December 20, 2004

RE:Understand the UN!

Marc Comtois
I heartily recommend reading Andrew's aforementioned excellent and insightful piece, The UN: The World's Greatest Trade Association, that he wrote for Tech Central Station. Acccording to Andrew
The United Nations is the trade association for the world's executive branches -- the place where executive branches come together to promote their individual interests to one another, and to promote the expansion of executive authority in general....The trade association extends professional courtesy to its members -- its cardinal rule is not to step on the toes of another executive. Saddam Hussein violated this rule by invading Kuwait and displacing another executive. Hussein paid for this mistake; the UN stepped in to enforce discipline amongst its members.
Conversely, so long as an executive maintains power within a country the UN will stay out of the internal politics of that country. Call it a sort of professional courtesy among fellow rulers. I would add that the misunderstood concept of sovereignty lay behind the UN's non-interventionist political theory. This misconception, purposeful or not, has enabled the UN and other political entities to provide excuses for their lack of action in places like Venezuala and Zimbabwe. In the eyes of the UN, any who hold power in a region is a legitimate executive, thus sovereign, and thus a legitimate "state," subject to all the rights and priveleges of the International Community. This conflation of the concepts of executive power, whether legitimate or not, and legitimate sovereignty, has allowed the UN to call for diplomatic process, including sanctions, over substantive action.

Carlin Romano at the Chronicle of Higher Education wrote an illuminating article on the concept, and misconceptions, of sovereignty. In it, he mentioned the work of Alan Cranston (1914-2000), a four-term Democratic senator from California, who wrote an essay, The Sovereignty Revolution, that began
"It is worshiped like a god, and as little understood. It is the cause of untold strife and bloodshed. Genocide is perpetrated in its sacred name. It is at once a source of power and of power's abuse, of order and of anarchy. It can be noble and it can be shameful. It is sovereignty."
In the essay, Cranston laid out various definitions of sovereignty. The best definition, the one held by most in the United States, was that sovereignty was "the right of people to determine their own destinies."

The other definition is both more cynical and less humanitarian. In short, it is the belief that sovereignty is the "absolute power of a government over its own territory and citizens." As such, sovereignty acts as "a shield against the intervention of other governments, nongovernmental organizations, and outside powers...a defense against outside intervention to stop extraordinarily unacceptable behavior by a government against its people..." Romano also cited the work of Dan Philpott, a Notre Dame political scientist who wrote that many believe "that simple presence within a geographical area presumptively places someone under a particular sovereignty." This seems to be the definition to which the United Nation ascribes.

To combine the two explantions (Andrew's and Romano's), the UN has conflated strong executive power with the idea of sovereignty. As such, according to the UN, any strong executive automatically holds sovereign power, which implies that said ruler wields such power legitimately. As such, so long as Saddam Hussein or Robert Mugabe commit murder within their sovereign borders, the UN is unable, conveniently, to do anything for fear of violating the sovereignty of a nation. As a result, the UN imposes toothless sanctions that it eventually subverts, to the monetary benefit of its member states. Of this, the UN Oil-for-Food program is the best example.