HONG KONG – The year 2013 went out in another blaze of atrocities, bombs, violence and bloodshed. South Sudan, the world’s newest country,was merely the latest to erupt in murderous mayhem, joining a long list of unsafe places to be.
It is time surely, well beyond time, to take some action to save the world. I have a modest suggestion to make to try to keep world leaders up to the mark and improve the performance of global governance.
Ban Ki-moon commanded the full weight and power of his office as secretary general of the United Nations to demand that leaders in South Sudan behave themselves, end hostilities and cease the killing of civilians.
The U.N. Security Council exerted itself to vote to send more peacekeepers, but this is a very small mercy in a world of pain and murder and bloodshed and death, and who knows if they will get close enough to make a difference.
It is more than the United Nations has managed to do in Syria, from which refugees continue to flee in their thousands every day, from fire and death into crowded unsanitary and freezing camps in neighboring countries. In Syria and in other conflicts the vast entangled machinery of the U.N. contributes to the agony because its leading members argue and block any proposal for positive action.
Some critics complain that the U.N. system is merely a bully, though a minor one because most of its member countries can ignore its recommendations, whether it is Ban telling Sudanese to behave or the International Monetary Fund telling the United Kingdom that too much austerity is too much of a bad thing.
On most issues, from trying to resolve conflicts or disputed borders to alleviating the great problems of our times, including climate change, environmental degradation, food shortages, unemployment, the U.N. and its agencies either sit on the sidelines or make expensive though sometimes useful recommendations which are promptly ignored by the world leaders.
So far it has proved impossible to cure the global system of governance even though it is clearly diseased. It is partly because of inertia. It is partly because it is complicated to produce recommendations for change that can cover a world that includes rich giants like the United States, China and Russia, old self-satisfied privileged countries like France and the U.K., aspiring powers such as China and India, emerging economies of all shapes and sizes, minnow island states plus a lugubrious list of failed and failing states.
Even so, it is astonishing that almost 70 years after the U.N. was put together, a core of five member countries, the victors of the Second World War, jealously maintain veto rights, which they are prepared to use in pursuit of their narrow self interests, even in the face of millions of refugees.
Is the veto power of each of the five permanent members of the security council the biggest stumbling block to U.N. reform? Or is it that members of the general assembly vote too often together blindly as a gang of rogues?
I have been reading the brilliant account by Princeton professor Gary Bass about the founding of Bangladesh, which reveals the myriad and multiple failings of the U.N. in the face of an immense atrocity. Its members talked and talked and dared to take the side of the oppressor even as it was inflicting murder and suffering on millions of impoverished poor and innocent people.
It spells out in terrible detail how U.S. President Richard Nixon and his faithful sidekick Henry Kissinger were party to multiple murders and atrocities, but survived unpunished, and one of them was given the Nobel Peace Prize and is still feted and honored wherever he goes.
There must be a better way to govern the world. The tragic former secretary general Dag Hammarskjold said that “the U.N. was created not to bring us to heaven, but to save us from hell”; but even on that score, it is failing to save Planet Earth from hurtling to destruction as well as failing hundreds of millions of poor and displaced people.
At this time of the year almost every organization looks back and chooses the employee or person of the year. Time magazine chose Pope Francis for “pulling the papacy out of the palace and into the streets, for committing the world’s largest church to confront its deepest needs and for balancing judgment with mercy.”
One can only hope that Francis lives up to his award, noting that for 2012 Time named President Barack Obama, and what has he accomplished with the first year of his second term as president of supposedly the most powerful country on earth?
I was thinking at first of an anti-hero of the year competition, but this would be as unsophisticated as Time’s person of the year. Who remembers the runner-up? Who even remembers the person who won three months into the new year?
There are too many anti-heroes of 2013, a long roll of dishonor, including Bashar Assad and his supporters Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping; Obama and his henchmen in the U.K. for mass espionage into the lives of the great and small, and for not apologizing; Xi for going back to Mao’s thought control policies; Xi for his challenge of the air-defense identification zone; Japan’s Shinzo Abe for provoking the neighbors with his visit to Yasukuni Shrine; Manmohan Singh for not having the courage to implement India’s dreams. The list rolls on and on and who can choose?
We need something that is live but that holds leaders to account across wide spectra of performance indicators.
If football is the world’s most popular game and fantasy football also has a following, why not a league of world leaders, judged by their performance during the past week or month.
Let leading newspapers — or league-leading universities or think-tanks — draw up lists of criteria with points for good governance; well-thought out policies that consult Parliament and the people; a strong economy, care of the environment, sensible foreign affairs initiatives.
Then take points off for corruption, reckless behavior, ignoring public opinion, offending neighbors.
There should be a margin of tolerance and different papers or universities would want to score the factors differently. The view of the U.S. from India or Japan would be different from that from the U.K. or Canada, but it would be interesting to compare the world league from Japan with those from the U.K. or U.S.
We could have a premier league, an emerging powers league and a second division, and wait to cheer if Japan managed to stay in the premier division.
We might want a special U.N. league too to assess the performance of the security council, general assembly, secretariat and the specialized agencies. If it were done sensibly against objective criteria, then even China might be tempted to join the world to improve its reputation.
It might goad the apparatchiks of all the leading countries and the U.N. to understand that we are all citizens of the world, affected by each other’s actions, but especially by what politicians and bureaucrats do or don’t do.
We need decisions to be taken in the light of day and examined and criticized to improve and refine them. We need a consolidated performance league not a million empty Twitters to assess how leaders and countries are doing.
Kevin Rafferty is editor in chief of PlainWords Media.
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