At least 72 civilians, including 20 children, died in the attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun. All evidence points to the culpability of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, yet all that UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres did was to note that the attack shows war crimes continue in Syria and to call for an investigation into who was responsible.
“The horrific events of yesterday demonstrate unfortunately that war crimes are going on in Syria. International humanitarian law is being violated frequently,” Mr Guterres said as he went into a Syria aid conference in Brussels.
Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan condemned the attack, reminding the secretary general that last December Ireland was among a number of countries that pressed for the adoption of a UN resolution calling for strong action in Syria. An investigation hardly constitutes that.
The main problem is that the UN can never be more than the sum of its parts and if its constituent nations are not prepared to act, it is rendered powerless. The response by the United States, France and Britain to the attack was equally bland. They submitted a draft resolution to the Security Council demanding a full investigation — hardly decisive action on behalf of three of the UN’s most powerful members.
It is worth recalling the words of Dag Hammarskjöld, the second UN secretary general, who died mysteriously in an airline crash in 1961. He put the mission of the organisation most succinctly, saying it “was created not to lead mankind to heaven but to save humanity from hell”.
Yet, more than 70 years since its foundation, it is mostly in heavenly pursuits that the UN has triumphed. Its children’s organisation, Unicef, has provided an education for millions while the UN’s development programmes have helped former colonies to be self governing. The UN agency, the World Health Organisation, has also achieved much.
But the UN has been only partially successful in saving humanity from hell. Historians are still divided on whether it was instrumental in saving the world from nuclear armageddon in the aftermath of World War II. While UN peacekeepers — among them Irish soldiers — have had notable successes, the organisation has been at best ineffective, at worst a concerned bystander at genocide in the Balkans, Rwanda and elsewhere. It is worth recalling that the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica in Bosnia occurred after it had been declared by the UN as a ‘safe area’.
Chemical weapons have been around for centuries, at least as early as 600 BC, when the Athenians poisoned the wells of the Spartans. They create a special kind of revulsion, and attempts to eliminate them have been going on since the agreement in 1675 between France and the Holy Roman Empire to ban the use of poisoned musket balls. Six international treaties later, chemical weapons are still being used.