World BEYOND War: What the United Nations Should Be

By David Swanson, World BEYOND War, March 18, 2023

I want to begin with three lessons from 20 years ago.

First, on the question of launching a war on Iraq, the United Nations got it right. It said no to the war. It did so because people around the world got it right and applied pressure to governments. Whistleblowers exposed U.S. spying and threats and bribes. Representatives represented. They voted no. Global democracy, for all its flaws, succeeded. The rogue U.S. outlaw failed. But, not only did U.S. media/society fail to begin listening to the millions of us who didn’t lie or get everything wrong — allowing the warmongering clowns to go on failing upward, but it never became acceptable to learn the basic lesson. We need the world in charge. We do not need the world’s leading holdout on basic treaties and structures of law in charge of law enforcement. Much of the world has learned this lesson. The U.S. public needs to.

Second, we failed in not saying one word about the evil of the Iraqi side of the war on Iraq. Iraqis might have been better off exclusively using organized nonviolent activism. But saying so was not acceptable. So, we generally treated one side of the war as bad and the other as good, exactly as the Pentagon did, only with the sides switched. This was not good preparation for a war in Ukraine where, not only is the other side (the Russian side) clearly engaged in reprehensible horrors, but those horrors are the primary topic of corporate media. With people’s brains conditioned to believe that one side or the other must be holy and good, many in the West pick the U.S. side. Opposing both sides of the war in Ukraine and demanding peace is denounced by each side as somehow constituting support for the other side, because the concept of more than one party being flawed has been erased from the collective brain.

Third, we didn’t follow through. There were no consequences. The architects of the murder of a million people went golfing and got rehabilitated by the very same media criminals who had pushed their lies. “Looking forward” replaced the rule of law. Open profiteering, murder, and torture became policy choices, not crimes. Impeachment was stripped from the Constitution for any bipartisan offenses. There was no truth and reconciliation process. Now the U.S. works to prevent the reporting of even Russian crimes to the International Criminal Court, because preventing any sort of rules is the top priority of the Rules Based Order. Presidents have been given all war powers, and darn near everybody has failed to grasp that the monstrous powers given to that office are drastically more important than which flavor of monster occupies the office. A bipartisan consensus opposes ever using the War Powers Resolution. While Johnson and Nixon had to clear out of town and opposition to war lasted long enough to label it a sickness, the Vietnam Syndrome, in this case the Iraq Syndrome lasted long enough to keep Kerry and Clinton out of the White House, but not Biden. And nobody has drawn the lesson that these syndromes are fits of wellness, not illness — certainly not the corporate media which has investigated itself and — after a quick apology or two — found everything in order.

So, the UN is the best thing we’ve got. And it can occasionally state its opposition to a war. But one might have hoped that would be automatic for an institution created supposedly to eliminate war. And the UN’s statement was simply ignored — and there were no consequences for ignoring it. The UN, just like the average U.S. television viewer, is not structured to treat war as the problem, but to identify the good and bad sides of each war. Had the UN ever been what is needed to actually eliminate war, the U.S. government would not have joined it, just as it did not join the League of Nations. The UN brought the U.S. on board by means of its fatal flaw, the bestowing of special privileges and veto powers to the very worst offenders. The UN Security Council has five permanent members: U.S., Russia, China, UK, France. They claim the veto power and the leading seats on the governing bodies of the major committees of the UN.

Those five permanent members are all in the top six spenders on militarism each year (with India also in there). Only 29 nations, out of some 200 on Earth, spend even 1 percent what the U.S. does on warmaking. Of those 29, a full 26 are U.S. weapons customers. Many of those receive free U.S. weapons and/or training and/or have U.S. bases in their countries. All are pressured by the U.S. to spend more. Only one non-ally, non-weapons customer (albeit a collaborator in bioweapons research labs) spends over 10% what the U.S. does, namely China, which was at 37% of U.S. spending in 2021 and likely about the same now (less if we consider the free U.S. weapons for Ukraine and various other expenses.)

The five permanent members are also all in the top nine weapons dealers (with Italy, Germany, Spain, and Israel also in there). Only 15 countries out of 200 or so on Earth sell even 1 percent what the U.S. does in foreign weapons sales. The U.S. arms almost every one of the most oppressive governments on Earth, and U.S. weapons are used on both sides of many wars.

