The value of the United Nations is often a topic of debate. This intergovernmental organization established almost 70 years ago comprises 193 countries, but has reached a stage where some question its usefulness in the 21st century.
While its primary goal is to maintain international peace and security, promote human rights and provide humanitarian aid, the veto power of the Security Council has sometimes paralyzed the UN's effectiveness relating to its first core principles of maintaining peace and security.
Detractors of the UN will point to its failures: The 1995 Srebrenica Massacre; the inaction regarding the situation in Darfur in 2003; the 1994 Rwandan genocide; and, most recently, the veto by China and Russia to prevent international intervention against Syria to end the civilian massacre in that country. These are valid examples that lead to the question of the UN's effectiveness and usefulness in the current global climate. But when the United Nations concentrates on its humanitarian goals, its current 16 peacekeeping missions worldwide, its leadership in its fight against HIV/Aids and its continued efforts to monitor and supervise free and fair elections, these are examples of the United Nations at its best.
Last week, two major reports were released by the United Nations giving the international community a serious look at the horrors of the North Korean regime in one instance and the secrecy, intransigence and continued human rights abuses of the Sri Lankan regime in relation to the tens of thousands dead or disappeared in the other.
Justice Michael Kirby, former high court judge of Australia, chaired a UN Commission of Inquiry into the situation in North Korea. His 400 page report, which included testimony by more than 300 witnesses, not only confirmed what the international community suspected in relation to the dire conditions of the North Korean population, but brought forward stories more horrific than the human mind can imagine. Firsthand accounts of extermination, enslavement, torture, rape and starvation are the norm for the North Korean regime. The challenge now is to act. The international community can no longer pretend it does not know. And a further challenge is to put serious pressure on Beijing, North Korea's trading partner and abettor, to refrain from using its Security Council veto. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed on the North Korea report, political economist Nicholas Eberstadt writes: "… Challenge China to veto the referral for crimes against humanity on the U.N. Security Council, and let Beijing go on record defending state-sponsored mass murder. Make the Chinese veto it 20 times if they dare."
The second report was authored by Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on promoting reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka. At the end of the Sri Lankan conflict in 2009, there were allegations of civilian massacres inside a no-fire-zone and the current numbers of dead and/or disappeared are in the tens of thousands five years after the end of the conflict. Since that time, thousands of displaced persons continue to live in camps without running water or electricity, minority Muslims are attacked and businesses destroyed, Christian churches have been vandalized and thousands of people continue to plead for information on the whereabouts of their family members and loved ones. Journalists, lawyers, NGO workers and civil rights advocates live in fear and suffer continued harassment and, in some cases, disappear having been "white-vanned".
At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting held in Sri Lanka this past November, British Prime Minister David Cameron visited the northern province of Jaffna and was besieged with hundreds of notes and photographs begging for his assistance in finding the missing. Ms. Pillay has called for an international inquiry into the war crimes committed by both sides in the Sri Lanka civil war because the current government has failed to do any credible investigation based on its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission document. She concluded that Sri Lanka's consistent failure to establish the truth and achieve justice is fundamentally a question of political will.
Both of these reports highlight the United Nations at its best – the ability to seek the truth, hold governments to account and push the international community toward the action human beings deserve when unable to fight for themselves. To quote Mr. Kirby: "Too many times in this building there are reports and no action. Well, now is a time for action. We can't say we didn't know." In both these cases – we now know. And from an international organization highly respected for its protection of and struggle for human rights, we expect action.
Senator Hugh Segal (Conservative-Ontario) is Canada's Special Envoy to the Commonwealth.