When the United Nations was created after WWII, its role was its name: to unite nations. Sovereign nations were to be united in peace and universally committed to fundamental freedoms. Ironically, it’s become a vehicle for dividing the world. If only the UN Charter had not agreed to grant super powers to veto substantive resolutions, like those that endeavored to end conflicts and protect freedoms to China, Russia, and the three western nations of France, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Two years after the inaugural signing of the UN Charter and the commencement of nations united, the Cold War began, and nations were divided. It was the Second World versus the First World. In the lead were the autocratic UN super powers of China and the Soviet Union versus the three democratic western UN super powers. In the red-hot Cold War, instead of peace, about 20 million died in conflicts. Instead of freedoms, most people lived under autocratic leaders that prioritized control over freedom. The Cold War ended in 1991 with the western powers savoring a victory, but Russia and China were already preparing for a rematch.
As part of the rematch, Russia in 2014 used its UN super powers to defy Ukrainian sovereignty and absorb its Crimean Peninsula. The latest to leverage its UN super powers to aggrandize power is China. The UN is one more arrow in China’s quiver to return it to a pinnacle of global power lost during the Century of Humiliation (1840-1949). To facilitate this, it is challenging the dominance of UN-espoused democratic-leaning ideologies, like a commitment to fundamental freedoms. China has been exerting influence at the UN, in the words of one diplomat to “make Chinese policies UN policies.” Fundamental freedoms, bah humbug.
Recently leaked Chinese documents describe some truly horrendous aspects of Chinese repression of fundamental freedoms against its Muslim Uyghur population in Xinjiang province. Xinjiang has long sought sovereign autonomy, and per the UN Charter, its wishes should have been honored, but shortly after WWII, China like two other UN super powers worked around the UN Charter to deny many their sovereignty. That Muslims in Xinjian within officially atheist China known for controlling religious practices still want their sovereignty doesn’t sit well with Chinese leadership.
In response to Chinese repression in Xinjiang, twenty-two democratic nations, including twenty-one western nations and Japan, signed a UN statement basically calling for China to protect fundamental freedoms for the Uyghurs. Their actions were consistent with upholding a commitment from all UN member nations to protect populations from crimes against humanity. They were also consistent with something Chinese leaders hate — criticism. With support from thirty-six like autocratic nations, many of which have struggled to control repressed populations, including Russia and fourteen Muslim-majority nations, a UN counterstatement was issued. The statement clarified an ostensibly common point of confusion between democratic and autocratic nations. What democracies may perceive as crimes against humanities the autocratic signatories of this statement see as an enlightened approach to fighting terrorism. Something the signatories gave kudos to China for doing. This enlightened approach proactively prevents terrorism by preventing people from even thinking about terrorism. About 10 percent of the Muslim population in Xinjiang or about a million, depending on your democratic or autocratic orientations, are either locked up in internment camps that some describe as prisons, or attending re-education centers. In these prisons or educational institutions, there have been allegations of torture, rape, brainwashing, and per China graduates.
This enlightened approach violates most of the UN’s fundamental freedoms, much of the UN Charter, and the UN commitment to a Responsibility to Protect. But it’s got the signature of two members with UN super powers, China and Russia.
Support for China’s approach from fourteen Muslim-majority nations and the silence from other Muslim nations is not reminiscent of anything, but global politics. Uyghurs are allegedly being forced to denounce Islam and violate Islamic laws. It’s inconceivable that Muslim nations would support or be silent if Muslims were facing a level of persecution anywhere near this in any other country save China. China has proven on many occasions that it will use its power and influence to control criticism within and outside its borders. Besides, helping a UN super power can come in handy should the UN try to exercise a Responsibility to Protect repressed populations in their countries. One of the signatories of the counter-statement, Syria, knows that having UN super powers China and Russia as allies can really be useful to thwarting a UN-sponsored ceasefire or actions to prevent further use of chemical weapons on the people of Syria.
If all nations had honored their commitments to the UN Charter, and all UN super powers honored their super responsibilities, the United Nations could have lived up to its name. Instead, it’s another vehicle for world power to compete for global supremacy. The UN’s primary purpose of maintaining international peace is as elusive as ever, and so is the dream of fundamental freedoms for all.