Developpement et Civilisations, March 2011, n°392
"Development and Civilisations" n°392 March 2011: The Power of Ideas, is now available in English.
These excerpts from the book "L’ONU pour les Nuls" (The UN for Dummies)" illustrate the slow maturation of ideas which have led to the creation of the UN and describes three ideas that it got adopted by the international community: human rights, the responsability to protect and the end of impunity for leaders. These ideas become powerful and imposing when the people make them theirs; the revolts for human rights which shake today North Africa and the Middle East are witness to this.
by Eric Sottas
The UN: Between world government and international governance
The intervention in Libya and the French action in Côte d’Ivoire, under the aegis of the United Nations, is dividing public opinion. For some, the UN is going beyond its functions, whereas others plead for the reinforcement of its competence.
Today, international politics must respond to two necessities: to regulate an uncontrolled globalization which destabilizes fragile states and to endow different local communities with authentic decision-making power.
Is the UN able to take up such a challenge? Charged with maintaining peace, it was not able to prevent the atrocious Congolese conflict nor the genocides in Rwanda or Burundi nor the massacres in Kampuchea. On the economic sphere, the regulation of raw material prices, the stabilization of trade exchanges, the appropriateness of production to basic needs, the control of a destructive industrialization of non-renewable energy, count among the many undertakings still left open.
However, and Yves Berthelot’s book illustrates this in a convincing way, the UN has been the melting pot of reflections and policies that have fundamentally changed the concept of living-together, not only among leaders, but – and this is the most important – in the understanding that the people have of it.
Without the UN, neither democracy nor the entirety of human rights, its corollary, would have been able to acquire universal recognition. While the UN has the means to define a world political system, it cannot insure its full application. International governance, by entrusting to each state the task of implementing the agreed principles, limits the organization’s efficiency in the name of the sovereignty of states. The solution lies in strengthening the system, not in weakening it.
by Yves Berthlot
Philosophers and thinkers were able to make the ideas evolve around two central issues: the definition of rules for rendering war more human and the law as basis for international relations, law which, certain consider, cannot be respected but by democratic states.
Civilizing war: from Augustin to the Geneva Conventions
In the same lines as those who, with Augustin then Thomas Aquinas and scholasticism, have sought to regulate the use of force and subdue belligerents to the laws, Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) laid down humanization principles for armed conflicts and defined a body of restrictive norms to limit violence. He even drafted a status for prisoners of war, objecting to all right to make them slaves or to kill hostages.
A century later, the Swiss legal expert, Emer de Vattel, in The Law of Nations, or, Principles of the Law of Nature, Applied to the Conduct and Affairs of Nations and Sovereigns, introduced a fundamental distinction between “legitimate and formal warfare“ and “illegitimate or informal wars, or rather predatory expeditions”. This distinction allowed him to attribute rights to the enemies, whether combatants or civil populations. As much as enemy soldiers and peoples need to be respected, bandits could be treated as such. This distinction was used by the United States after September 11th, 2001, so as not to apply the right of war to terrorists and those suspected of being so.(4)
Another century later, and wars became even bloodier. On June 24th, 1859, Henri Dunant, a Genevan businessman, was travelling in northern Italy when French and Austrian troops confronted each other in Solferino. Horrified to see the dead and wounded abandoned on the battlefield, he mobilised people from neighbouring villages to rescue the wounded without distinction of nationality. “Tutti fratelli”, “all brothers”, said the women. He campaigned so that in all countries, humanitarian organizations, founded on neutrality and voluntary service, may be authorized to care for the wounded in the event of war.
This would become the national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Law rather than war, or the origins of the UN
Many of the UN’s founding ideas were born in Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries, under the primary impetus of the prestigious – at the time - School of Salamanca, though there had been precursors in Mali and in Syria(5).
The idea of an international community…
The great thinkers of the School of Salamanca, in the field of the law of states and of international law, are the Dominican priest Francisco de Vitoria (1483-1546) and the Jesuit priest Francisco Suarez (1548-1617) who put an end to the medieval conception of the law and whose ideas contributed to reducing the political power of the Church on the State.
