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Oxford Union has no confidence in the United Nations

On Thursday night, the Oxford Union voted in favour of the motion “This House Has No Confidence in the United Nations.” The final count had 148 members voting for the motion and 90 members voting against. 

Craig Mokhiber, the former UN official whose resignation over the UN’s stance on the Israel-Gaza War garnered international attention late last October, and Sir Geoffrey Nice, the lead prosecutor at the trial of Slobodan Milošević and current chair of the China and Uyghur Tribunals, spoke for the motion. Joining Mokhiber and Nice were first-year History student Ben Murphy and first-year Chemistry student James MacKenzie.

Opposing the motion were Angela Kane, former UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs and UN Undersecretary for Management; The Lord Hannay of Chiswick, a British diplomat who previously held the position of Permanent Representative to the EU and to the UN; and UK Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN James Kariuki. Masters student Shaezmina Khan also opposed the motion.

Ben Murphy opened the case for the proposition by stating that, although the UN was founded with a “clear promise of peace and justice,” it has since become a “utopian fantasy that cannot be achieved.” He argued the very idea of a unified group of nations was illusory since countries have different and often competing interests. 

Murphy then asked the audience to consider the UN from the perspective of a Cambodian living under the Khmer Rouge, a group he said was legitimised by the UN. He argued that the UN is not an enforcer of peace but an enabler of strife, as shown by such autocratic regimes it legitimises and by the belligerence of its “big five” members: France, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and the United States. “The founding countries, those central to its development, the big five, have had their part in more conflict than the rest of the world together.”

Opening the case for the opposition, Shaezmina Khan focused on the semantics of the motion, arguing that “to vote for opposition, you only need to believe you have some confidence in the UN.” She cited past UN contributions – such as UNICEF’s vaccination programmes and the UN’s Non-Proliferation Treaty – and averred that the UN has served the world better than most people realise. 

She closed her speech with a quote from John F. Kennedy: “I see little merit in the impatience of those who would abandon this imperfect world instrument because they dislike our imperfect world. For the troubles of a world organisation merely reflect the troubles of the world itself.”

The second speaker for the proposition, Sir Geoffrey Nice, argued that the core purpose of the United Nations was to put an end to war and ensure “disputes between nations should be resolved by peaceful means” – a purpose which he believes has been abandoned.

Central to Nice’s argument was the failure of the United Nations to prevent the crime of genocide. He stated that the Genocide Convention requires participating states in Article I to “act to prevent genocide, wherever whenever it happens, anywhere on the globe.” He paused before asking the audience: “In 70 years, how many times has any government done that?” According to Nice, “excluding the cases of Zambia with Myanmar and South Africa with Israel,” the answer was “none.”

He cited the case of Rwanda, where the British deliberately avoided the term “genocide,” and the case of Bosnia, where he said the United Nations was “conveniently absent,” before stating forcefully: “This sort of thing has to stop.” Responding to the first proposition speaker’s clarification of terms, he told the audience: “Disregard the semantics, we know what the motion really means… Do you have confidence that you, your children, and grandchildren won’t be at war?”

James Kariuki continued the case for the opposition. He acknowledged some of the shortcomings of the UN but asked the audience “when the critics blame the UN for the world’s ills, who exactly do they blame?” He argued it was misguided to believe that the representatives from different member states were capable of solving all the problems around the globe. According to Kariuki, “The complaints about the UN reflect dissatisfaction with the world as it is.”

Kariuki touched on the UN’s role in eradicating polio through mass inoculation, combating climate change through environmental regulation, and promoting human rights through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – which he described as a “monumental achievement.”  Toward the end of his speech, he stated that the 80 years before the establishment of the UN were worse than the 80 years since.

Continuing the case for the proposition, James MacKenzie cited the failure of the UN to respond to humanitarian crises and to fulfil its charter on social development. He argued that the policy of veto in the Security Council “undermines the very principles UN claims to uphold: Equality, justice, and the right to self-determination.” The UN, MacKenzie stated, has devolved into a geo-political chessboard, demonstrated by the lack of response “to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen and the ethnic cleansing in Myanmar.” He asked the audience how many more cases we would require in order to see “the UN is failing in its fundamental duty.”

Angela Kane, the third opposition speaker, drew on her own experience working at the UN. She touched on the success of the UN in tackling climate change and helping hundreds of millions of people throughout the world receive aid. She cited an opinion poll conducted in 24 countries which revealed that, on average, 63% of people see the United Nations in a positive light. Kane emphasised the importance of international treaties, which allow us to hold states to account, stating: “The UN works for the world, it works for the people.”

Closing the case for the proposition, Craig Mokhiber began by stating: “I think it should be clear by now that the House should have no confidence in the UN.” He clarified that this was not meant as a critique of the idea of the UN, nor was it meant as a critique of the people who have dedicated their lives to the mission of the UN. Rather, it was a critique of bodies like the Security Council which, Mokhiber argued, had abandoned the mission of the UN.

He discussed the UN Charter and told the audience that, 75 years later, we are still waiting for its fulfilment. Mocking a remark made by the opposition that “The UN is not made to deliver us to heaven, but merely to save us from hell,” he encouraged the audience to ask people in Bosnia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Gaza, and Syria whether the United Nations has protected them from war crimes and crimes against humanity: “Should the abandoned people of the United Nations have confidence in the United Nations?”

Lord Hannay of Chiswick closed the case for the opposition. He began by stating that almost everything had been said already and the debate, and his job would instead be to recapitulate some central reasons for opposing the motion.

According to Hannay, nobody on the opposition side was suggesting that the UN had accomplished all of its objectives. Rather, because of the soundness of the principles enumerated in the UN Charter and the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the opposition was emphasising the importance of working to fulfil the mission of the UN. To those who would abandon the UN, Hannay prophesied: “If we walk away from it, we will rue the day.”

He conceded that some member states were not acting perfectly but argued that the UN was needed to preserve norm-based international order. He concluded by stressing the importance of the UN and was met with a great deal of applause in the chamber.

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