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John Baird addresses the 67th United Nations General Assembly in New York on Oct. 1, 2012.

LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS

John Baird demonstrated Monday that he doesn't understand what the United Nations is, how it operates, his own allies' efforts to improve it or its potential for helping his government achieve its goals.

Speaking to the UN General Assembly, Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister chided the world organization for failing to impose mandatory sanctions against Syria. "Many people of the world, including many of the citizens we represent, cannot understand why this organization – despite the sound and fury of debate in this great assembly – has been unable to make concrete steps," he said.

Many people also might note that the assembly Mr. Baird was addressing has no power to impose sanctions. But that may be too fine a distinction for the minister, especially since he confesses a lack of interest in how the UN goes about its business. Canada, he said, "will devote its primary attention to what the United Nations is achieving, not how the UN arranges its own affairs."

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Maybe we should be touched by Mr. Baird's honesty. But maybe we should ask ourselves why he would conflate key UN bodies and roles, miss the mark in assigning blame and dismiss the idea of fixing an institution to which, as he proudly stated, Canada is the seventh-largest financial contributor.

The General Assembly has never stopped and never will stop a war – civil or otherwise, in Syria or elsewhere. It is, however, the only permanent forum in which a representative of any of the world's sovereign nations can air grievances and propose solutions to problems.

To be sure, proceedings are usually dull, sometimes histrionic and occasionally farcical. But that's the price of having a place where a country whose global diplomatic reach is finite (Canada, anyone?) can be assured of finding someone from another country when it needs to raise a pressing issue.

Far more significant are the dozens of UN agencies that feed children, house refugees, educate women, co-ordinate everything from weather observation to shipping registration and collect data that help us understand our world – all at a cost of billions of dollars every year.

Who would want the UN to operate without rigorous oversight? Certainly not Mr. Baird's friends in Washington. The United States has pushed for two decades to expand internal economy and efficiency initiatives at the UN, sometimes withholding dues payments to make its points. Canada backed most of this agenda – but apparently it was all a waste of time. "If the UN focuses on the achievement of goals," Mr. Baird said, "… reform will take care of itself."

Now to Syria and its raging civil war. The "concrete steps" Mr. Baird demands would have to be taken by the Security Council, which can – and sometimes does – authorize the use of force to meet threats to global peace and security.

But the council is dominated by those five permanent members – the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France. When their interests are generally aligned, they act in concert. When they aren't, they don't – and because of the veto, nothing happens.

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In the case of Syria, the lines are plainly drawn. It is the leaders of Russia and China who have stymied intervention against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. It is they who bear responsibility for this, not some obscure rectangle on the UN's org chart.

Too many people speak of the UN (for Mr. Baird it was "this organization") as if it were a single, independent entity, capable of acting autonomously and decisively to change the course of history. In practice, it is highly decentralized and often hobbled by the interests of the most dominant members. Pointing fingers at an abstraction called "the UN" lets those who have the power to act and do not, or who act unwisely or maliciously, off the hook.

None of this is hard to understand, really. Mr. Baird should give it a try.

Former Globe and Mail correspondent Paul Knox reported frequently on the United Nations from 1995 to 2003. He teaches in the School of Journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto.

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