At least nine people have been killed during the latest Burma protests but the United Nations has failed to act. In an emergency meeting last night China and Russia defied calls from democracies, led by France, to punish the Rangoon regime through a variety of economic measures. Russia’s Ambassador to the United Nations – explaining his nation’s reluctance to act said that Burma needed a "return to security".
Conservative foreign affairs spokesman David Lidington MP has told ConservativeHome that the credibility of the whole UN is at stake:
"I want to see the UN work but it needs to show that it can defend the principles set out in its founding charter. When it fails to take action against such brutal behaviour then its whole credibility is at stake."
This is not the first time the UN has failed to act, of course. Think of Srebrenica, Kosovo, Rwanda, Darfur. Saddam Hussein would still be in power if the UN Security Council had had its way. Many more people have died because of the failure of the fabled "international community" to intervene than from intervention.
Whenever I think of the UN I’m reminded of that Yes Prime Minister sketch when Sir Humphrey explains standard Foreign Office tactics when faced with calls for intervention. It went something like this…
- In stage one say that it is not clear that anything especially serious is happening.
- In stage two say that something serious might be happening but we need more information before taking a decision.
- In stage three say that something serious does appear to be happening but it is not clear that intervention would be effective.
- In stage four say that there was something we could have done but it’s too late now.
In the world where multilateral institutions like the UN and EU are hero-worshipped we don’t even need those Foreign Office lines. Politicians like Gordon Brown can go straight to the ‘action must be taken and the UN must take it’ line. They appear decisive but they can talk in the full knowledge that the UN won’t act. It is an institution of convenience for politicians wanting to talk tough but unwilling to walk tough.
John McCain has put forward sensible ideas for a new alliance of democracies to emerge so that nations like Russia and China cannot exercise unreasonable vetoes. Even the serious possibility of such an alliance emerging might create the pressure necessary for the UN to fulfil its constant promises of internal reform. It would be great if the Conservative Party matched Euroscepticism with UNscepticism. Both organisations have similar flaws hardwired into their make-up.