The UN's 'Moral Guilt'

The UN has consistently confined its international interventions to peace-keeping, thereby resisting the possibility of violent action. Does this commitment to peace, the grand ideal of political, sociological and spiritual discourse, actually amount to the failure of international justice? If the UN refuses to intervene, or to ‘take sides’, even if this means taking the side of a victim against an aggressor through proportionate intervention, it cannot prevent violent action and bring peace about. It can apparently only operate if a state of peace already exists. If situations of conflict are underway, if there is no peace to keep, is the UN defunct? And if a situation is heading for conflict, but no pronounced acts of violence have yet begun, and ‘peace’ is therefore prevalent, is the UN’s job done, despite conflict being imminent?

Does a commitment to peace-keeping forego the option of peace-creation? Perhaps commitment to a more finely nuanced concept, such as justice, would better serve the interests of universal human rights. However, this would require adjudication, ruling in favour of one claim over another, thereby violating the UN’s avowed status of neutrality.

Image from AJC National Labor Sevice

The UN’s other chief function, that of providing humanitarian assistance, can hamper the meaningful action it can or is willing to take to enforce international law. The UN has in many instances held back from condemning or taking action against those in power who, according to its charters, declarations, conventions and commissions, deserve compelling condemnation, and who ought to face the full force of the UN’s opposition. Yet, if these people will later preside over the conditions of human suffering they have inflicted, the UN must tread carefully, so that its humanitarian assistance can advance unhindered. The UN Special Representative for Bosnia defended the UN’s inactivity during the fall of Srebrenica, which resulted in the murder of 7,000 men and boys and the transfer of tens of thousands, saying: ‘the man you bomb today is the same man whose cooperation you may require tomorrow for the passage of a humanitarian convoy.’   What good is this humanitarian convoy to the thousands left dead by the unhindered advance of a genocidal campaign?

In Gaza, the UN does not forcefully and openly violate the blockade on the materials needed to rebuild hospitals and schools, and to administer medical treatment that would vastly improve, and indeed save, lives, as it fears opposition to the Israeli government would damage the humanitarian efforts it is able to carry out.

The UN faces difficult decisions; it often has to choose between individual human life, allowing some to die so that others may be safe from danger.

Human rights declarations on such topics as culture and religion can be difficult territory. They are often conditional and contradictory. Even the right to life, a seeming moral absolute, can be contested on utilitarian principles, for example, civilian casualties in war are justified in relation to the achievement of a ‘greater good’ through a proportionate and ‘just’ military campaign. But when civilians are killed through targeted attacks, or when people are raped or tortured, imprisoned without trial, discriminated against on the basis of inherent characteristics to serve no other purpose than the gratification of prejudice, these are instances that the human rights declaration outlaws, admitting no conditions or justifications.  Yet the UN frequently fails to act to prevent such offences, incurring moral guilt. This is to suppose that the UN is a moral entity; its endorsement of human rights can rest on no other ground.

Perhaps once the UN has set aside diplomatic objectives, and adjudicates with the full force of justice behind it, will its endeavours reap greater rewards, and flagrant human rights abuses will no longer be ignored, even by the institution created to prevent them.