In this Q&A with Russia Direct, Alexandre Gorelik, Director of the U.N. Information Center in Moscow, discusses challenges that the United Nations is facing in the new millennium and assesses how the Syrian crisis affected its global standing.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shake hands as they pose for a photograph at the U.N. headquarters in New York. Source: U.N.
On Oct. 24, the world celebrates United Nations Day, an international holiday that commemorates the day the United Nations charter entered into force 68 years ago. Although many argue that the U.N. is no longer capable of accommodating global changes in the political domain, it still remains the primary platform to bring nations together.
Russia Direct recently visited the U.N. Information Center in Moscow and spoke with its Director, Alexandre Gorelik, who has witnessed the organization's ups and downs, but is positive about its prospects.
Russia Direct: Many argue today that the U.N. can't keep up with the rapidly changing world and with the seemingly outdated U.N. Charter it is unable to address the issues of security. How would you respond to these claims?
Alexandre Gorelik: There are lots of skeptics today. This has always been the case that there are U.N. bashers who keep saying that the U.N. is not up to the task and it's not adequate and so on and so forth. I'm not saying the U.N. is an ideal organization, we are living in an imperfect world.
That said, I would start by quoting Winston Churchill, who said that democracy is better than any other form of governance. I would say it's the same thing with the United Nations. From my view, it's the best available form of international governance. There are flaws, there are errors, and there are things that we regret, but let's try to look at the picture objectively.
There are three different U.N.s - there is the U.N. of member states, there is the U.N. of the U.N. Secretariat and there is a virtual U.N. that many people have in their mind. And when they ask why the U.N. is doing nothing when this or that happens, they have in mind something that they invented themselves.
Let's look at the real size of the United Nations, the volume of what it can really do. The U.N. budget is very modest, if we compare it to the needs of the international community. The U.N. annual peacekeeping budget, as impressive as it is, stands at $7.5 billion. But if we look at what the United States spent at the height of their operation in Afghanistan, it was $10 billion monthly. Although there are high hopes placed on the U.N., the reality tells us the organization can only do what member-states mandate it to do.
Director of UN Information Center in Moscow talks on Syria and UN reform. Video by Ekaterina Konovalova
RD: Do you think there are things at which the U.N. succeeds more and less, say, peacekeeping operations or humanitarian aid delivery?
A.G.: I would modestly say that peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, development, health issues and several other areas are the strengths of the U.N. There is an element I'd like to flag: the U.N. convenes a number of multilateral negotiation processes and they are very difficult and lengthy. For instance, the famous Doha round of trade negotiations should have been over by 2006, but there is still no end to these negotiations.
This is a phenomenon, if you wish: There are dozens of people participating in these talks. And it's extremely difficult to reach a consensus. This is really a problem: People in the U.N. see the problem and understand the need to change the rules of the game.
RD: In the past there were attempts to deal with the aforementioned weak points of the organization and to reform it, the most famous one being Kofi Annan's reform plan. Why do these reform plans fail to be implemented and do you think any reform could succeed in the future?
A.G.: Reform is part of the U.N. itself. If we compare the U.N. of 2013 and the organization in its early days, these are different organizations. What we call the U.N. today is a broad umbrella, which brings together dozens of agencies, funds and programs.
The U.N. was created as a political and military alliance to avoid a third World War, then it became a multifaceted organization dealing with security, development, human rights, humanitarian issues, international law, environment, health, telecommunications, drugs, and so on and so forth. So the reform was going on. Your question mainly reflects the views of those who focus on the main point of the U.N. reform, on the juiciest issue in the eyes of the media, meaning the reform of the Security Council.
Negotiations on reform have been going for twenty years now without any palpable outcome. If we look back at what Kofi Annan proposed, there are a few things that have been implemented, his proposals found their way into the final document of the World Summit of 2005.
RD: What U.N. agencies and funds operate in Russia currently?
A.G.: Today there are about 20 agencies operating in Russia. Most of them appeared here in the 90s, when a decision was made at the U.N. to establish a category of states with economies in transition that allowed funds and programs focused on technical assistance to launch projects in Russia. We used to have here all the major parts of the U.N. family - agencies dealing with environment, health, international law, children and so on.
But nowadays the situation is changing: all U.N. agencies are undergoing a transition towards another type of collaboration with Russia because what we used to have was more or less classic technical assistance. Russia used to be a recipient of U.N assistance, which is no longer the case, as a few years ago, the Russian government stated that the country is transitioning towards the status of a donor country.
Those agencies that were focused on providing technical assistance to Russia are no longer here, because the pattern of relations between the U.N. and Russia has changed. Other agencies, with strong knowledge focused activities, such as WHO or ILO, are still in good shape and launch new projects.
RD: At this point I would like to get more specific and talk about Syria. A year ago, in June 2012 the U.N. was the organizer of the Geneva-I conference. It wasn’t much of a success. What could be the role of the U.N. in the settlement of the Syrian civil war and do you think the upcoming Geneva-II conference could put an end to the war?
A.G.: Ever since the crisis in Syria erupted, the U.N. has been one of the major outside actors trying to end the conflict. This issue was put on the agenda of the U.N. Security Council, then on the agenda of the General Assembly, and later, on the agenda of the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Early on, the U.N., jointly with the League of Arab States, established a group headed by special envoy Kofi Annan. The first comprehensive proposals put together by the international community were the proposals of Kofi Annan. The first conference in Geneva was one of the results of Kofi Annan’s mission.
Unfortunately, all these efforts were not successful enough to put an end to the bloodshed in Syria. The Security Council at that time was deeply divided and this is why not a single resolution was adopted on the political essence of the crisis in Syria. But recently the situation in the Security Council changed as Russia and the United States made a deal on Syria's chemical weapons. This is why the first ever resolution was adopted, which led to the creation of the joint U.N-O.P.C.W. (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) mission.
So I would say that early on, the U.N. stated clearly that there is no military solution to the Syrian crisis, we have to work for a political solution in Syria. This means that international players have to engage both the government in Damascus and the opposition. I’m hopeful, because the significant change that occurred in relation to chemical weapons this year probably bodes well for the overall effort to put an end to this bloody conflict.
RD: Do you think that the recent rapprochement in U.S.-Iran relations could bring more stakeholders to the Geneva-II conference and, thus, create a framework for the resolution of the crisis?
A.G.: It’s not up to me to make a judgment, but what I know from pronouncements by top U.N. officials, it looks like this is a new and promising element, because clearly the bad relationship between the United States and Iran was a factor, which negatively affected the picture that was already rather dark. It is to be hoped that any improvement along these lines would have a positive effect on the preparatory work for Geneva-II.