Stephanie Williams and the Decline of the United Nations

Stephanie Williams

For the past two years, Stephanie Williamson has been Deputy Special Representative for political affairs in the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). Libya has been suffering from structural violence and, at times, civil war even since European powers decided they no longer liked its dictator Muammar Gaddafi and aided in his downfall and execution in 2011. Unlike the 20th century, however, the UN is mostly toothless when it comes to rallying the international community to find solutions to local violence. One of the UN’s usual tools at its disposal when it comes to violent conflict are arms embargoes. It makes sense that if there is local violence, the global community wants to limit new weapons coming into that type of environment. It was disheartening, therefore, when Stephanie Williamson stated that the “arms embargo has become a joke”. We’d like to go a step further: the UN has become a joke when it comes to anything beyond being a roundtable for states to chat.

The decline of the United Nations has been visible for decades. Just like many other transnational organisations, its highpoint in terms of influence and relevance was during the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War. The UN was perfectly placed to become a bastion and enabler of neoliberal democracy that was supposed to spread its glorious future onto human history. Needless to say, this didn’t last long. The neoliberal order was never going to fulfil Francis Fukuyama’s promise of an end of history and US overreach in Afghanistan, Iraq and across the world with its ill-judged War on (of?) Terror only accelerated its demised. 

The UN was fatally damaged during this process, in part because of its inability to stop blatant abuse of power by its most important member (the United States) and in part because of its association with the failing neoliberal project. In the 1990s, a UN General Assembly resolution was big news. States who went against the UN’s decision-making process would face significant backlash from the international community. Now, in 2020, who has read or cared about any recent UN resolutions? Exactly. 

Its increased emphasis on special rapporteurs and commissions to judge the behaviour of local societies and states highlights how its focus has shifted. Reports and statements without any significant consequences are regularly published on how the UN -disapproves of certain actions, customs and behaviour of states and societies. It’s become an international version of identity politics that simply does not sit well with its original purpose: not to take the world to heaven, but to avoid it sliding into hell, to paraphrase the second Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld.

Libya is another tragic case study in how pointless the UN has become beyond kindly providing a table for world diplomats to discuss stuff in a relatively neutral setting. The country was a victim of foreign aggression, something which the UN did not even attempt to stop. The subsequent civil war and great human suffering inflicted on the Libyan population was unanswered, in large part because of geopolitical interests in the UN Security Council. And recent action, partially led by Ms. Williamson, has done very little to improve the local situation. This is not because of lack of goodwill by UN representatives, but rather because they are no longer part of a relevant or powerful organisation. If they cannot even achieve a weapons embargo around Libya- a fairly uncontroversial aim- it means that UN members are no longer listening.

The UN needs to go back to its roots: be a simple roundtable, centred on its General Assembly and possibly with a reformed Security Council including India and others, and do away with all of its additional bureaucracy, special envoys, rapporteurs, commissions and departments. This would mean getting rid of most of its staff. They could further save costs by renting out half of its New York property. We’re no experts, but we suspect that apartments and office space in Manhattan could make a buck or two. 

Will they do this? Of course not. Too many people would lose their comfortable, highly paid and tax- free jobs. Just like any human organisation, downscaling is not one of the UN’s strengths. Even if no one understands anymore why we pay them in the first place.