If any nation rivals the U.S. as a rogue promoter of war, it is Russia. Neither the United States nor Russia is a party to the International Criminal Court – and the United States punishes other governments for supporting the ICC. Both the United States and Russia defy the rulings of the International Court of Justice. Of 18 major human rights treaties, Russia is party to only 11, and the United States to only 5, as few as any nation on Earth. Both nations violate treaties at will, including the United Nations Charter, Kellogg Briand Pact, and other laws against war. While most of the world upholds disarmament and anti-weapons treaties, the United States and Russia refuse to support and openly defy major treaties.

Russia’s horrific invasion of Ukraine – as well as the previous years of U.S./Russian struggle over Ukraine, including U.S.-backed regime change in 2014, and the mutual arming of conflict in Donbas, highlight the problem of putting the leading lunatics in charge of the asylum. Russia and the United States stand as rogue regimes outside the Landmines Treaty, the Arms Trade Treaty, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and many other treaties. Russia stands accused of using cluster bombs in Ukraine today, while U.S.-made cluster munitions have been used by Saudi Arabia near civilian areas in Yemen.

The United States and Russia are the top two dealers of weaponry to the rest of the world, together accounting for a majority of weapons sold and shipped. Meanwhile most places experiencing wars manufacture no weapons at all. Weapons are imported to most of the world from a very few places. Neither the United States nor Russia supports the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Neither complies with the disarmament requirement of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and the United States actually keeps nuclear weapons in six other nations and considers putting them into more, while Russia has talked of putting nuclear weapons in Belarus and recently seemed to threaten their use over the war in Ukraine.

The United States and Russia are the top two users of the veto power at the UN Security Council, each frequently shutting down democracy with a single vote.

China has proposed itself as a peacemaker, and that should of course be welcomed, though China is only a law-abiding global citizen by comparison with the U.S. and Russia. Lasting peace is likely only to come from making the world a peacemaker, from actually using democracy rather than bombing people in its name.

An institution like the United Nations, if it truly aims to eliminate war, will need to balance actual democracy, not with the power of the worst offenders, but with the leadership of the nations doing the most for peace. The 15 or 20 national governments that are sustaining the war business should be the very last place to find global leadership in abolishing war.

If we were designing a global governing body from scratch, it might be structured to reduce the power of national governments, which in some cases have an interest in militarism and competition, while empowering ordinary people, who are very disproportionately represented by national governments, and engaging with local and provincial governments. World BEYOND War once drafted such a proposal here:

If we were reforming the existing United Nations, we could democratize it by abolishing permanent security council membership, abolishing the veto, and ending the regional allotment of seats on the security council, which overrepresents Europe, or reworking that system, perhaps by increasing the number of electoral regions to 9 in which each would have 3 revolving members to add up to a Council of 27 seats instead of the current 15.

Additional reforms to the security council might include the creation of three requirements. One would be to oppose every war. The second would be to make its decision-making process public. The third would be to consult with nations that would be impacted by its decisions.

Another possibility would be to abolish the security council and reassign its functions to the General Assembly, which includes all nations. With or without doing that, various reforms have been proposed for the General Assembly. Former Secretary General Kofi Annan suggested that the GA simplify its programs, abandon reliance on consensus since it results in watered-down resolutions, and adopt a supermajority for decision-making. The GA needs to pay more attention to implementation and compliance with its decisions. It also needs a more efficient committee system and to involve civil society, that is, NGOs, more directly in its work. If the GA had real power, then when all nations of the world but the U.S. and Israel vote each year to end the blockade of Cuba, it would mean ending the blockade of Cuba.

Yet another possibility would be to add to the General Assembly a Parliamentary Assembly of members elected by the citizens of each country and in which the number of seats allocated to each country would more accurately reflect population and thus be more democratic. Then any decisions of the GA would have to pass both houses. This would work well in combination with abolishing the Security Council.

A big question, of course, is what it should mean for the UN to oppose each war. A major step would be for it to recognize the superiority of unarmed peacekeeping over the armed variety. I recommend the film Soldiers Without Guns. The UN should shift its resources from armed troops to conflict prevention, conflict resolution, mediation teams, and unarmed peacekeeping on the model of groups like the Nonviolent Peaceforce.

