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Security Council in the Age of Human Rights

Originally published in Foreign Policy Journal 2014 08 04.

The United Nations Security Council in the Age of Human Rights. Ed., Jared Genser and Bruno Stagno Ugarte. Cambridge University Press, New York, 2014.

I have felt for some time that the United Nations Security Council either needs serious reform or needs to be abolished altogether to be replaced by some other structure more representative of an institution purportedly supporting global democracy and human rights. The various authors of The United Nations Security Council in the Age of Human Right have done nothing to dissuade me from that line of thought.

The brief notes on the authors provide a quick background as to the general trend of argument might be through the work. All the authors are well-trained (rather than well educated) except for Romeo Dallaire, a retired lieutenant-general of the Canadian armed forces who witnessed first hand the genocide of Rwanda. His account, ironically from a military perspective, gives much more thought to the reality of humanity and humanitarian justice than does the classical training of the other authors. As another significant factor in this perspective, most the authors are of the Washington consensus model of thinking about the diplomatic landscape, with backgrounds in international law and humanitarian rights.

The work can be considered both a success and a failure. Its success comes from its well documented historical coverage of Security Council considerations and decisions, all well referenced in the extensive bibliography. Its failure rises for the same reason - as the historical coverage is extremely narrow and focusses exclusively on the Security Council with only occasional hints as to a broader global geopolitical perspective. In other words, this is the Security Council only, without context.

Given the authors bios and the narrow perspective the work becomes a self-congratulatory, self laudatory set of arguments, that yes, we, the diplomats, have had some failures and problems, but overall the Security Council has made progress and needs to continue to keep working. Certainly the wording of the “thematic” papers, and the carefully considered wording of the Council’s decisions sound wonderful - it is the Obama syndrome, sounds great, highly articulate, but its essence, its application, is essentially useless.

The first line of the first paragraph of the first chapter highlights the major failing of the writing and depth of analytical intellectual thought. It quotes Zbigniew Brzezinski declaring, “human rights have become the genuine historical inevitability of our times.” Well and good if it were true, but this quote demonstrates the double standards of many politicians and diplomats, as well as revealing by concealment the major fault of this work: its lack of context within the global geopolitical challenges. This lack of context can be highlighted by another Brzezinski comment,

For America, the chief geopolitical prize is Eurasia... America's global primacy is directly dependent on how long and how effectively its preponderance on the Eurasian continent is sustained...About 75 per cent of the world's people live in Eurasia, and most of the world's physical wealth is there as well, both in its enterprises and underneath its soil. Eurasia accounts for about three-fourths of the world's known energy resources.

America's withdrawal from the world or because of the sudden emergence of a successful rival - would produce massive international instability. It would prompt global anarchy...The most immediate task is to make certain that no state or combination of states gains the capacity to expel the United States from Eurasia or even to diminish significantly its decisive arbitration role.

Brzezinski also talks about using NATO as a means of extending US power into the Eurasia regions; as the current work draws to a close it implicitly supports NATO as a confederate to the Security Council to wage wars where necessary. How can any author examine the Security Council without examining also the calculations of the US and its networks ranging from the Pentagon through the CIA and NSA into the world of covert actions that no one truly knows about?

I did read the first two chapters thoroughly, but after recognizing the narrowness of focus and the many, many, fine sounding quotes from “thematic papers” I skip-read most of the rest of the work. Romeo Dallaire’s chapter I read thoroughly, and when the work turned away from its narrow theoretical constructs to examine a few historical examples, I returned to a more thorough pattern of reading. The latter were reasonably well presented, sometimes touching on but never truly exploring the larger geopolitical context.

These touches to a larger geopolitical structure are light and unexplored. One author recognized that the “merits of the case are distorted because of the affinity by some to the regimes in place” - beginning and end of discussion!

As the various histories are outlined, the nature of the Security Council’s considerations changes from sovereign rights - particularly during the Cold War era - to that of human rights (thus the title of the book). Within modern history, “civilian concerns become a vehicle for further chipping away at traditional notions of sovereignty” where “everything falls within the Security Council’s zone of authority.” Italics are added, as the word vehicle implies that there is not so much a concern for humanity but that it is a means for gaining sovereignty advantage over another country. There is recognition that this applied to the US’ declared war on terror, as the “radical reconceptualization of sovereignty seemed to offer dangerous support...to controversial US justifications for using force” - end of discussion.


