betrayed by the British, with whom they had sided during the First World War in the hope of gaining freedom from the Ottoman Empire and forming an independent Arab state covering all Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire. Both ethnic groups were filled with hope of a new and peaceful beginning for their people, however these aspirations were shattered by their hopes for their respective homelands clashing with each other; they felt disenchanted by the reality of the situation. ‘Palestine was not desolate and all the land available for cultivation was already being worked by the indigenous Arab population.’ (Finkelstein 2003: 95).
When League of Nations came into effect Palestine was not invited to be a member state and was viewed as British Territory. It did not attempt to resolve the conflict and supported the illegal settlements of the Jewish on Palestinian land. The UN did no better when it was established and at the end of WW2 approved the partition of Palestine (Resolution 181). It formally recognised the Jewish state. The Palestinians, who represented 70% of the population and owned 93% of the land, were restricted to 43% of the territory. This is only the tip of the iceberg of the injustices that have been committed against the Palestinians, and in itself proves that the statement that the UN seeks to create a just and prosperous world through common action has been proved to not be the case.
Although, there has been many sanctions made by the UN against Israel for crimes against humanity e.g. 1987 sanction ‘Calls on Israel to abide by the Geneva Conventions in its treatment of the Palestinians.’ (US vetoes at the UN Security Council). There have been many others along similar lines, the majority of which, however, have been vetoed by the United States. In total over the 30 years between 1972 and 2002 the United States have used their power with a seat on the Security Council to veto precisely 28 sanctions made against Israel. They have used their veto powers more than all the other countries on the UN Security Council put together.
The Security Council is made up of fifteen members, five of which are permanent: the United Kingdom, USA, Russia, China and France. The fact that there are permanent members of the UN Security Council is undemocratic. They are not elected by the UN General Assembly as are the other 10 members. The permanent members also officially have more power than the other members of the Security Council; it is only the non-elected permanent members of the Security Council who can use the power of veto to block decisions in which they do not favour.
There is widespread criticism in relation to the use and power of the veto. Many countries are demanding that it be scrapped or at the very least the veto system be amended with limitations on its use. ‘Developing countries protest that the veto often prevents politically sensitive issues from being properly discussed.’ (McGuire and McKenzie 1999; p.149). Critics make the point that it cannot and should not be correct to allow the interests, wishes and opinions of one negative voice within the Security Council and ultimately the General Congress determine UN policy. The United State’s veto of Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s re-election as Secretary-General against the wishes of 14 other countries in the Security Council is one of the best examples to support this point. The veto system therefore proves that the UN cannot seek to create a just and prosperous world through common action as it is often the case that this ‘common action’ cannot be continued against the will of certain powerful states within the Permanent members of the Security Council.
The arid West Bank has transformed into a sea of Palestinian flags this week, hanging from windows, tied to cars, painted on houses, stuck to the side of buses and pinned up in shop windows. This attempt to show their desperate support for the UN statehood bid is heartbreaking because it’s quite obvious that things are not likely to go in their favour, yet again. The US, although claiming that they ultimately support the two-state solution have made clear that they are ready to veto this statehood bid before it hits the table. And even if Palestine is successful and achieves official international recognition and full membership within the UN will this really lead to real change on the ground? Does anybody really think that the Israeli settlements will be evacuated and given to the Palestinians?
The main problem with the UN is that it has no sovereignty or any real ability to implement law by force. ‘The concept of sovereignty is very important, especially to Israel whose foreign policy is tinged with Realism. Within the context of the state, sovereignty is often defined as power which is absolute and unlimited’ (Yates 2006; p.5). The state stands above all other associations; Thomas Hobbes portrayed the state as ‘Leviathan’ (a gigantic monster). This suggests that as there is no higher authority and power than ‘The State’, and International Law is illegitimate. Many states do not abide by laws set by the UN, especially the most powerful ones, and Israel is very powerful having nuclear weapon capacity and being the loyal sidekick of the hegemonic superpower that is the USA.
‘The power and the interests of the state are what matters, and law is either a servant of the powerful or an irrelevant curiosity’ (Baylis, Smith and Owens 2008; p.280). One of the best examples of states acting against the will of International Law would be the United States and the United Kingdom invading Iraq. The invasions went against International Law ‘…the use of force is prohibited by the United Nations charter’ (Tutunjian 2004; p.1), similar to NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, the USA began dropping bombs in Iraq without any legal authority from the Security Council. Thus according to International Law the invasion of Iraq was illegal and illegitimate. However, sanctions could not be pressed against the USA or the UK, due to their presence on the Security Council, any sanctions would immediately be vetoed by either state. Two great powers can get away with breaking International Law, even when they are face with an overwhelming majority of opposition.
If the UN intends to be more successful in implementing International Law and forcing states to abide by them than many changes will have to be made. The UN should work on being more democratic so that superpowers cannot dictate decisions made (or decisions prevented) on behalf of the United Nations. The UN cannot be effective until these issues are resolved. ‘Failure to intervene effectively in international disputes has led to much criticism of the United Nations Organisation and an international peacekeeping body. I believe that this Friday’s UN statehood bid will only reinforce this criticism and the Palestinians will again be let down by the international community.