#BookClub: Lords of Impunity – how the United Nations failed the world

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My latest book, Lords of Impunity: How the United Nations Failed the World and What Can Be Done to Transform It shows how one of the world’s most influential organisations allows the most heinous crimes – from the theft of donor funds to the sexual exploitation of refugees – to take place under its watch without suffering any consequences. It is an in-depth analysis of recent crises and events that the United Nations failed to tackle adequately, including the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.  

The book could provide some answers to why the current crisis in Ukraine has been allowed to unfold rapidly, with the UN playing a mere spectator role in what might become one of the biggest humanitarian crises of the decade. The book debunks the myth that the United Nations is a club of equals committed to preventing wars and protecting the rights of the world’s most vulnerable people. On the contrary, the five permanent veto-holding members of the UN Security Council, namely the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China, have extraordinary power and influence in the UN, and often overrule the will and votes of the majority of the UN member states.

As a former UN insider, I also show how white privilege, misogyny and a culture of impunity at the UN create a toxic work environment that even impacts how UN projects and programmes are implemented. The book contains a list of recommendations on how the UN can be transformed so that it can live up to its lofty ideals and mandate.  

The book is divided into four parts:

Part One shows how the UN is simply a mirror of the misogyny and racism we find in the rest of society. Not even the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements had an impact on how the UN deals with sexual harassment and racial discrimination, both of which are tolerated at the UN. Internal UN surveys have shown that up to a third of UN employees have experienced sexual harassment, and more than half of people of colour have experienced racism, yet few of the victims report their cases for fear of retaliation. Despite policies to prevent sexual harassment and discrimination, the UN has failed to curb these vices. On the contrary, whistleblowers are retaliated against; most lose their jobs or are demoted.

People benefitting from UN programmes and projects are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation. Despite a “zero tolerance” tolerance policy towards sexual harassment and abuse, investigations have shown that UN peacekeepers and UN employees delivering aid have been known to sexually abuse or exploit women and children in countries where they are stationed. Recent cases in Haiti and the Central African Republic illustrate how peacekeepers get away with sexually abusing children without fear of being prosecuted or court martialled. UN personnel implicated in such cases get away with these crimes because they enjoy immunity from prosecution bestowed on them by the UN Charter.

Part Two shows how development projects perpetuate racist and patriarchal models that end up hurting rather than helping beneficiaries. It seeks to “decolonise development” by questioning development models that essentially disempower people who are supposed to be “empowered” because development is viewed through the prism of poverty reduction rather than social justice. It also presents evidence showing that much of the aid that is raised for disaster relief often ends up being stolen or diverted by both UN personnel and so-called “implementing partners” on the ground.

Furthermore, fundraising for disaster relief is often based on erroneous or misleading statistics. Part Three shows how UN agencies that deliver aid often exaggerate the scale of a problem in order to remain relevant or to attract donor funding. Much of this funding and aid ends up in the wrong hands, as in the case of Somalia during the 2011 famine. Besides, in the case of famine relief, the problem never gets resolved because food aid can never be a substitute for good governance that delivers food security.

Part Four shows how UN bodies, including the UN Security Council and the UN Human Rights Council, operate on the whims of their most powerful and influential members, including the permanent veto-holding members of the Security Council who failed to stop the war in Iraq and the genocide in Rwanda and have not even censured Saudi Arabia for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Even though the war in Iraq was declared “illegal”, Britain and the US were not sanctioned for waging it. In Rwanda, as génocidaires roamed freely in Kigali, UN staff were seen packing their suitcases and boarding chartered flights to safer countries. The UN only intervenes when these wars create humanitarian crises, which leads it to raise funds for the relief effort.

Part Five provides a way forward to transform the UN so it can live up to its mandate of preventing wars and protecting the human rights of all people. I argue that whistleblower protection is vital if this global body is to live up to its ideals as they are they only accountability mechanism the UN has. The UN’s internal oversight mechanisms, such as the UN Ethics Office, have consistently failed to protect whistleblowers, and must be replaced with an independent oversight body that is not beholden to any UN member state or to the UN Secretary-General. 

I make a case for reconstituting the membership of the UN Security Council, which, as currently constituted, has not been able to maintain world peace or to prevent wars since it was formed in 1945 because the five permanent veto-holding members protect their national interests above the interests of the global international community, and also have a stake in the military-industrial complex, and so cannot be relied upon to prevent wars, such as the one unfolding in Ukraine right now.

Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. 

Lords of Impunity is available on www.amazon.com

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