Home / Opinion / The absurdities of the United Nations

Of all the outlandish conspiracy theories favoured by the American lunatic fringe—aliens are being held captive in Roswell, the moon landing was staged, Elvis is alive… ad infinitum—the one that always makes me laugh out loud is the belief that the UN is a shadowy world government, plotting to take over the White House and US Congress, and stamp out the freedoms held most precious by said fringe, such as the right to bear assault weapons, and to deny women control of their own bodies.

This notion is especially hilarious if you’ve had any direct contact with the UN, and have witnessed the sheer incompetence that attends so many of its well-intentioned missions. Never mind plotting to take over the White House, the UN wouldn’t be able to take over my New Delhi apartment, unless I was incapacitated by a giggling fit from watching its bumbling bureaucrats make the attempt.

In recent years, this most multi of multilateral organizations, which is meant to render succour to the world’s miserable, has also been delivering relief of the comic kind. Remember the 2003 rib-tickler, when Libya (yes, Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya) was elected to the chair of the UN Human Rights Commission? Or the 2012 chuckle-fest, when the UN’s World Tourism Organization endorsed Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe as a “leader for tourism?"

Last week, the UN’s absurdist sense of humour yielded yet more global guffaws with the announcement that the new countries elected to its Commission on the Status of Women would include—cue the trumpet fanfare—Saudi Arabia.

Thank you for indulging my sarcastic streak. Room for one more? Here’s Hillel Neuer, head of the monitoring group UN Watch: “Electing Saudi Arabia to protect women’s rights is like making an arsonist into the town fire chief." He pointed out that the government in Riyadh requires every Saudi woman to “have a male guardian who makes all critical decisions on her behalf, controlling a woman’s life from her birth until death." For good measure, he added, “Saudi Arabia also bans women from driving cars".

Okay, enough sarcasm for now. It’s easy for the world to giggle at this, or at least those of us living in countries where the law (and in many cases, society) recognizes women as equal to men. But putting Saudi Arabia on a women’s commission will have unfunny consequences.

First, it will diminish the already slim chances that Saudi women will have equal rights anytime soon. If you think membership of the commission will subtly pressure, or even shame, Riyadh into doing right by half its population, think again. Brutal, undemocratic regimes do not respond to moral suasion, much less shaming. Gaddafi, you’ll remember, did little to improve his human rights record after 2003.

Second, it will send a terrible message to the world, and a reassuring one to regimes that repress women, and to organizations that persecute them. Saudi Arabia may be the monarch of misogynist nations, but there are many others that will feel their policies now have some kind of sanction from the UN. Chauvinistic religious and political groups everywhere will take this as an endorsement of their retrograde world view.

Third, it will undermine the work of the commission itself. Even if the other members are able to shun, silence, or otherwise render ineffective the Saudi representative, their collective decisions will lack credibility. Who, after all, would take seriously the judgement of a jury if one of its members openly identified with the accused?

Finally, it will hurt the UN itself, by strengthening the argument of those who believe the organization is highly compromised, has lost touch with reality, and needs to have its wings (and budget) cut. This is especially true in the US. It’s not just loony conspiracy-theorists who regard the UN with suspicion: a broad swathe of the Republican Party feels the same way. That is, of course, the party that now controls both the White House and Congress.

President Donald Trump himself has made his views perfectly clear, declaring the UN as “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time". The international opprobrium that has met Saudi Arabia’s election to the commission will only harden that view.

This is an especially bad time for the UN to draw attention to one of its follies, since the Trump administration is already looking to cut back US support—financial and non-financial. The US gives $3 billion a year, which covers 22% of the organization’s costs, and more crucially, pays for 29% of the cost of the Blue Helmets’ peacekeeping operations.

The UN might argue, as it had in the past, that it has no control over the membership of most commissions, and that Saudi Arabia was voted in by secret ballot. But that will only empower its critics, who will point out that the organization is not only inept, but also impotent.

If the rules allow such absurdities to occur, then it behoves the UN leadership, starting with secretary general António Guterres, to call on members to change them.

Okay, back to sarcasm. As I write this, I imagine the UN’s official gag writers are gathering to decide their next joke. Should they nominate Russia to head the Electoral Assistance Division, invite Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to inaugurate the 3 May World Press Freedom Day at its New York headquarters… or, just maybe, recommend North Korea’s Kim Jong-un as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency?

Bobby Ghosh is the editor-in-chief of HT Digital Streams

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