The Not-So United Nations

August 06, 2012

A Post by Dr John Quinn

It is impossible to be anything other than appalled by what is going on in Syria at the moment. Each night seems to bring a fresh atrocity as violence grips that most ancient of nations. As we watch the reports and listen to the commentary, it is easy to forget that Syria is something more than a nasty regime: it is nation of people who, like us, want to live their lives in peace without fear. In geopolitical reporting the plight of individuals is easy to lose.

Watching the news here in Australia I feel nothing but desperate sorrow for those who find themselves, by accident of their birthplace, caught up in the bloodshed. Like most people I feel powerless to do anything about the situation, and less than optimistic about the trajectory on which Syria finds itself. It is difficult to envisage anything other than trouble in that country’s near future.

In the face of such trouble and turmoil the world invariably looks to the United Nations.  The United Nations was set up in 1945 (at the end of the Second World War) with an initial membership of 51 nations, and has the aims of

·                     Keeping peace throughout the world;

·                     Developing friendly relations among nations;

·                     Helping nations work together to improve the lives of poor people, conquering hunger, disease and illiteracy, and encouraging respect for each other’s rights and freedoms;

·                     Being a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations to achieve these goals.[i]

Leader of the UN Security force in Syria (Source

There can be no questioning that these are noble aims. That said, there has been plenty of ink spilled over whether the UN is effective in achieving its aims. The primary vehicle by which the UN aims to keep the peace of the world is through the Security Council.  The Security Council is made up of 15 member nations, 10 of which rotate and five which are permanent.  The five permanent nations are The United Kingdom, France, the United States, the Russian Federation and China. Importantly, these permanent members have right of veto over any resolution of the Security Council.  In other words, any resolution can be struck down on the say-so of one of these five nations.

I don’t think we pause often enough and reflect on how decidedly strange these arrangements are. The five permanent members have those positions because they held a certain status at a fixed point in history (which, arguably, they still do).  Had the UN been constituted in the 1700s, the permanent members may well have been Great Britain, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands  and Russia.  If it were constituted in the 1930’s, it might have included the Empire of Japan and Nazi Germany.  You might argue that this is a ridiculous assertion, but remember the millions who suffered in Mao’s China and Stalin’s Soviet Union while those nations enjoyed a right of veto on the Security Council.

We seem to have an in-built faith in the power of collective action, and the hope of a resolution from the Security Council seems to provide some sort of salve to our consciences that “at least something is happening”. We hold the Security Council out as the arbiters of justice and the protectors of peace, when in reality they are a (highly) flawed human institution capable of willful inaction in the face of insurmountable evidence. Moreover, the bickering that goes on between the permanent members as they settle old scores ensures that any progress will be slow, if there is progress at all.

UN Security Council
I wonder whether Christians ought to be a little more skeptical about the United Nations.  Some Christians have seen the UN in the beasts of Revelation 13, or in the woman riding the beast of Revelation 18: those are views of the fringe rather than the mainstream of evangelical Christianity.  That said, in Jesus’ own words we will hear of wars and rumours of wars[ii], and nation will rise against nation[iii].   We ought not to be surprised by geopolitical trouble, and even by the unedifying , almost callous, horse-trading that goes on in diplomatic circles while another nation burns.  Rather than relying on the quasi-democratic “goodness” of the UN, we ought to pray for that organization so that, in spite of its flaws, it might work more effectively toward bringing peace and security in troubled parts of the world. In the words of Paul’s first letter to Timothy:

“I urge, then, first of all, that requests prayers intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”

In the case of Syria the UN’s processes, to date, have been found wanting. We ought to pray that, for the sake of the Syrian people, God might shape those processes to bring a lasting peace a security to that country.  At the same time we should remember that God is the true arbiter of justice and bringer of judgment, and that the United Nations is but a human institution, as capable of evil as it is of good.

[ii] Mark 13:7

[iii] Mark 13:8

Dr John Quinn is Dean of Residents at the New College Village

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