For them, natural law, a set of general principles that are universally applicable, are not revealed but are the fruit of reason. The natural rights of man are the right to life, to freedom of thought, to dignity; men are equal before the law and have the right to dignity. In the economic sphere, man has the right to property and the School decided that enrichment through commerce was not a sin.
For Suarez, as for Vitoria, the state is a “perfect community“ which is characterized by its territory, its population, its organization and its government. The state needs an authority and it is the people of the community who, by a voluntary act, determine to whom it should be attributed. The state is geographically, politically and juridically independent, but this independence is not absolute, for it is limited by the necessity of respecting the natural law and by the existence of other states. For Vitoria, there is an international community, for at least two reasons that a state cannot be self-sufficient and that trade exchanges are necessary. The states that make up this community are free to create rules that constitute international law provided that they respect the natural law.
…and of an international organization
Emeric Crucé invited Christians, Jews, Muslims and all others to join forces, without religious or political exclusion, in an effort for peace(6). A permanent Assembly of Nations should assemble in Venice representatives of all kings and emperors, including those of India and Africa. In Venice, because Venice was in liaison with the entire world, by land and by sea. In the hierarchy of the Assembly, the Sultan of the Turks came in second position, after the Pope, but before the Emperor of Austria and the king of France. Crucé saw in trade an instrument of peace, trade that he wanted free and without restriction. This vision would not hold the attention of the sovereigns of that time. It anticipated, however, the League of Nations (LON) and the UN, and the free trade that Crucé advocated is, today, the objective of the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Emmanuel Kant formulated some precepts which are those of the UN, today, after having been those of the LON.
No independent state can be conquered.
It is possible to intervene in another state if it sinks into anarchy.
Peace requires a federation of free states submitted to legal obligations.
In other words, Kant did not consider the possibility of a supranational government due to the diversity of peoples. However, for the states to submit to international laws, he saw one condition, that the constitution of the states be republican, and he foresaw only one force: that of reason.
“Civil society” joins in
After the Napoleonic wars, peace societies were created here and there in Europe, inspired by religious, moral or social concerns. They worked for the bridging of peoples and the establishment of permanent peace and, more concretely, for the regulation of conflicts through arbitrative procedures and through mediation. They would organize a series of conferences which, while not necessarily pushing governments to take concrete measures, would contribute to forming public opinion.
In 1915, as the war raged, 1,496 women from enemy countries gathered in congress at the Hague. They set the ground for the reorganization of the post-war world. Their programme provided for the creation of a League of Nations and, as soon as the congress ended, delegations left to present the Programme to the governments of Europe and that of the U.S. Wilson would draw inspiration from it for his 14 points(7). In 1919, the International Committee of Women for Permanent Peace transformed into the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, with headquarters in Geneva. This NGO, which is still very active, would influence the work of the LON, and those of the UN. Its founder, Jane Addams, and two of her successors each received the Nobel Peace Prize.
The LON would be created in 1919 and the UN in 1945.
Three ideas developed in the UN
The influence of the UN comes, not from particularly original ideas that it would have conceived, but from its know-how in organizing meetings where these ideas are expressed, debated and developed, and from the way that they are disseminated and finally accepted. The UN is a sounding board where ideas that respond to people’s needs or aspirations end up being heard. Once accepted, these ideas can become recognized principles or serve as basis for recommendations or international agreements that will assure their implementation.