Nations’ governments should each develop unarmed defense plans. It’s quite a high hurdle to appeal to a country that’s been militarily invaded — after decades of military defense (and offense) preparations and the accompanying cultural indoctrination in the supposed necessity of military defense — to appeal to said country to construct on-the-fly an unarmed civilian defense plan and act on it despite near-universal lack of training or even comprehension.

We’re finding it to be a high hurdle just to get access to bring in an unarmed team to defend a nuclear power plant in the middle of a war in Ukraine.

A more reasonable proposal is for national governments that are not at war to learn about and (if they really learned about it then this would necessarily follow) establish departments of unarmed civilian defense. World BEYOND War is putting together both an annual conference in 2023 and a new online course on this topic. One place to get the very beginning of an understanding that unarmed actions can repel militaries — even without serious preparations or training (so, imagine what proper investment could do) — is with this list of nearly 100 times people successfully used nonviolent action in place of war:

A properly prepared unarmed defense department (something that might require a major investment of 2 or 3 percent of a military budget) could make a nation ungovernable if attacked by another country or a coup d’état and therefore immune from conquest. With this kind of defense, all cooperation is withdrawn from the invading power. Nothing works. The lights don’t come on, or the heat, the waste is not picked up, the transit system doesn’t work, courts cease to function, the people don’t obey orders. This is what happened in the “Kapp Putsch” in Berlin in 1920 when a would-be dictator and his private army tried to take over. The previous government fled, but the citizens of Berlin made governing so impossible that, even with overwhelming military power, the takeover collapsed in weeks. When the French Army occupied Germany in the aftermath of World War I, German railway workers disabled engines and tore up tracks to prevent the French from moving troops around to confront large-scale demonstrations. If a French soldier got on a tram, the driver refused to move. If training in unarmed defense were standard education, you’d have a defense force of an entire population.

The case of Lithuania offers some illumination of a way forward, but a warning as well. Having used nonviolent action to expel the Soviet military, the nation put in place an unarmed defense plan. But it has no plan to give military defense a backseat or to eliminate it. Militarists have been hard at work framing civilian-based defense as subsidiary to and in assistance of military action. We need nations to take unarmed defense as seriously as Lithuania, and then much more so. Nations without militaries — Costa Rica, Iceland, etc. — could come at this from the other end by developing unarmed defense departments in place of nothing. But nations with militaries, and with militaries and weapons industries subservient to imperial powers, will have the harder task of developing unarmed defense while knowing that an honest appraisal may require eliminating military defense. This task will be much easier, however, as long as such nations are not at war.

It would be a tremendous boost were the UN to transform those armed national forces it uses into an international swift-reaction force of unarmed civil defenders and trainers.

Another key step would be making actual some of the rhetoric ironically used to defend lawless violence, namely the so-called rules based order. The UN has a responsibility to establish effective international law, including the law against war, not just so-called “war crimes,” or particular atrocities within wars. Numerous laws forbid war:

One tool that could be used is the International Court of Justice or World Court, which is actually an arbitration service for a pair of nations that agree to use it and abide by its decision. In the case of Nicaragua vs. The United States – the U.S. had mined Nicaragua’s harbors in a clear act of war – the Court ruled against the U.S., whereupon the U.S. withdrew from compulsory jurisdiction (1986). When the matter was referred to the Security Council, the U.S. exercised its veto to avoid penalty. In effect, the five permanent members can control the outcomes of the Court should it affect them or their allies. So, reforming or abolishing the Security Council would reform the World Court as well.

A second tool is the International Criminal Court, or as it would be more accurately named, the International Criminal Court for Africans, since that’s who it prosecutes. The ICC is supposedly independent of the major national powers, but in reality it bows before them, or at least some of them. It has made gestures and backed off again on prosecuting crimes in Afghanistan or Palestine. The ICC needs to be made truly independent while ultimately overseen by a democratized UN. The ICC also lacks jurisdiction because of the nations that are not members. It needs to be given universal jurisdiction. The arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin that is the top story in the New York Times today is an arbitrary claim of universal jurisdiction, since Russia and Ukraine are not members, but Ukraine is allowing the ICC to investigate crimes in Ukraine as long as it only investigates Russian crimes in Ukraine. Current and former U.S. presidents have had no arrest warrants issued.

