Why the UN fails where it matters most

Scott Gilmore on mass rape, Canada, and the desperate need for UN reform

Women are screened for malnutrition at a joint UNICEF-WFP Rapid Response Mission (RRM), which delivers critical supplies and services to those displaced by conflict, in Nyanapol, northern Jonglei, March 3, 2015. The U.N. Security Council on Tuesday established a sanctions regime for South Sudan but stopped short of imposing worldwide travel bans and asset freezes on officials in the conflict-torn country or an arms embargo. Conflict has been rife in the world's youngest country since December 2013 when fighting erupted in the capital Juba between soldiers allied to President Salva Kiir and those loyal to his former deputy, Riek Machar. (Siegfried Modola/Reuters)

(Siegfried Modola/Reuters)

I consider myself to be far too jaded. As a diplomat, with the United Nations, or running a charity, I have spent most of my life working in horrible places, watching horrible people do horrible things. It has made me more than a little misanthropic. I admit, my low opinion of humanity makes me very poor company three drinks in.

This being the case, I am almost never surprised by the worst of the daily news. But in spite of this cynical armour, I was unprepared for this week’s UN Human Rights Office report on South Sudan. I had to set it down after only six pages, realizing every muscle in my body was clenched with horror.

After decades of Sudanese civil war, which killed almost a quarter of the population, South Sudan gained independence not quite five years ago, making it the world’s newest nation. In 2013, a political power struggle within the nascent government broke down into bloody communal and ethnic fighting that has left more than 100,000 dead and two million displaced.

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The atrocities being committed by both sides are difficult to describe. The elderly have been burned alive in mosques and churches. Children have been enslaved and killed, often in the most gruesome ways. Women, in particular, have been targeted by deliberate campaigns of rape and murder. One witness explained, “If you looked young or good looking, about 10 men would rape the woman; the older women were raped by about seven to nine men.” The UN has documented gang rapes of girls as young as nine. And perhaps one of the most disturbing revelations is that soldiers were being rewarded with women and girls in lieu of wages.

I wish I could say that these war crimes are uniquely horrible. But the only thing new is our ability to quickly and accurately document and verify the carnage. Yet most people still do not realize that mass rape is one of mankind’s most chronic and pandemic afflictions.

Archaeological and genetic evidence shows that primitive tribes everywhere, including in Europe and North America, used sexual assault as a weapon of conquest. Cicero, explaining the traditions of war, was careful to include women among the property that can be lawfully seized and destroyed. As the Mongolian Empire rode across the steppes, it raped so many that now 1 in 200 men in the world are directly descended from Genghis Khan himself.

The modern era has been no less savage. During the Rape of Nanking, Japanese soldiers went door to door, sexually assaulting every woman found, before killing them. Even paying soldiers with rape is not new. There are documented cases of the Soviet military allowing its soldiers to rape and pillage as a form of R&R. Just 20 years ago Serbian soldiers set up “rape camps,” where Muslim women were only released once pregnant.

Remarkably, it was not until 1993 that the international community began to even recognize sexual assault as a war crime. The first person in history to be convicted of rape as a crime against humanity was only 15 years ago. But UN efforts to proscribe sexual violence have finally begun to gather speed. The Security Council has passed more than one resolution aimed at preventing sexual violence in conflict, there is a new UN agency focused on the issue, and (among his few successes) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has raised awareness of the scope of the problem.

Canada has also made some laudable efforts in recent years (although Global Affairs does a typically poor job bringing attention to this work). Following the Security Council resolutions, Canada established a detailed action plan for its diplomats, aid workers, soldiers, and police officers to protect women in conflict. Uncharacteristically, the plan even included indicators of success, something usually avoided, lest these be used to hold them accountable later on. This may be why the dense annual updates reveal genuine progress.

Sadly, none of this is going to help the girls and women in South Sudan. This report is proof enough that the resident UN peacekeeping mission is an utter failure. This mission even has the most robust Chapter VII mandate, giving it muscular powers to actively make peace, as opposed to passively keep it. But, for the most part, the best the UN can manage is to record the violence, not stop it.