Human rights in the Charter
Human rights could have not been included in the United Nations Charter. In fact, the Charter draft, drawn up in Dumbarton Oaks(8) in 1944, makes only one very general reference of it, indicating that the new world organization should “achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms…”
The Big Three: the United States, the USSR and the United Kingdom, which were behind the text drafted in Dumbarton Oaks, did not really want the institution that they were shaping to hold the responsibility of making the respect of human rights obligatory. Roosevelt, Stalin, Churchill, each respectively thought of the Black minority, which did not have the right to vote at that time, of the gulags and of the colonies under the British Crown. France, which was not invited to Dumbarton Oaks, would have had the same reservations because of its colonies. The NGOs and human rights activists cried treason and started a campaign against the whole Charter project. The Department of State, worried that this campaign would incite Congress to keep the U.S. out of the United Nations as it had done for the LON, approached NGOs to bring them to transform the campaign against the Charter project into a campaign for the inclusion of human rights. This campaign spread out in the United States and in Latin America. The NGOs were invited to San Francisco.
The Charter affirms the principles of people’s right to self-determination, the respect “for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”. The United Nations members pledged to achieve these goals “to act, as a body or separately, in cooperation with the organization”.
In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed, with its provisions to be rendered obligatory in 1966 by the adoption of the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In 2011, the Arab revolts would be fought in the name of human rights.
From the right to interfere to the responsibility to protect
The security of individuals would require making peace and bringing help to victims if conflicts took place or if natural disasters occurred. Security of nations and security of individuals coincided and the guarantors of this security were the states. However, many current conflicts are conflicts which are internal to a country. The victims are hostages of the parties in conflict and it is difficult, or even impossible, to come to their rescue.
The emotion and indignation after the massacres in Rwanda in 1994 and those of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995 have made things move. The impotence of the UN and the inactivity of “the international community“ were stigmatized, which brought Kofi Annan, in 1998, to pose the question of whether the international community should intervene to stop massive and systematic violations of human rights in a country. This question, to which each one instinctively replied “yes”, raises the issue of the sacrosanct sovereignty of states, specified in the these terms in Article 2, par. 7 of the Charter: “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state…”
The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, an ad hoc commission established by the Canadian government in September 2000 to help respond to the question, broke new ground on the absolute sovereignty of the states, by creating the principle of “responsibility to protect.” According to this principle, the sovereign states have the obligation to protect their own citizens against avoidable disasters; but, if they refuse or are incapable of doing so, this responsibility shall fall on the international community.
In stressing the rights of victims and not those of states, as done by the organization Médecins sans frontières (Doctors without borders) with the so-called right to interfere, the Commission skilfully avoided having to openly put to question the sovereignty of the states. The “responsibility to protect“ (called R2P) was upheld by the 2005 World Summit of heads of states.
The Summit reaffirmed that states have the primary responsibility to protect their population from genocide, from war crimes, from “ethnic cleansing” and from crimes against humanity and encouraged the international community to provide its aid for this end, to countries who have need of it. Most of all, despite the reluctance of the United States and the Non-Aligned Movement, the member states pledged to intervene by employing all the means provided for in Chapters VI and VII of the Charter, including the use of force, if the authorities of a country fail in protecting their people from these crimes. These interventions are of course decided case by case, by the Security Council, and may be executed in cooperation with competent regional organizations.
The end of impunity for leaders
The idea of creating an International Criminal Court to pursue perpetrators of crimes against humanity was envisaged at the same time that the Convention on genocide was adopted in 1948, in the wake of the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials. The Cold War had prevented the realization of such efforts, although the United States supported them. Subsequently, there were always good reasons not to come back at it, but, after the massacres in Cambodia, in Yugoslavia and in Rwanda, the issue was once more taken up. Governments from the North and the South allied together, competent and motivated human rights NGOs supported them. A conference of plenipotentiaries assembled in Rome in July 1998 and adopted the Rome Statute, legally establishing the International Criminal Court. The Court became functional in 2002 after a sufficient number of states had ratified the treaty.
The Court has jurisdiction over war crimes, that is to say for grave violations of the Geneva Conventions, for crimes against humanity, meaning for crimes committed against populations, the extreme form of which is genocide. It has no jurisdiction over acts of terrorism. It judges individuals, not states. To this day, three big countries are not party to the Rome Statute: China, India and the United States. This latter country signed the treaty in 1998 and, amazingly, President Bush revoked this signature in 2002; Israel did the same.