Ukraine, the European Union, and the United States have proposed an ad hoc special tribunal to try Russia for the crime of aggression and related offenses. The U.S. wants this to be a special tribunal in order to avoid the example of the ICC itself prosecuting a non-African war criminal. Meanwhile, the Russian government has called for an investigation and prosecution of the U.S. government for sabotaging the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. These approaches are distinguishable from victor’s justice purely because there is unlikely to be any victor, and such law-enforcement-by-outlaws would need to happen simultaneously with the ongoing war or following a negotiated compromise.

We need an honest investigation in Ukraine of the likely violation of dozens of laws by multiple parties, including in the areas of:
• Facilitation of the 2014 coup
• The war in the Donbas from 2014-2022
• The invasion of 2022
• Threats of nuclear war, and the keeping of nuclear weapons in other nations in possible violation of the Nonproliferation Treaty
• The use of cluster bombs and of depleted uranium munitions
• The sabotage of Nord Stream 2
• The targeting of civilians
• Mistreatment of prisoners
• Forced conscription of protected persons and conscientious objectors to military service

Beyond criminal prosecution, we need a process of truth-and-reconciliation. A global institution designed to facilitate those processes would benefit the world. None of this can be created without a democratically representative world body that acts independently of imperial powers.

Beyond the structure of legal bodies, we need far greater joining and complying with existing treaties by national governments, and we need the creation of a greater body of clear, statutory international law.

We need that understanding of law to include the ban on war found in such treaties as the Kellogg-Briand Pact, and not the ban on so-called aggression currently recognized but never yet prosecuted by the ICC. In many wars it is absolutely indisputable that two sides are committing the horrific crime of war, but not so clear which one of them to label the aggressor.

This means substituting for the right to military defense the right to non-military defense. And that, in turn, means rapidly developing the capacity for it, at the national level and through a UN unarmed response team. This is a change beyond the wildest imagination of millions of people. But the alternative is likely nuclear apocalypse.

Advancing the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons and actually abolishing nuclear weapons appears very unlikely without abolishing massive militaries of non-nuclear weapons that engage in reckless imperial warmaking against non-nuclear states. And that appears very unlikely without reworking our system of global governance. So the choice remains between nonviolence and nonexistence, and if anyone ever told you nonviolence was simple or easy, they were not a supporter of nonviolence.

But nonviolence is far more enjoyable and honest and effective. You can feel good about it while engaged in it, not just justify it to yourself with some illusory distant goal. We need to use nonviolent action right now, all of us, to bring about the change in governments to start them using nonviolence.

Here’s a picture I took earlier today at a peace rally at the White House. We need more of these and larger!

4 Responses

  1. Dear David,

    An excellent article. Many if the proposals you make in the article have also been proposed by the World Federalist Movement and the Coalition for the UN we Need. Some of these proposals could make traction in the Peoples Pact for the Future (to be released in April) and the UN Summit of the Future.

    Best regards

  2. What the United Nations Should Be needs to be required reading in the New York State Participation in Government syllabus– a mandated course in NYS high schools. The other 49 states can consider jumping in—unlikely, yet NYS would be a start.
    WBW, please forward this article to all college and university peace and justice curriculums around the world.
    (I’m a former high school teacher of Participation In Government)

  3. Thanks, David. A well crafted and persuasive article. I agree: “The UN is the best thing we’ve got.” I would like to see WBW continue to advocate for reforms to this body. A reformed UN could be a real “beacon of courage” to lead us to a war-free planet.
    I agree with the responder Jack Gilroy that this article should be sent to college and university peace curriculums!
    Randy Converse

  4. Brilliant piece offering alternative pathways to peace and justice. Swanson lays out steps to change the binary choices currently on offer: US vs THEM, WINNERS vs LOSERS, Good vs BAD actors. We live in a non binary world. We are one people scattered across Mother Earth. We can act as one if we make wiser choices. In a world where Violence leads to more Violence, it is time, as Swanson articulates, to choose peaceful and just ways to achieve peace and justice.

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