Maria Prosviryakova's Blog

Politicization of the United Nations: the Human Cost

30 сентября 2012


The goal of “saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war” professed by the international community in the United Nations Charter quite often collides with the real resources and risks that UN Member States are willing to commit to achieve it. The horrifying levels of human suffering experienced in Somalia, Rwanda and now Syria are just some of examples of the UN’s failure to comply with its founding goal of protecting civilians from mass atrocities and violence. 


The universalization of human rights and the rights of nations for political self-determination led to a global political awakening, which in turn led to a noticeable increase in political instability in the world; and thus, the need for peace enforcement and peacekeeping. After the Cold war the number of UN peacekeepers rocketed from approximately 11,000 in 1991 to roughly 118, 500 in 2012. The nature of conflicts transformed from inter-State conflicts to civil wars and conflicts within the one state. More often than not peaceful means of conflict resolution don’t prove to be effective in ending human suffering, and it is at this point that the international community is left with the option of undertaking military intervention.


But any foreign interference in domestic affairs raises many moral dilemmas.  One the one hand we have state sovereignty and non-interference in domestic affairs of any state. The UN Charter states that “the Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members and that nothing contained in the UN Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state”.


On the other hand national sovereignty can never be used as a shield for genocide or gross violations of human rights. It is on this side of the argument that we face the moral responsibility of protecting fellow men from the scourge of war.  It does not help that the rules of when it is permissible to intervene and how this should be done are not yet clearly defined in international law.  


So questions arise. How do we know that military intervention is necessary in a given case? What must the death toll rise to in a conflict before the international community decides that they must intervene? Why is it that we chose the course of intervention in the case Libya, but weren’t effectively able to do so in cases like Rwanda, Bosnia and Syria? How do we guarantee that a decision to intervene is a just one – that the objective does not lead to the use of intervention to further the selfish political agendas of some state? How can we be sure that intervening will bring more good than harm? And finally, who should have the right to authorize military interventions?


How is it that we have a case like the Rwandan genocide with 800, 000 victims and the UN failing to act decisively? Here, the UN mandate in Rwanda was restricted to mainly observing, monitoring and ensuring that both parties to the conflict take measures to insure the safety of civilians. A massive military intervention was needed to halt atrocities, but the Security Council and Member States were incapable of responding to the realities on the ground.


In contrast, we also have a case like Libya with 1,000-3,000 casualties and the Coalition forces intervening in the country within 3 days of adoption of resolution 1973. In this resolution the UN Security Council condemned war crimes and crimes against humanity in that country and authorized all necessary measures to protect civilians.  


Thus, enshrined in the concept of responsibility to protect case by case basis of making decision on conducting military interventions encourages politicization and selective approach to conflicts.



The United Nations’ primary purpose is to serve the peoples of the world, and not to be a tool through which governments further their national interests. Decisions on military interventions made by the international community have always varied on a case by case basis. More often than not the decision on sending troops to a conflict-torn foreign country depended on whether that particular government had some strategic or/and geopolitical interest in the country or region requiring intervention. The clear mechanisms and criteria on military interventions set forth in international law would likely partially solve some problems of politicization of the Security Council and selective approaches to conflicts.


As the former Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated in his recent book on interventions: “If the United Nations truly wants to reflect a humanity that cared more, not less, for the suffering in its midst, and would do more, and not less, to end it, the organization had to be an agent of intervention in every sphere of human security”.



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