United Nations: Protectors or Watchers?

January 4, 2018 HUMAN RIGHTS , Opinion , OPINION/NEWS

Reuters photo



Thambu Kanagasabai


The United Nations is a global organization that brings together its member states to confront common challenges, manage shared responsibilities and exercise collective action in an enduring “quest for a peaceful world.”

One of the main purposes of the United Nations is to maintain world peace and security. At present there are 193 member states in the UN.

Of the all main organs of the United Nations, Security Council is the primary organ consisting five permanent members [USA, United Kingdom, China, France and Russia] and ten rotating members chosen as representatives of various regions of the world.

The Security Council has the primary responsibility under the United Nations Charter for the maintenance of international peace and security. Resolutions of the Security Council legally bind the member states for compliance, while the UN resolutions do not have any legally binding effect, with consequences for non-compliance unless authorized by the Security Council.

The United Nations can however make suggestions and recommendations to the Security Council for its consideration and adoption.


One of the United Nations’ primary purposes is promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to age, sex, language or religion and member states pledge to undertake “joint and separate action” to protect these rights ‘with member states duty bound to carry out UN Resolutions.

However, in practice United Nations General Assembly on its own cannot take sufficient action against human rights abuses without a Security Council Resolution. The Security Council since its inception in 1948 has so far passed more than 2,400 resolutions. The Security Council through its resolutions has the powers to impose economic, political and/or diplomatic sanctions against any state which is in breach of any Articles of United Nations Conventions resulting in threats of peace, breaches of peace or acts of aggression. Besides, the Security Council can also authorize peacekeeping operations including military action as happened in 1991 against Iraq which invaded and occupied Kuwait in August 1990.

The UN Security Council also authorises referrals to the International Criminal Court to try leaders of countries and/or military officials who are alleged to have committed war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, etc. This referral brings countries who have not signed the Rome Statute of 2002, to face prosecution for war crimes, etc, as happened in Rwanda, Darfur genocide in 2005 and the genocide by rulers of Sudan in 2011 against South Sudan rebels.

The Security Council, by a Resolution No 1706 in 2005 called R2P [Responsibility to Protect], is also empowered to take preventive action to protect civilians in armed conflict, including initiating action against genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.


All in all, the duties of maintenance of world peace, prevention of human rights violations and punishment of perpetrators lie only on the Security Council’s fifteen members, particularly on five permanent members who also enjoy the veto power to nullify a resolution even if backed by the other fourteen members.

The power of vetoing a Resolution by a permanent member, even if backed by the rest of the 14 Security Council members, is nothing but a humiliation and disrespect to other members, which action has often been described as an ‘abuse of power’ by one member. “Veto power was alleged to be forced by the Super Powers through threat that without the veto there will be no United Nations”.

The net effect is that the UN Security Council is owned by the five Super Powers who can make or unmake a resolution and situation. The recent veto exercised by the US in the Security Council to rescind its decision to recognize Jerusalem as capital of Israel is one example when world opinion was treated with nil importance and scant respect. The US, being the major contributor of funds for the United Nations [about 22%], also holds a dominant influence over the functions of the United Nations.


If one traces the record of the United Nations and Security Council during the past 50 years, its dismal performances and failures stand exposed and glaring to any one observer. Some of the inexcusable failures are as follows, which could have been prevented at the outset, but were allowed to reach their ends with horrifying results:


The genocide of Bangladeshis in 1971 during the war with Pakistan;


The genocide in Cambodia by Pol Pot;


The genocide in Rwanda in 1994 when Tutsis in their thousands were killed by Hutus;


Massacres in Srebrenica in 1995 where Muslims were massacred by Serbs;


Civil war in Somalia and Sudan which resulted in the killings of thousands of rebels by government forces and militants with the blessings of their rulers.


The gross failure of the United Nations and Security Council during the genocidal war in Sri Lanka from 2006 to May 18, 2009 is one recent ignominious performance of the world bodies, United Nations and Security Council.