The list of countries which have ratified the Rome Statute is important, for the Court has jurisdiction only if one of the three conditions is fulfilled:
the accused is a national of a State Party to the treaty or which recognizes the jurisdiction of the Court in the particular case;
the crime was committed in a country that is party to the treaty or that recognizes the Court’s jurisdiction in the particular case;
the Court has been called upon by the Security Council.
The Court is not a part of the United Nations family. However, before its creation, International Criminal Tribunals had been established by the Security Council in observance of Chapter VII of the Charter, which deals with the means of imposing peace, to pursue persons responsible for the crimes committed in Yugoslavia and Rwanda. These two tribunals are subsidiary organs of the Council, the first is established in the Hague, the second in Arusha (Tanzania). The Special Court for Sierra Leone resulted from an agreement between this country and the UN. It applies the laws of the land, is based in Freetown, but it is the Secretary-General who appoints the procurator and the court clerk.
The fact that political, administrative and military leaders can be legally judged by independent tribunals for crimes committed in the exercise of their functions is a great progress.
However, the principle of subsidiarity, clearly established in the framework of the International Criminal Court and for ad hoc tribunals, results in that the principal actors are judged by the International Criminal Court or the ad hoc bodies, while the executors are under the jurisdiction of the national or even the traditional justice system. The paradox is that the first are assured a more equitable and less expeditious justice than the second.
These last months in Africa, violence against civil populations, in the Maghreb and Machrek, show that the principles and rules accepted in the UN are often violated as soon as they obstruct the interests of those who hold power; at the same time, it shows that human rights have so much seeped in people’s minds that they underlie people’s demands and become a central factor in the process of reconciliation. The responsibility to protect has started to be applied, which one should be happy about. It has also been shown as extremely difficult to execute, thus the necessity to reflect on the modalities and criteria required, to avoid being accused of double standards depending on the political or economic interests of the country concerned.
Selection of excerpts and comments by Yves Berthelot
The emblem of the United Nations is directly derived from that which was designed for the San Francisco conference, where the United Nations Charter was negotiated and signed. On a grey-blue background, two golden olive branches surround a white world map on which the five continents are projected from the North Pole. The symbols are clear: “The olive branches symbolize peace; all nations are united on the globe; the blue, colour of sky and sea, evokes peace and tranquillity.” The General Assembly ratified the emblem in December 1946. In 1947, as proposed by the Secretary-General, a flag was adopted, where the olive branches and the continents come out in white on a pale blue background. The most symbolic decision was, in 1947, to turn the globe by a quarter so that, it is said, the United States would cease to occupy the central point on the flag. _Excerpts taken from L’ONU pour les Nuls, p.68
Yves Berthelot makes a very timely reminder that a long progression of ideas finally led to the creation of the UN and the adoption by the international community of three founding ideas: human rights, the responsibility to protect and the end of impunity of leaders. Very recent events, the impact of which we cannot yet measure, can make us understand the significance, more than symbolical, of the implementation of these three powerful ideas.
Among these events, those that have brought bloodshed in Côte d’Ivoire for four months now, after a chronic instability of more than ten years, justify the Security Council’s move, as based on resolution 1975 which:
This resolution executes the UN’s means, be they military, to support peace and democracy in Côte d’Ivoire. Its objective is really to protect the population. On this subject, the UN specifies that all those who perpetrate massacres and other acts of massive violence against disarmed civilian populations will be pursued, irrespective of their political adherence. All these measures have allowed the silencing of arms of the two protagonists and the elected president’s effective taking of office.
The task of reactivating economic initiatives still remains, paralyzed for several months, and especially of assuring national reconciliation. For this, the elected president has committed himself to forming a government of national unity and to creating a Truth and Reconciliation Commission similar to that of South Africa after the apartheid.
This successful implementation of Resolution 1975 was especially important since the year 2011 would see many African countries go to the polls: it is a caution for those who might be tempted not to respect the fundamental principles of the rule of law.