The UN is an appallingly inadequate system for making the world a better place. But it is the only system we have. The Liberal government is right to re-engage, but only if they do so understanding the current reality of the UN falls far short of their Pearsonian fantasies. There is no point in joining the Security Council unless Canada is prepared to speak truth to the powers, to demand reform, and occasionally bang a shoe on the desk. If not for the sake of our own self-respect, for the sake of the women of South Sudan, and the unknown millions who continue to suffer because, after 71 years, the international community still hasn’t managed to make the UN work the way it should.

Scott Gilmore writes on international affairs and public policy. He is a member of the Conservative Party of Canada and is married to Catherine McKenna, the minister of the environment.


Why the UN fails where it matters most

  1. His byline notes:

    “Scott Gilmore writes on international affairs and public policy. He is a member of the Conservative Party of Canada and is married to Catherine McKenna, the minister of the environment.”

    Well…that must make for some interesting dinner conversation.

    Her, pre Oct 19th. “You ARE going to vote for me right dear?”
    Him, ” but I”m a member of the Conservative Party honey”
    Her: “I’ll get you some blankets and a couple of pillows. The couch is a little bumpy”

    Him: “GO JUSTIN !!”

    Can’t blame you Scott…..gotta keep the wife happy above all else.

  2. Why are we still giving money to this organization? It is run by tyrants and is filled with corruption.

    • Lois,

      The one thing the UN has going for it is that at least we keep the most powerful anti-semites in the public eye. We don’t have to put all of our focus on Canadian University campuses any longer.

  3. The UN is crippled by the veto power of the 5 Powers. The US, in particular, has an explicit foreign policy agenda of disrupting and degrading alternative centres of power – from the EU to the UN. If we want to know why the UN doesn’t ‘work’, we need look no further than the White House for most of the past 25 years. The idea of a standing International army under UN command to keep the peace was one of the first concepts shot in the head by our friends south of the border after the UN was formed. Meanwhile the US media (and most in Canada) ignore all this and blame the UN itself. But the UN is what it because because it suits the great powers – the US in particular – to keep it exactly as it is.

    • Nonsense Steve…pure nonsense!
      Not only do you blame the US for almost all everything but totally ignore the rest of the article and realities of Mr Gilmore’s thoughts.
      I’ m surprised you didn’t include Mr Harper as many Canadians would.

  4. Mr. Gilmore: First of all, I didn’t know you were Ms. McKenna’s life partner. I find this interesting and delightful: you make good choices! Second of all, I’m as sad and sorrowful as can be after reading this article. I long for the UN to be what we all imagined it would be and what it has failed so miserably to be.
    There just seems to be no excuse for the nations of the world to belong to a body like the UN and be unable to act or to desire to act together to prevent the kinds of atrocities you address. All I can say is shame on them, shame on every one of them! I sincerely hope our PM can get us back into the UN in a meaningful way, in a Pearson way: we must stand up for all of these women and children and we must SCREAM our determination to bring justice to those who harm them. Mr. Gilmore, if there is something meaningful I, as an individual, can do to put pressure on those who bring harm to these women, please let me know – I will do it, whatever it is!

    • Justin can get us back in the UN at the cost of billions of Canadian taxpayers dollars being sent to third world thugs. That’s the easy thing to do.

      The better question is why bother? Harper realized that the UN was nothing but a bloated, corrupt, ineffective organization that everyone loved to think was great but in reality was a bust – and he took the action that he could – ignore it. Personally I would have rather seen Harper withdraw completely from the UN and take with him a whole lot of other Western democracies – that would have been real leadership.

  5. The only way to deal with the UN to to leave and be a leader on having other Western democracies who provide the bulk of money for the UN to leave as well.

    Reforming this corrupt, bloated and ineffective organization is a time consuming and expensive effort that will lead nowhere (but I’m sure Justin will get a lot of selfies out of it!). Sometimes you just have to kill something to try and get something better.

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