The Toronto Star [Canada] on November 20, 2012 commented this failure as follows:

“When as many as 40,000 Tamils were killed during the final months of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009, the United Nations did not hold a single formal meeting. Not at the Security Council, not at the General Assembly. Not at the Human Rights Council.”

“In Sri Lanka, United Nations retreated into craven silence and looked the other way that emboldened war criminals to ply their vicious trade.”

“This systematic failure is appalling coming long after the United Nations was thought to have absorbed the ‘NEVER AGAIN’ lessons from the Rwanda genocide and Srebrenica in 1995.”


Rosie Dimanno, the Star columnist commented as follows: “On Sri Lanka the United Nations was notoriously deaf, dumb and blind.”

“The United Nations had a pretty clear idea of what was happening in the killing fields of Sri Lanka during the bloody climax of civil war, yet it suppressed or diluted that information, utterly failing in its core mission of protecting civilians.”

“Instead the Security Council and United Nations Secretariat were cowed by the Sri Lankan authorities, who enjoyed “the effective acquiescence of post 9/11 world order” to defeat an enemy.” Genocide Prevention Project [NY] Index 2008 “identified Sri Lanka as one of the eight alert countries where genocide and other mass atrocities were under way.”


Former Secretary General Ban-Ki-moon, who remained passive and actionless during the war, visited Sri Lanka in September 2016 and lamented as follows, conceding the grave failure of his office; “Something more terrible seems happened in the past in 1994, in Rwanda, there was a massacre, more than one million people were massacred, United Nations felt responsible for that. We said repeatedly ‘never again, never again’ it happened just one year after Srebrenica, We did again in Sri Lanka.”

Adding insult to injury was the UNHRC’s Resolution in May 2009 which praised Sri Lanka for ending the civil war by eliminating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam [LTTE]; However, this resolution was condemned later “as a slap on human rights and endorsement of genocide, but later realised its folly and ignorance of facts and figures and falling to the game of duplicity by Sri Lanka.”


Some legal commentators have even hinted the United Nations’ failures as a crime of complicity committed during the war providing the encouragement and allowing its continuation. However, the failure of the United Nations and Security Council is continuing in the current situation involving the ethnic Rohingya Muslims who have been living in Myanmar [Burma] for generations. They have been stripped of their citizenship and denied almost all rights and also labelled as stateless. Rohingyas are people with their own language, religion and culture. They are a distinct ethnic group qualified for protection by the United Nations and necessary action against Myanmar [Burmese] authorities and security forces that are forcefully expelling them from their Rakhine State to flee and take shelter in the neighbouring poor country Bangladesh.

The current situation as commented by a former United Nations General Romeo Dallaire is “You are in the midst of a very slow moving deliberate genocide.” Various genocidal crimes are being committed by the Myanmar [Burmese] Government and security forces including forceful expulsion by the Myanmar army which is continuing to commit the crimes of murder, rape, burning of their houses and villages in addition to mass atrocities. It is estimated that between August and September 2017, 6,700 Rohingyas were killed while 670,000 have fled the Buddhist-majority Myanmar into Bangladesh to escape the ‘ethnic cleansing’ as called by the United Nations, now described as genocide.

The disgusting scenario is the continuing of military operations despite condemnations and mutual agreements with the Myanmar Government to diffuse the crisis.


The world is watching the horrors as well as the United Nations and Security Council. United Nations Secretary General His Excellency Antonio Guterres summed up the situation as follows:


“We are still repeating rather than preventing and acting only when it is often too late. We must do more to respond early and keep violence from escalating. One such case may be Myanmar.”

“One year of investigations reveals mounting evidence that points to genocide against Rohingya Muslims with Myanmar army soldiers, police and civilians as the major perpetrators. Genocide has recurred multiple times.”

“Rohingyas have suffered attacks and systematic violations for decades. The Tamils in Sri Lanka also suffered the similar harrowing experiences for the last sixty years under the watchful eyes of United Nations and International Community.”

It is clear that the International Community and Myanmar Government failed to protect Rohingya civilians from mass atrocities, repeating its failure in Sri Lanka.

What has been going on in the Rakhine State of Rohingyas is nothing but a calculated pre-planned process of genocide committed by Myanmar This is now openly admitted by the United Nations and International Community but only after watching the continuation of atrocities and remaining abhorrently silent until genocide is accomplished like in Sri Lanka. The United Nations Secretary General admits this by saying that “Genocide can take place in times of war and in times of peace. We must be ever vigilant”.


Special Adviser on Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng sums up the situation correctly as follows:


“It is our inaction and effectiveness in addressing the warning signals that allows it to become a reality. Genocide does not happen by accident. It is deliberate with warning signs and pre cursors.”


Whether the Security Council will now act quickly and decisively to prevent the genocide of Rohingyas is anybody’s guess even though international pressure is mounting.

It appears that the five permanent members of the Security Council are adopting a lethargic and wait and see approach to the plight of Rohnigyas. The permanent members, particularly the US, spring in to action when their economic, political and strategic interests are threatened. For instance protecting the oil rich state Kuwait, prompted the intervention and invasion of Iraq in 1990.

Strategic interests to protect the friendly state Israel prompted the Security Council, scrambling into an emergency session to discuss the Israeli-Gaza conflict when ten friendly Israeli lives were lost.

It can be stated that a thread of duplicity appears to be running through the web of the United Nations’ actions which seems to confirm the application of different scales of values to people affected depending on the continents they live. Certainly Africa and Asia fall within this web of duplicity.


There is no denying the fact that the Security Council is being monopolized to protect and promote the interests of the Super Powers, rather than to go to the rescue of the marginalised victims of state aggression, particularly happening in third world countries.

Even manipulation and intimidating tactics are employed to achieve the goals of some powerful countries. Furthermore the United Nations also failed to enforce the R2P [Responsibility to protect] rule introduced by Canada, making its existence questionable and relevant.

British historian Paul Kennedy’s statement on the Security Council confirms; “Glaring failures had not only accompanied the United Nations’ many achievements, but they overshadowed them, for instance the lack of will to prevent ethnic massacres in Bosnia and Rwanda.”


The discriminatory enforcement or lack of enforcement of Security Council Resolutions also casts doubt on the integrity of UN Resolutions concerning Muslims who are apparently treated unfavourably like the Resolutions demanding the withdrawal of Israel from occupied areas while Israel is allowed to flout it by building new settlements. It is to be noted that the affected Rohingyas are also Muslims living in poverty and neglected.

The present United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, His Excellency Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, recently expressed his frustration over the current plight and state of human rights by saying that “This is an age when United States and other world powers are retreating from their historical commitments to human rights.” His decision not to request an extension to his position due to this sorry state of human rights has only worsened the plight of the victims of human rights who as an alternative could be forced to resort to obtain redress and relief employing violent methods.

Besides addressing issues such as lack of will and a collective agreement to prevent genocide, the United Nations must also concentrate on evolving new swift judicial mechanisms without delay to ensure accountability for the perpetrators of war crimes, etc.


The United Nations should watch and act fast to prevent and end the human tragedies rather than silently watching to know the end result of the atrocities. [As happened to the Tamils in Sri Lanka and now what is happening to the Muslims in Myanmar where the majority community are also Buddhists].


Will the United Nations live up to its commitments or continue to function letting down the victims of Human Rights?





Thambu Kanagasabai

Thambu Kanagasabai LL.M (London) – Former Lecturer in Law, University Of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

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1 Comment

  1. kumarathasan January 05, at 19:15

    A very important and timely article clearly exposing the United Nations failure to protect the oppressed civilians around the world The UN system needs reforms and more powers to act swiftly to the UN High commissioner for Human Rights> He has already expressed his frustration in the UN system where the UN was forced to watch the Genocide to continue [Sri Lanka and Myanmar] The Present Secretary General must act fast before another genocide takes place. The writer clearly explained the lapses in the UN system- This must be changed very soon. or else there will be more slogan from UN 'never again' after so many crimes have been committed. The R2P would have been applied in case of Sri Lanka and Myanmar Genocides.


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