Former director of President Senghor’s Cabinet, former Senegalese
Member of Parliament
by Jorge Balbis
It is evident that, throughout history, the recognition of peoples’ rights has taken the long road, marked by advances and declines, by successes and failures, by accelerations and periods of stagnation. Despite this, there are still many things to do to assure the validity of these rights, their expansion and their respect, in particular by the states which are the principal guarantors in the current international system.
In this sense, the text of Yves Berthelot and Jean-Michel Jakobowicz underlines the role played by the United Nations in particular, but also by peoples, to push forward international rights and institutions in the “right” direction, that is to say towards a world that is more human and more just, by going beyond the intentions and/or the interests of states. They mention in their texts several examples of the identifiable link between the initiatives of diverse groups (committees, NGOs, associations of religious or moral inspiration, etc.) and the progress on the international level in matters of recognition and protection of fundamental human rights.
Without any doubt, and despite the confirmed limits that need to be taken into consideration rapidly, the fruit of these advances is that humanity has progressed in the course of these last centuries towards the construction of an international community based on the recognition of the natural equality of human beings, which respects and defends their fundamental rights and pursues the most flagrant violations, especially those perpetrated by the states. And it is especially in this sense that the United Nations system has played a vital role.
However, here are some reflections around two or three striking points concerning the role of the United Nations system and of civil society.
Firstly, the following observation leaves us with a bitter taste: a large part of these advances took form following terrible tragedies and losses of human lives. The United Nations itself or the different international legal processes, one of which is the International Criminal Court (having limited scope however) were created only after the horror – and the impact it had on consciences – of killings and of unheard of crimes committed by certain states at different points in history (WWII, Rwanda, Cambodia, ex-Yugoslavia, to mention some of the examples cited by the authors). And even then, the advances produced following these veritable human tragedies have most often been limited or conditioned in the name of national interests, by players who had negotiated agreements and solutions much less ambitiously than would have demanded a basic sense of justice and of humanity.
Secondly, attention can be called to the fact that it is not enough for the United Nations to be a “sounding board where ideas that respond to human needs or aspirations end up being heard,” as the authors affirm. From our perspective, if it is necessary and indispensable that the institution continues to play this role, it is proven to be insufficient obviously for many reasons.
First of all because it is not enough that the UN plays “local fire-brigade“ and puts out the fire provoked by disasters whose perpetrators are often its own members. Then, the impotence, or rather the incapacity to act in a rapid and effective way which the Organization often shows faced with such situations, is not to its favour. Lastly, and this is even worse, many of its members use the institution in an egoistic way, calling on it when they have need of it or when it does not disturb them, and ignoring it if its principles and rules are in contradiction with their objectives. That boils down to discrediting it and weakening its recognition as an international political arena of excellence, where conflicts are discussed and solved, where grave violations against the rights of peoples are pursued and punished, whose governments participate in this same organization.
This is linked to another aspect of the UN which is interesting to take up, and which concerns the imbalance of power, characteristic of the organization, that allows certain members to oppose their veto to initiatives, including those that the majority of States Parties recognize as necessary or just. Even worse, these power quotas, relic of an era and reality long since outdated (more than 70 years!), seem to be, within the UN, immutable rules, untouched by all possible changes, vectors of democratization (particularly on the level of the Security Council).
Finally, the text of Y. Berthelot and J.-M. Jakobowicz confirms what we are convinced of, and which we support and defend everywhere and at all times, as members of civil society: to have an effective impact on the local level, it is necessary to think and act globally. It seems clear that from the very first steps towards an international community that is more just and solidarity oriented, civil society and its organizations have played a key role, whether it be in demanding answers from political players, or in moving beyond what is “politically correct” for those holding established power or in fighting to realize assumed commitments.
All of this reinforces our conviction that a vigilant civil society, organized and active on an international sphere, constitutes an indispensable element in guaranteeing a more effective democratic governance on the world level, to give the impetus to changes which are needed by the international system, including concerning the UN, in order to stop further delay of the just and necessary fulfilment of the rights of peoples and, among them, in particular the poorest and most marginalized men and women.