The chapters on civilian protection, women’s rights, children and armed conflict, how the UN’s other organs cooperate (or not), accountability, targeted sanctions, and rule of law all tend to recognize Security Council failures within their fine sounding rhetoric. When the chapter on Rwanda comes up, a bit more reality enters the discussion.

In simple terms Dallaire (with Krystel Carrier) says, “the UN Security Council’s actions leading up to and during the Rwandan genocide reveal the false promise of the “Age of Human Rights.” After touching on the question of racism (Dallaire uses the term ‘ethnocentricity’) and geopolitical interests (vis a vis Libya, Cote d’Ivoire, and Darfur) the chapter ends with some questions,

For what right does a Council of (mostly) men have to act as gods,establishing a priority within humanity, to decide who is more human than the other? And do sovereign states that make up the UN permit their representation in that body to fall into that dichotomy?

The work continues through other samples: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Timor-Leste, Sudan-Darfur, the DRC (Congo), Kosovo, Libya, and Syria. In all, as noted above, the author’s recognize the areas of failure while at the same time lauding the small successes without entering into analysis of large geopolitical considerations. The latter two, Libya and Syria, perhaps because of their currency, are well off the mark.


First Libya where “the Security Council fulfilled its mandate successfully.” Really!?! How is that going now fellas? I understand that a militant Islamic group has just taken over Benghazi and that other militias are fighting throughout Libya? The author’s argue that “without NATO’s superior military capabilities...Qaddafi’s troops would have overrun Benghazi and committed untold crimes against its residents.” For academics to venture into speculation and conjecture in order to support their argument is simply no good, a fully inadequate rationalization.

The author do touch momentarily on the concerns about “political objectives” then reposit that “the intervention in Libya did indeed largely achieve its objective of protection of civilians.” There are several items left out of this discussion that highlight the lack of geopolitical considerations by the various authors. First is the whole idea of the utilization of NATO to act as the Security Council’s enforcers during the operation, as NATO is essentially a US puppet organization. Secondly, the US’ interests in the region consisted of getting rid of a non-complying ruler who was arguing for another source of currency other than the US$, who had oil resources that were being managed by the Chinese, and had enough gold resources to support an Afro-centric currency.

Libya, according to demographic statistics, was one of the best financial, educational, and health oriented societies in Africa. A dictator? Certainly, but that did not cause the UN to help the civilians of Bahrain, and Yemen, or those civilians - including women - who live under the dictatorships in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The authors see success - I see a geopolitical move that has longer lasting ramifications than the conjectural protection of civilians.


The final chapter is about Syria. The highlight here is how the authors have nuanced their arguments implicitly against Russia using a rather condescending voice. Also included in the discussion is the Arab League and its arguments against Assad, without the geopolitical context of the overall historical uselessness of the Arab League (wherein the Arab leaders are more concerned about their own survival rather than the human rights of their civilians) nor its alignments along the Sunni-Shia rift within Islam, thus incorporating - or should - Iran into the discussion. Interestingly enough, when the authors mention chemical weapons, that Security Council discussion becomes “beyond the scope of this chapter.” Why?

The final “lesson” the authors call upon is that “when permanent members of the Council [implicating Russia and China] are willing to absorb public condemnation and political costs for their actions, they can still obstruct meaningful diplomatic action almost indefinitely.” Okay, certainly, but what are the larger geopolitical considerations here? The destruction of non-complying dictators to US hegemony? The encroachment of US power towards the containment of Russia and China? The location of transportation routes of oil and gas resources outside of US control?

Israel and the end of it all...

Ohhh...I’m sorry, you didn’t discuss Israel now did you. Why not? Not agreeable to your Washington consensus alignment? Too much about geopolitics vis a vis the US, the Arab world, resource control? Not willing to address religious and racial discussions? Not willing to address how the US has blocked resolution after resolution concerning Israeli actions against other countries and against Palestinians, so that “they can still obstruct meaningful diplomatic action almost indefinitely”?

For all the authors’ fine academic credentials and “honorary” degrees, if this represents the best that the diplomatic world has to offer the rest of the world, then it is no wonder that we are in such sad shape around the world.

Unless these contextual elements are considered, a study on the success of failure of the Security Council is rendered pretty much useless. Because the Security Council is a geopolitical body, to ignore and leave aside the geopolitical considerations defeats the alleged purpose of any study of the Council. On that perspective, this work is a failure, as is the Security Council.

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