Sunday, February 13, 2011 | Categories: Michael's Essays
In all of the tumult, the shouting, the bewildering upheaval of the last 18 days in Egypt, a question.----where was the United Nations?
The Secretary General Ban-ki Moon managed to face a microphone or two late in the crisis and deliver what amounted to an 'Oh look, the sky is blue' kind of speech.
I know where the UN was ----circling over Nowheresville Square, waiting helplessly for landing instructions from the real players.
The soft-spoken SG called for a transparent, orderly and peaceful transition to democracy - condemning by inference a secret, chaotic, and violent transition.
He came out boldly in favor of fair, free and credible elections, thus eschewing unfair, fettered and rigged ones.
Finally, the Secretary General vowed that the United Nations stands ready to assist.....somebody to do something.
Now it may be in the character of the current secretary-general, this overly-cautious bromide approach to history, or it may be something systemically wrong with the organization itself.
When we say the words United Nations, we automatically think of four things---the Security Council, the Secretary General, the General Assembly and peacekeeping.
It is of course a lot more.
The various agencies of the UN, organizations like UNICEF and UNRRA have performed miracles on the ground in the forsaken places of the developing world.
They have brought education, medicine, food, the protection of children and women to those parts of the world that the rest of us don't like to think about for very long.
It is as a deliberative and political world body that we now have to re-think the UN.
By amazing and fortuitous coincidence, in the week that the Egyptian dictatorship was collapsing, Madame Justice Rosalie Abella of the Supreme Court of Canada was in Toronto to make a speech.
I got a little nervous when she began talking about international trade law and the WTO---topics that have caused hardened diplomats to throw themselves from tall buildings.
But then she switched gears. She compared the success of the world in expanding trade practices while shrinking international protection of human rights.
She was saying in other words that we seem to care more about the free flow of products, of stuff than we do about the freedom of human beings.
Sovereignty, she said, always trumps human rights.
And then she delivered a devastating roll call of the horrors the world - and the UN - have allowed to happen in recent decades-----the genocide in Rwanda, massacres in Bosnia and the Congo; slavery and child soldiers in Sudan; repression in Chechnya; cultural annihilation of women by the Taliban; starvation in Darfur.
It was a chilling recital of failure.
Justice Abella went on to say that it was not the laws that needed changing but that "A GOOD ARGUMENT CAN BE MADE THAT OUR EXISTING GLOBAL INSTITUTIONS AND ESPECIALLY THE UN'S DELIBERATIVE ROLE ARE PLAYING FAST AND LOOSE WITH THEIR LEGITIMACY AND OUR INTEGRITY."
Turning to the events in Tahrir Square, she added sadly, "I WAITED IN VAIN TO HEAR WHAT THE UN HAD TO SAY ABOUT THE PROTESTS IN IRAN, TUNISIA AND EGYPT. ISN'T THAT MAGESTERIAL SILENCE A THUNDEROUS ANSWER TO THOSE WHO SAY THINGS WOULD BE A LOT WORSE WITHOUT THE UN.? WORSE, HOW?" she asked. "I KNOW IT'S ALL WE HAVE BUT DOES THAT MEAN IT'S THE BEST WE CAN DO?"
What is needed is not a whole lot more debate, but a solid understanding that leadership in a crazy world has to be multi-lateral, that superpower theatrics are a thing of the past.
The people in Tahrir Square and Alexandria and Suez showed leadership where the world's leaders, including the UN,did not.
Justice Abella ended her talk with the fearful reminder that "NATIONS DEBATE; PEOPLE DIE.NATIONS DISSEMBLE; PEOPLE DIE. NATIONS DEFY; PEOPLE DIE."