During the debates (which preceded the adoption of the United Nations Charter in 1945), the American delegation was very clear. It stressed that the UN member countries could suppress the right of veto thus winning a diplomatic victory over the United States. In this case, however, it was certain that the American Senate would oppose the ratification of the Charter as it had done for the League of Nations Convention. It was the price to pay in order to create an organization representative of the political forces involved. The delegates were not mistaken and ended by agreeing to give the five permanent members the right of veto.
[…]Originally established to allow permanent members (of the Security Council) to control the organization, the veto right is contested by other UN members. The veto periodically obstructs the adoption of resolutions even when they fall within the Charter criteria, all because one of the permanent members, for political, economic or ideological reasons, disagrees that the posed issue be solved in a multilateral setting, notably when the Council should have to decide on sanctions or direct armed interventions.
Of the 2,007 resolutions examined by the Security Council between 1945 and 2007, 213 were not adopted because of the veto by at least one of the permanent members. For the sole years 1946 to 1955, the Soviet Union applied its veto to 77 resolutions. The lesser use of the veto right since 20 years is partly due to the end of the ideological quarrel between the East and West, but also to the fact that, if the informal meetings of the Council show the risk of an impending veto, the resolution concerned is amended or sometimes simply withdrawn.
Excerpts taken from L’ONU pour les Nuls, pp.168 and 176
Facilitating a publication for reflection and debate like Development and Civilizations is never an easy task. Month after month, often limited by our financial constraints and the difficulty of identifying new authors, I have tried my best to keep this editorial boat afloat, the reins of which our friend Albert Longchamp had entrusted to me at the end of 2005.
The time has now come for me, after some internal turmoil, to hand it over. The Centre Lebret-Irfed will have at heart, I know it, to continue to make this publication which is above all yours, a quality publication, envied and admired. May it be encouraged here. Développement et Civilisations is our link to all, with today’s relevance of Lebret’s thinking. And with the world being what it is, in the search for solutions which can lead to a “development of the whole person and of all persons.”
I will stay, as a reader, one of its most fervent supporters, and I shall always be happy to exchange ideas with you.
Correspondent for European Affairs of Le Temps (Geneva)
Richard Werly is leaving us. We owe him a lot: for his time given generously, editorials of a powerful style to position the article on a background of current events, clear introductory paragraphs to express in a few words the questions and ideas which would be developed, captions giving rhythm to the reading, the introduction of the opinion column to stimulate reflection. He leaves with us a demanding legacy. For all this, we thank him profoundly and we shall miss the intriguing brilliance of his interventions.
President of Centre Lebret-Irfed, director of the publication _ firstname.lastname@example.org
 - Yves Berthelot, Yves Berthelot, former Deputy Secretary-General of the UNCTAD and former Executive-Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Europe, is president of Development and Civilizations Lebret-Irfed, of the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) and of the French Committee for International Solidarity (CFSI). Contact: email@example.com
 - Jorge Balbis, Uruguayan, is Executive Secretary of the Association of Latin American Organizations to Promote Development (ALOP), based in Mexico, and Vice President for Latin America of Development and Civilizations – Lebret-Irfed.
 - Yves Berthelot and Jean-Michel Jakobowicz, “L’ONU pour les Nuls (The UN for Dummies)", Ed. First, Paris 2010
 - In the 18th century, humanely treating soldiers and the civilian population of an enemy country was a real progress. In the 21st century, all governments should know that all men are human beings, whatever they may have done.
 - The Manden Charter, 1222, and the Cyrus Cylinder, 8th century BC.
 - Emeric Crucé, Le nouveau Cynée, ou discours d’État représentant les occasions et moyens d’établir une paix générale et la liberté du commerce pour tout le monde, 1623.
 - Name given to the United States President’s programme designed to put an end to the First World War and to rebuild Europe, in a speech addressed to the United States Congress in January, 1918.
 - Meeting in the Washington suburbs, among the “Big Four”: United Kingdom, China, the United States and USSR