Dysfunction at the UN: The Saudis aren’t the only ones to blame

This article was originally published on May 3, 2017 in Ricochet.


The UN has once again managed to dumbfound the world: last week the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was elected to the organization’s Commission on the Status of Women.  In Canada, Conservative MP Michelle Rempel led the parade of outraged politicians – and rightfully so.  With its laws circumscribing the rights of its women, Saudi Arabia is in no position to lead a UN organization “dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women.”

The rights of Saudi women are inevitably subordinated to the men in their lives.  Among other things, Saudi men have dominant rights in regards to marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance.  Under Saudi Arabia’s guardianship laws, women cannot seek higher education, take a job or travel without permission from their male guardian.  Read Ensaf Haidar’s biography Raif Badawi, The Voice of Freedom for a vivid example of how such laws engender hopelessness, depression and fear among the Kingdom’s women.  Suffice it to say that Saudi Arabia is not in a position to promote women’s rights or shape global standards on gender equality, as the Commission intends.


“The UN is a horribly inefficient organization, full of incompetence and waste,” said a friend of mine soon after she had spent two years working for a UN organization in the Middle East.  “But look around,” she continued, “It’s only a reflection of the world itself.”  To her point, we can hardly expect the UN to create efficiency and logic out of the morass of conflict and dysfunction that is our world. 

One must think of the UN as being a bit like a condominium association.  We’re all thrown together randomly, each with our unique quirks and habits.  Some condo owners do their best to contribute: they join the board, attend the meetings, make reasonable recommendations, and listen to the opinions of others.  Other condo owners only seem interested in gaming the system: they park in the visitor parking spaces, they default on their association fees, they spurn the association meetings, but then criticize every decision that is taken.  Over time, we grow fond of some neighbours, and wary of others.

But in the UN, who is who?  As Canadians, we rightly ridicule the election of Saudi Arabia to a commission for women.  But somehow we find it perfectly natural that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council also happen to be the five largest international arms exporters.  Can’t the Saudis and other nations legitimately ridicule the West for this hypocrisy, given that the Security Council’s mandate is to maintain peace? 

In June 2016, Israel was elected to chair the UN’s Legal Committee, a body mandated to develop and codify international law.  Yet Israel is repeatedly censured for its ongoing violations international law, as recently demonstrated by the Security Council’s December vote condemning Israel’s illegal settlements.  In fact, Israel is a repeat offender in terms of international law and human rights as a 2004 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice demonstrated.  Not surprisingly, this particular UN decision was considered shocking in many Middle Eastern countries at the time.  Yet neither Michelle Rempel nor any of the Liberals protested that decision.  So clearly Canadians’ outrage on these issues is selective.

Although the vote for the UN Commission on the Status of Women was done by secret ballot, some astute observers were able to conclusively determine that several Western European nations must have supported Saudi Arabia’s bid for a seat on the Commission.  Yet this should come as no surprise either: votes and favours are regularly traded among UN member states as each plays the system to its own purpose.  Indeed, even the Harper government played the game during its futile attempt to win a seat on the Security Council in 2010. 

Like our struggling condo association, there are very few model citizens at the UN.  And sadly, Canada is not one of them.  To cite a few depressing examples, just last October, Canadajoined a minority at the UN which voted against a mechanism to negotiate the elimination of nuclear weapons.  Before that, the Harper government declined to sign the UN-sponsored Arms Trade Treaty, becoming the only one of its G7 and NATO allies to refuse to do so. 

If Canadians and other Westerners really want the UN to stop making decisions which defy all logic, then they’ve got to demand that their own governments become more exemplary UN members.  The only way to end the dysfunction in the UN is for Western nations to first stop gaming the system to their own advantage.  Otherwise, the UN is condemned to function no better than our hopeless condo association.


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