The question was as probing in 1966 when Burt Bacharach posed the question as it is now. The FT tells us today that after 30 years of globalization, that party has ended with the war in Ukraine. While we are drilling dust on Mars, it has become increasingly apparent that the post-WWII complacency as it relates to life on earth is being disrupted by changes sourced to pandemics, geo-political conflict and climate. The guarantees against a third World War were expected to be resolved by the zero-sum game of mutual non-proliferation treaties and nuclear power balances. The Nuremburg trials, followed by trials at Special Courts in Sierra Leone and Arusha, were supposed to send the message to despots that their deeds would not go unpunished. The human rights and development community honed its ability to mobilize quickly in the aftermath of atrocities, but through no fault of its own, less so on the preventative side of things.
For sure these last several weeks have shown us that there are lines to be drawn in the sand, but regrettably they are being drawn by those on the wrong side of righteousness. The world community has been entirely too reactive and has not stood up with steely resolve to refuse to see another massacre of innocents. With myopic attention to righting past wrongs, it has failed to deploy its global machinery to prevent atrocities—it has relinquished its authority over the protection and preservation of human rights to those who would oppress, deprive and violate what the United Nations was supposed to have achieved in 1948. That instrument, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the mechanisms that enforce it, have been emasculated by the veto, where it should have been absolute in its enforcement and power to prevent its gross violations. When the UDHR says that it recognizes the “inherent dignity” and “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” those words are ciphers if nothing can be done to shield those it purports to protect.
The UN was created in October 1945 in the hopes of preventing another world war. The Security Council has five permanent members, each of whom has the right of veto. In the recent vote designed to end the military offensive in Ukraine, only Russia, the subject of the vote, vetoed. It is a basic principle of good governance and rule of law, a key underpinning of the UN Charter, that the party about whom a vote is taken must, in recognition of a clear conflict, refrain from participating in the vote. Why then does the UN Security Council architecture permit itself to be paralyzed from action against a rogue member, defying every principle on which its very existence rests?
The UN writes on its website that its history is “still being written.” If indeed, this is so, then write this: Change the rules. Stop permitting veto where the subject of the vote is the offending member state, and where the matter involves an extraordinary and universally acknowledged violation of human rights, of the foundational sort intended to be protected by the UN Charter itself and the UNDHR (not to mention a host of other instruments and conventions). If the United Nations is to be more than an impressive neutral urban campus where the world’s emissaries meet and talk, deploy the same unified global action that was expected to preserve peace in 1945, and halt this unfounded aggression. When the dust settles, the development community will engage with robust vigor to document the wrongs, seek their redress, offer humanitarian aid and start the rebuilding process. But, just because the global human rights community is efficient at providing humanitarian aid and rebuilding the aftermath of atrocities, does not mean forsaking the opportunity to prevent or stop the atrocity in progress. In the words of the Bacharach song: “Are we meant to take more than we give?” –The world and Ukraine has taken enough. Time to change course. Human Rights need not always be viewed through the rear view mirror.