This is an excerpt from the Lalith Athulathmudali Memorial Oration on the “Emerging Doctrine of Responsibility to protect” delivered by former High Commissioner of India to Sri Lanka and UN Advisor Nirupam Sen
I would deal first with the changing nature of the U.N. and then in that context examine how the U.N. reached a point, where in the phrase of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats - “the strange beast (the Responsibility to Protect) its hour come round at last/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.”
There are several ways of looking at the United Nations. I shall put before you a simple model, a model by a very famous thinker – Karl Marx. He famously said “in their daily actions men enter into relations that are independent of their will, relations of production which are shaped by certain forces of production and it is on these relations that a legal and political superstructure arises. Now with acknowledgment and more often without acknowledgment this has been used fruitfully for analysing societies, by sociologists, by political scientists and by historians. But I would like to apply this to the UN itself, because the UN after all is a legal and political superstructure.
The UN as a legal and political superstructure is shaped and it changes, in accordance with the forces around it - i.e. the relations of production, the economic forces and the political forces that they give birth to and are shaped by.
The economic structure of the time (1945) shaped not just the UN but also the institution that came up conterminously with the UN - The articles of IMF in 1994. It was at the time a very different institution; the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates; what was unorthodox earlier became orthodox. We realised that capital by its nature was volatile and led to currency volatility which damages trade flows—therefore we faced IMF capital controls. Similarly we had GATT the predecessor of the WTO – again very different, because GATT stopped at the border. There was no hassle beyond the border on poor countries in terms of policies, and yet trade increased. So in other words, these economic forces which shaped the U.N. and these institutions, created a U.N. that could do something. And the U.N. at that time certainly did great things. If you send a letter, you are sure that it will reach its destination anywhere in the world, and the reason for, that is that the UN set, up the International Postal Union. It also set up the International Civil Aviation Organisation, and the International Telecommunications Union. It halted epidemics; it worked for public health worldwide, it helped with issues like sustainability, desertification, and disarmament. One should remember the tremendous issues of the elimination of poverty, of debt relief, and international aid to developing countries, of compensatory financing, of supplementary financing, special drawing rights, stabilisation of commodities - these were all first debated in the U.N. The U.N. used its enormous convening power to debate and decide these issues and only then were they taken up by the Bretton Woods institutions. So this was the achievement of the time. At that time, the U.N. itself was staffed by extremely competent people from both the developed and developing world.
The United States simply did not use the United Nations at that time - it could not because of the forces I mentioned as an instrument of its own policy. Today you have something completely different.
If you read the book by John Bolton who was in my time, U.S. permanent representative in the days of George W. Bush - his book “Surrender is Not an Option” clearly mentions this in black and white, that the present Secretary General was appointed through a Sino-US conspiracy, because it was expected that he would carry out the U.S. agenda 100%.
At that time therefore, we were confronted with a very different UN. We ourselves, when we joined the Indian Foreign Service in 69 we entered into this “brave world”. The sun was soon to set but at least we were able to catch the last rays of the sun. The sun began setting actually from the 1970s. First the US economy slowed down, the fixed exchange rate system of the Bretton Woods institutions crumbled and it was the beginning of the end of the Bretton Woods system as it existed then. But fundamentally it was because of certain trends that were within the capitalist system worldwide itself. This was again anticipated by Marx with profound insight when he said the greatest barrier to capitalist production is capital itself, because ultimately it was found that with a monopoly capitalist economy and with oligopolistic pricing, there was no way of absorbing the surplus so the rates of profit began to fall. You didn’t have enough absorption capacity through public spending; you didn’t have enough through Military Keynesian ism (after all you couldn’t have a World War every few years) and you certainly had run out of steam in industry because after the great multiplier effect of the railways in the 19th century and the automobile industry in the 20th century, nothing came thereafter - the new Information Technology by its very nature cannot have that kind of multiplier effect. So you had all these investors going into the financial sector and that which Keynes had dreaded, came to pass. In other words he wanted ideas and trade to flow freely, but finance to be rational. However the worst came to pass and what happened was, enterprise became a bubble in a whirlpool of speculation. So the era of finance capital then began and with this we found that the world and the forces of production underwent a rapid change worldwide, because finance capital brooks no borders, respects no sovereignties or authorities. In the developed world they hesitated to apply Keynesian policies because there would be capital flight, depreciation of currency, unemployment, and so on. They also had to dismantle regulatory mechanisms because finance capital brooks no regulation- it spreads this myth that the market is self-adjusting in every way, and fully efficient. So once this happened, the Bretton Woods institutions and the WTO became completely transformed into the Storm Troopers of finance capital. You will find that in the case of the WTO, it comes and erodes sovereignty.
Subsidies to the poor had to go, taxes on the rich had to go, the entire structure within had to be changed because in the earlier paradigm of the original IMF and GATT under Keynesian inspiration, trade and finance were an adjunct to local domestic development but suddenly what we had was, domestic development become an adjunct to foreign trade and finance. So therefore we had a situation where GATT was replaced by WTO, tariffs were slashed in the developing world and ultimately we found that even medicines for instance in Africa were unaffordable even for epidemics, because you had trade related intellectual property rights. Similarly in the case of the IMF, you had the Structural Adjustment Programs, where liberalisation, privatisation and globalisationwere preached, as well as the reduction of subsidies, opening up to multinationals so that 10 corporations control 80% of your fertiliser market, 60% of your seed market. So under the impact of all this quite obviously, the vulnerable countries in the developing world fell back into civil war, to conflict. To tackle this situation two policies were used. The first solution is, when you can have a peace agreement, send in the peacekeepers, with the result that the peacekeeping budget of the United Nations becomes 3, 4, 5 times the normal budget. The, second solution is, since you cannot give them medicines to cure Malaria or a public health system, give them free mosquito nets.
Since you cannot give them the possibility of having industrial policy of raising tariffs, give them MDGs. Put them on a permanent dole which economists have correctly called ‘welfare colonialism’. So this is what the UN is doing. It is not able to intervene or speak or let alone do anything for any of the key economic issues of the time, because additionally what has happened is, that because of these processes in the developing world itself, new classes in many countries have been brought to power by the influx and process of finance capital. New classes who find it much easier to have a solidarity with financial elites in the developed world rather than with the poor of their own country. As Chinua Achebe a great Nigerian novelist put it, it is not just this trickle down second hand capitalism but this inability to establish links with the poor of the nation ... “with this bruised heart that is painfully at the core of the nation’s being”. So this was really what happened, and in addition to this is you had the disappearance and the collapse of the Soviet Union. So then there was absolutely no way that the U.N. was able to withstand these forces or to intervene or do anything about them.