2012 has come and gone, and the new year brings a measure of introspection that, if we’re lucky, is bound to last at least a week or two. I have already failed on my resolution not to watch episodes of “30 Rock” that I’ve already seen twice. Maybe next year.
Despite my own failure to uphold a simple personal goal, the new year can still bring about positive change for others. I’ve gone ahead and drafted a New Year’s resolution for the United Nations: incorporate a modern understanding of sovereignty into the day-to-day function of the U.N.
The United Nations holds on to obsolete ideas of sovereignty and of what makes an entity politically relevant. One cannot expect the International Telecommunication Union, a specialized agency of the U.N. created in the absence of Internet, to discuss censorship and security issues at a purely national level, yet that is exactly what happened this past year. One of the acclaimed fathers of the Internet, Google’s Vint Cerf, posted an appeal on the Google blog regarding this meeting. Cerf’s greatest concern was that some of the proposals, which could allow governments to justify censoring legitimate speech and cutting off Internet access, would be approved without the voices of the people who invented, built and use the web. A closed-door meeting about the security of the Internet is automatically biased in favor of governments when there are few outside advocates to discourage regulation of Internet security.
Perhaps corporations like Google shouldn’t hold seats in the chambers of the Security Council; there are very real arguments against including innovators and industries further in government. But beyond the lack of representation of non-state actors that are highly involved in international political issues, there are governments that hold jurisdiction over unique populations and tend to provide legitimate rule of law but aren’t given the opportunity to engage in U.N. diplomacy. It would be easier and shorter to just call them “nations,” but that’s the exact issue: They aren’t recognized nations.
When South Sudan sought status as an independent nation, they had no opportunity to speak before the U.N. because they weren’t technically a “nation.” An independent advisor snuck South Sudanese leaders into a meeting of the Security Council (borrowing visitor passes from a sympathetic nation) and it was only by stopping delegates on their way out of the chambers that these leaders were able to secure speaking time. The South Sudanese delegation that spoke before the U.N. delivered an eloquent argument for sovereignty, and the referendum was approved in July 2011, all because of happenstance. It is not always the case that U.N. member nations are included in relevant discussions. In 2012 the Security Council passed seven resolutions with the subject, “Middle East.” Of the nations that traditionally comprise the Middle East, none were represented on the Security Council during this period. Resolutions on Syria and Libya were dramatically passed, but the audible voices were nations like the United States and Russia, not other Arab States or key regional players.
Meaningful change and progress, especially in a body that is so slow with taking baby steps, isn’t easy. This might be one of those resolutions you buy new yoga pants and tofu for, but come “Ditch New Year’s Resolutions Day” (which is apparently a thing on Jan. 17) you revert to what you’ve been doing in 365-day increments since 1945. National sovereignty and the role of the United Nations has always been a precarious balance, even when national entities were more relevant and definitive. But now we have corporations with boards of directors who control more money and influence more people’s lives than some governments. We have nation-states that must cope with huge disparities between their political relevance and the consideration that they are attributed in the U.N. chambers. I love the idea of an international body that serves to bring together all peoples for calm and civilized discussion. But until “all peoples” means all relevant entities, not all U.N.-recognized national entities, we can’t credit the U.N. as a grand negotiator.
As long as the limitations of the U.N. are recognized and held in regard in dealing with international politics and crises, I still consider this international body a positive force. It still brings people together, it remains a forum, and it still provides a number of services through its specialized agencies. And there is no ignorance; everyone is aware that there are other diplomatic tools that can be used to resolve conflict. In the true spirit of the new year then, I think it’s important to recognize the flaws of the United Nations. In reality, resolutions were made to be broken, but recognizing the problem and looking outside of the current norm is half the battle.
So what if you’re still a few pounds overweight? Nobody’s perfect. The U.N. is going to keep on trucking and so should you.
Lydia Thurman is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs every other Wednesday. You can follow Lydia on Twitter @ThurmanLydia.