Making the United Nations Function

Sergio Vieira de Mello
Sergio Vieira de Mello, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and top U.N. envoy to Iraq, was killed on Aug. 19, 2003, when a bomb exploded outside U.N. headquarters in Baghdad (Photo: H. Salgado/Notimex/AFP/Getty Images).

Sergio Vieira de Mello, a native of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, was the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and the top U.N. envoy in Iraq. He and 22 others died on Aug. 19, when a bomb exploded outside the United Nation’s headquarters in Baghdad. He published this commentary in O Estado de São Paulo on June 1, the day before he flew to Iraq. The newspaper published the piece again on Aug. 20.

The military supremacy of the United States and Great Britain should not lead us to think that international stability can  be secured only by force. If we want a world system based on something other than the rule of force, then member states will have to turn to the institution they created to avoid such world in the first place: the United Nations. This institution is confronting a serious crisis. We must find ways to resolve it. If not, we will face grave consequences.

The debates about Iraq, before and after the war, showed that the major world powers have been incapable of communicating with each other in a common language. This disunity is particularly acute in the U.N. Security Council and the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. The council found it difficult to reach a consensus about the United Nations’ proper role in Iraq. In the same way, the Commission on Human Rights’ last annual session, which ended in late April, demonstrated its incapacity to discuss human rights whenever serious security issues were involved.

Is there a way to renew or rediscover a common language that will allow us to overcome the current impasse? I believe so, as soon as we radically change the relationship between security and human rights.

Debates in the Security Council need to go beyond the narrow view that sees questions of security as limited to the longstanding discussion about weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Members may have been unable—or unwilling—to perceive that their mandate is broader and must include other issues of obvious interest to the council members, such as the absence of democracy in Iraq, or the frequent terror campaigns launched by the former government against its political enemies, real or imagined.

The central question is how to deal with the international security risks inherent in a country that was run by a regime that notoriously violated the human rights of its citizens and attacked its neighbors. At the end of the day, the principal participants in the Iraq debate gave the impression that they were talking about one thing, but had something entirely different in mind.

Perhaps Security Council members thought that it was more logical to leave human-rights issues to the Commission on Human Rights.

In the last session of the commission, though, many of the 53 states said they thought Iraq was the Security Council’s responsibility, that the council was already working to correct the problem, and that the matter wasn’t within the commission’s jurisdiction. It didn’t matter which argument was used: A majority of the member states, in Geneva as well as New York, wished to avoid initiating any discussion about human rights in Iraq.

In the weeks before the war, I spoke with many of the principal actors involved in the debates at the Security Council. All of them demonstrated an interest in reaching a consensus on Iraq. Meanwhile, they lacked the political judgment and competence to realize it. The impasse at the Commission on Human Rights was similar, maybe even worse than it was at the Security Council.

What is missing in both bodies is the recognition that flagrant and systematic violations of human rights are frequently the principal cause of global insecurity. They are at the heart of insecurity, both domestically and internationally. The problem isn’t new. One has only to recall the United Nations’ incapacity to stop the genocide in Rwanda and the massacres in Srebrenica (Bosnia).

What do these failures have in common? Both are examples of emergency situations, followed by horrific bloodshed. Neither crisis fit into the Security Council or the Commission on Human Rights’ concept of what it was meant to do. Neither crisis was seen as posing a threat to international security.

A sign of the political failure of our time, such episodes show the lack of understanding that flagrant and systematic violations of human rights represent a grave threat to international security and that there is a crying need to reach consensus about exactly how to respond to this type of risk. Reflecting upon the tragic consequences that 24 years of tyranny and international negligence have bequeathed to Iraq, we see that the price of our chronic political failure has been, and will continue to be, high.

We must turn to the member states of the United Nations, especially to those with permanent seats on the Security Council—China, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and Russia—and suggest that they take a long, hard look at their own failures in this regard and try to overcome them, and that they do so bearing their responsibilities to the Security Council and to the United Nations more in mind than their own rivalries. To criticize the United Nations for not having managed to reach a consensus about Iraq is missing the real extent of the problem. When the member states ignore the rules of the game, or dismantle the collective political architecture of the Security Council, it is unjust to blame the United Nations or its secretary-general, whose good offices were not solicited as they should have been. Kofi Annan had tirelessly sought a consensus on these vital questions, but he could not impose it, just as I could not impose it on the Commission on Human Rights, where power is, correctly, in the hands of its member states.

The members of the United Nations have an unparalleled opportunity. Their recent actions revealed once again the deficiencies of the institution they created, while at the same time pointing out some of their important qualities. This crisis, which has affected the entire world, has revealed the uselessness of our traditional definitions of security and has shown them to be barely adequate for today’s reality. The Iraqi people, who have suffered much, are the ones who bear the consequences of the war and, right now, the consequences of a contested and controversial peace.

It seems evident that the time has come for all states to redefine global security, placing human rights at the center of this debate. To do this, each nation must exercise its responsibilities in proportion to its means. Only the responsible—and not the merely powerful—will be able to offer our world lasting stability.