One hilarious joke once circulating in Iraq referred to an imaginary “anti-concern” medicine named after former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, known as much for his diplomatic clichés voicing concern over the tragic events in the country while lacking in action to stop them.
The fictional drug came in 200 mg tablets in blister packs advertised mockingly on social media as being a way to calm and pacify people in a state of trauma in the dystopian world of conflict-torn Iraq that many Iraqis blamed on UN failures in their country.
Soon the fictional drug became a political metaphor for UN dysfunction in ending the civil wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen and its critical failures in addressing the Arab-Israeli conflict and the crises in Sudan, Lebanon and the Western Sahara.
Since 2003 when the United States invaded Iraq and triggered a geopolitical earthquake in the Middle East, more than a dozen UN envoys have tried to play the role of healer in the region’s civil wars, with none of them having any luck.
Whereas the Iraqis hoped the UN would stand by its mission of helping to turn Iraq into a functioning state following the US-led invasion in 2003, the organisation did little to create the conditions for that to happen.
Instead of taking radical action to turn Iraq’s fortunes around, UN leaders said much but did little to bring about much-needed change in Iraq.
The UN has been blamed for much of the impasse in Iraq over the last 17 years, primarily for its failure in state-rebuilding efforts and the rehabilitation of an Iraqi society wrecked by the US occupation, prolonged civil conflict and governmental dysfunction.
The UN Security Council authorised the creation of a UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) in 2003 that was expected to anchor support for the country’s political transition with the strategic objective of creating genuine democracy in Iraq.
But instead of seeing the “peaceful and prosperous future” the UN was tasked to help the Iraqis to achieve, Iraq today is one of the most miserable countries in the world to live in. Eight UN diplomats have headed UNAMI since its inception, but Iraqis remember nothing tangible of what they have delivered apart from empty rhetoric.
In the case of Syria, the UN has unequivocally failed in handling the conflict in which over half a million Syrians have been killed and over 11 million have been made either refugees or been internally displaced.
Over nearly ten years, the organisation has failed to take any meaningful action to prevent the conflict in the country spiralling into a full-scale civil war, with atrocities including murder, torture, rape and enforced disappearances becoming all too common.
Several UN special envoys to Syria have failed to put forward workable plans to stop the bloodshed in Syria and find a political solution that could end the conflict through a nationally accepted transition.
As the UN has remained largely on the sidelines, foreign players have stepped in to fill the vacuum, establishing cozy relations with various Syrian parties through supplies of money, food, weapons and personnel.
Nearly 10 years since its formation after the outbreak of civil war in Yemen, the UN mission to this country is also still an enigma, and the UN has been impotent as Yemen has slipped into a bloody civil war.
Around 10,000 civilians have been killed in the war and hundreds of thousands more have suffered from famine or poor health conditions, turning the country into the world’s largest humanitarian disaster.
In 2012, the UN secretary-general established the Office of the Special Envoy to the Secretary-General on Yemen to facilitate the country’s transition and provide support for national reconciliation.
But the three diplomats, Jamal Benomar, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed and Martin Griffiths, who have since worked as UN special envoy to Yemen have simply demonstrated the UN’s failure to fulfil its obligations to end the quagmire in the country.
In Libya, the UN has failed every step of the way since 2011 to broker a reconciliation agreement and end the civil war between rival factions in the country’s east and in the capital Tripoli.
In recent months, Libya has been plunged further into chaos, with the UN failing to name a new special envoy to replace Ghassan Salamé, a French-Lebanese diplomat who resigned in March after admitting he had made little progress in ending the hostilities.
Elsewhere in the Arab world, the UN has had a dangerous history of failing to uphold its responsibility in line with its Charter, whether in lending impetus to the search for political solutions or maintaining regional peace and stability.
More than 73 years after the UN Security Council Resolution to partition Palestine, the UN is still failing to uphold the inalienable rights of the Palestinians to self-determination and to have a homeland of their own.
To no one’s surprise, the UN has had no effect in deterring Israel from annexing the Palestinian land it occupied in wars, and it has failed to make sure that Israel faces the consequences.
At a time when the Middle East is threatened with the grave impacts of Israel’s plans to fully colonise Palestine, the UN has been failing to act collectively to stop the annexation, which is a flagrant violation of its Charter, dozens of UN Resolutions and international law.
Like his predecessor, current UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has expressed concern about Israel’s plans to impose its sovereignty over territories it has annexed in the West Bank, but he has stopped short of taking meaningful action to make Israel abandon its plans.
In Lebanon, where the UN has a resident coordinator designated to lead UN agencies in helping the beleaguered country solve its multiple crises, the UN has again failed its most important tests.
The UN cannot excuse itself for the decades of political turmoil, communal discord, foreign intervention, poor governance and chronic corruption that have led Lebanon to the verge of collapse.
Under various resolutions, the UN was committed to help Lebanon withstand regional challenges and ensure its ability to address the growing security, economic, social and humanitarian challenges facing the country.
Yet, as Lebanon faces the prospects of bankruptcy, famine and political chaos as never before, the UN seems to care less about helping Lebanon through such crises than about policing the border with Israel.
In Sudan, the UN has undertaken to assist the political transition worked out between Sudan’s military and civilian opposition alliance through the 2019 landmark power-sharing deal.
But it remains to be seen how the UN will help Sudan to make progress towards democratic governance, sustainable peace and the protection and promotion of human rights.
The more than half-century-old dispute that pits Morocco against the Algeria-backed insurgent group the Polisario Front in the Western Sahara has also eluded attempts by the UN at conflict-resolution.
The UN has foundered in its efforts to reach a lasting deal over a territory that Morocco has declared to be historically part of the North African kingdom, risking pushing the region into more prolonged conflict.
The UN has stalled in many other parts of the world with catastrophic consequences in such places as Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and Myanmar, but its failings in the Arab world have been even wider.
As the turmoil in many Arab countries goes from bad to worse with more negative outcomes certainly to come, nothing can symbolise the failure of the UN system to achieve its goal of maintaining international peace and security more than its failures in the Arab world.
Across the region, countries that emerged from two devastating world wars, colonial scheming and fierce struggles for independence are unravelling while the region as a whole is facing Balkanisation.
While failures of state and nation-building, along with policy choices in many Arab countries and regional dynamics, may be blamed for much of the impasse, the situation can also be attributed to the paralysis of the UN system and the organisation’s lack of resolve in protecting the regional order and standing up to the political agendas of the great powers.
Today, in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen, UN missions are mostly guided or influenced by the policy directions of the veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council, impacting their effectiveness.
Supporters of the UN have long argued that the organisation is no more than the sum of its parts and that it can do no more than what its most powerful members allow it to do.
What these advocates of the UN role fail to admit is that by being subservient to its most powerful members, the organisation is becoming a club of the few, with their decisions likely to determine the UN agenda.
The UN’s operations in the four Arab countries reviewed above have often been disastrous, and the organisation has failed to stand up for its duties and prevent local crises turning into an international match manipulated by the geopolitical ambitions of members of the UN Security Council.
But turning a blind eye to the heavy involvement of the major powers in the conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen will not only render UN missions ineffective, but could also make the UN itself complicit in the evil schemes to remake the region.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly