In the last 48 hours or so, the United Nations has acted in ways its founding fathers would have hoped for when it wrote the UN Charter. In the face of immense pressures, several of its organs have taken public positions on controversial issues that have advanced the goals of the organization even as they have offended various member states, including, in one case, a permanent member.
First, the oft-maligned UN Human Rights Council voted for a resolution that now paves the way for an inquiry into rights abuses in the final weeks of Sri Lanka's civil war. That conflict ended in May 2009 after 26 years of bloody struggle between the separatist Tamil Tigers and the majority Sinhala population. The death toll in that dispute ranged purportedly from between 60,000 and 100,000, with upwards of 40,000 reportedly dying at the close of the war. The Council's pronouncement calls for the UN's Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights to carry out a "comprehensive investigation into alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes by both parties in Sri Lanka." The edict passed 23-12, with 12 abstentions, in the 47-member body. The government of Sri Lanka has loudly decried the UN's intrusion.
In another action, the Rights Council, relying on a 400-page report by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea released last month, voted 30-6, with 11 countries abstaining, to condemn the leadership of that nation for committing crimes against humanity. It recommended that the Commission's findings be submitted to the UN Security Council for action, including calling for possible international criminal justice adjudication. The Commission's study likened the crimes uncovered by its investigation, including systematic torture, starvation and killings in a prison camp system holding about 120,000 people, to the Nazi-era atrocities of World War 2. North Korea's delegate's retort to the Human Rights Commission assemblage was: "Mind your own business."
Finally, yesterday, the UN General Assembly voted 100 to 11, with 58 abstentions, to officially denounce that Russia's annexation of Crimea as unlawful under the UN Charter. This was an especially notable action because Russia was one of the three original sponsors of the UN at the San Francisco Conference of 1945 that drafted the UN Charter -- and, as well, it is one of only five nations that still possess a veto on the UN Security Council. Still sundry delegates at the session dismissed the Moscow-sponsored March 16th Crimean referendum as a faulty test of self-determination because it barred any voting role for the Ukraine citizenry. The Kremlin's ambassador, in his turn, rejected the General Assembly move, saying that Crimea has always been an "integral" part of Russia.
Today, no one now claims that any of the UN proclamations will reconfigure power realities around the planet. The Human Rights Council and the General Assembly do not possess any enforcement powers, not being equipped with armies or police forces or the capacity to impose sanctions or other economic pressures on miscreant nations. Nonetheless the statements of these bodies carry with them a moral message from the international community that expresses the world's dismay and shame over their errant ways. From that point of view, such announcements extend a large shadow of embarrassment over all future activities of these states and can possibly influence all three regimes to someday steer their ships of state in saner directions. The UN has employed its authority wisely as it was originally mandated to do at the time of its creation.