Today is the anniversary of my father’s birth in 1914 and it is hard not to think about what he would have made of current controversies.
He was Ambassador to the UN in both Geneva and New York, so I’m thinking especially of the Trump inspired gangup we’re about to witness. He served in Geneva from 1962 to 1967, and in New York from 1972 to 1976. It was there that he suffered a series of small strokes that left him quite debilitated for the rest of his life.
His career at the UN began in earnest in 1952 when he served as Lester Pearson’s Executive Assistant when Mr Pearson was President of the UN General Assembly. He was fully aware of the weaknesses and vulnerabilities, its cumbersome bureaucracies, the way political partisanship and croneyism marred its appointment processes, the cant and propaganda in so much of the rhetoric. He was in no way an ideologue, and he had an instinctive dislike for those would use the “UN” as a whipping boy. He would point out the extraordinary range of humanitarian and peacekeeping activities that made such a difference in the lives of millions of people. That is even more true today as a new Secretary General takes office. A former High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Gutieres knows instinctively these strengths and weaknesses of the organization he is about to lead.
As we enter another time when US political forces will be lining up to enforce budget cuts and take a run at the institution, it is important to contrast with previous episodes. In 1975 the UN General Assembly welcomed Yasir Arafat to its podium and passed a resolution describing “Zionism” as a form of racism. The response from then US was instantaneous. Its contributions to the UN were slashed, and it was many years before they were restored.
There are many who are now quick to draw a direct parallel between that resolution (which was eventually changed)and the recent Security Council resolution on which the US abstained and all the other members supported.
There is more than a little irony that this most recent resolution will be linked to the name of John Kerry even though the US did not vote in favour of the resolution. Kerry’s speech was a long and thorough defence of the two state solution. Its great flaw was that in pointing out the deep and inevitable risks in the current Israeli government’s policies on settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem it seemed to imply that this policy was the principle obstacle to peace and a settlement of all issues between the Palestinians and the Israelis. That is self evidently not true. It ignores the deep divisions within the Palestinian political community, and in particular completely ignores the fact that Hamas has a political charter that calls for the destruction of Israel and draws on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion – one of the great anti Semitic hoaxes of all time – for its inspiration. Hamas controls Gaza and has strong support in the West Bank. Are they ready to make peace ?
Yet it is a mistake to compare the 1970’s resolution to the latest Security Council document, which is simply a reiteration of the broad consensus in the international community about what needs to happen. No one should be shocked at the descriptions of 1967 construction beyond the “Green Line” as “illegal”. Everyone knows what is illegal can become legal when a settlement is finally reached.
Blaming “the UN” for political resolutions misses the point that it is the individual countries that vote. Blame the UN for its organizational weaknesses, corruptions, and mistakes. Blame something different – like “the world” – for resolutions, speeches, and abject failures like the tragedies of Iraq, Syria, and the inability to resolve the Arab Israeli dispute. “The fault dear Brutus is not in our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings”.
We live in tempestuous times, but so did my dad. Stay positive, listen, and when things are toughest see the humour and irony in all things, taking issues seriously but not ourselves. That’s what he said, and what he did.