Union presidency
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Oxford Union has no confidence in the United Nations

On February 1st, the Oxford Union debated the motion “This House Has No Confidence in the United Nations”. Both the proposition and the opposition featured high-profile speakers and diplomats. 

Speakers included Craig Mokhiber, who recently resigned from the UN over the Israel-Palestine crisis; Geoffrey Nice, renowned international judge; and Lord David Hannay, influential British diplomat.

Ben Murphy, Union press and sponsorship, opened the debate for the proposition. He argued that the UN was “founded with a grand vision of peace”, but it had now become a “utopian fantasy that cannot be achieved”, making it “no longer effective”.

Murphy questioned the “united” character of the UN, and compared the institution to the League of Nations. He highlighted the unfair advantage that the UK and the US have on the Security Council through their veto right, calling the UN a “playground for [their] bullying”. Referencing failures like the Khmer Rouge genocide, the invasion of Iraq, and the Syrian civil war, he described the UN as a “laughing stock”, built on “irony and hypocrisy.”

Shaezmina Khan, Union women and gender minorities officer, started speeches for the opposition. Khan stated that the UN is “taken for granted”, and is an “imperfect instrument operating in an imperfect world”. She said the UN has “prevented nuclear Armageddon”, that it “protected 35 million refugees” last year alone, and that it has achieved “far more” than its critics admit.

Geoffrey Nice, a British barrister and judge, spoke next for the proposition. He participated in the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, and is currently the chair of the Uyghur tribunal. He is also a Keble College alumnus. 

Nice stated that the UN “fails in its core policies”, and that these failures “put us all at risk”. He deemed the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia a “disgrace to the UN”, arguing that no UN member state had ever followed the guidelines of the Genocide Convention – with the exception of Gambia against Myanmar and South Africa against Israel. Nice concluded: “We must express no confidence so that they know what is left for them to do.”

James Kariuki, UK deputy permanent representative to the UN in New York, continued for the opposition. He cited several achievements of the UN, such as nearly eradicating polio, being ahead of most governments in calling for action on climate change, and keeping nuclear reactors safe in Ukraine. He stated that “if we didn’t have the UN architecture, we would have to invent it.”

Kariuki then argued that “just because you can’t fix everything, it doesn’t mean you give up on fixing anything.” He described the UN as a “remarkable construct,” that “represents and reflects the world we live in”, in which “the majority are striving daily for a more […] peaceful world.”

James MacKenzie, on the Union Secretary’s committee, spoke next for the proposition. He called the UN a “blatant failure”, and enumerated cases where the UN had failed to “fulfil its intended purpose.” 

He cited the civil war in Syria, where the interests of individual members of the Security Council proved the institution to be “inadequate” and perpetuated “global inequalities”; “feeble” responses to human rights violations, for instance in Yemen; and finally the “abysmal failure” of the UN’s social development program. MacKenzie concluded that we “must hold the UN accountable”, and expect more actions and transparency.

Angela Kane, German diplomat, then made a speech for the opposition. She has held various offices in the UN, in the Secretariat, the World Bank, and in Disarmament.

Kane defended that UN member states were held accountable by the institution, and commented on humanitarian interventions: “someone needs to do it, who is going to do it if it’s not the United Nations?”.

She emphasised that the challenges that the UN addresses, such as the pandemic and climate change, are all “interconnected”, and that “conflicts do not carry passports”. She stated that the UN will be needed to deal with future issues like AI or water scarcity, as well as monitoring chemical weapons, for instance in Syria. She concluded by citing a recent survey that found that 63 percent of people still have confidence in the UN.

Craig Mokhiber, former UN human rights official and international human rights law specialist, spoke last for the proposition. He resigned from the UN in October 2023 over the Israel-Palestine crisis, calling Israel’s intervention “textbook genocide” and accusing the UN of failing to act.

Mokhiber opened his speech by stating that UNWRA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees) workers are being “slaughtered in Gaza,” and that they have been “abandoned” by the UN. He further criticised the US’ invasion of Iraq, the IMF’s austerity measures “imposed” on developing countries, and Israel’s “slaughtering” of civilians in Gaza.

Mokhiber argued that “time after time, the political leadership of the UN has chosen […] to bow to power”, citing cases such as Bosnia, Myanmar, and Gaza where the UN did not act because of pressures from the “big five”. He stated that millions were “sacrifice[d] at the altar of political expediency”, encouraged a thorough reform program of the UN, and concluded: “The UN was created merely to save us from hell […] but even by that standard, the organisation is still failing.”

Lord David Hannay, British diplomat, closed the debate for the opposition. Throughout his career, he held various offices in the Middle East and the US, and served as the UK’s permanent representative to the UN in New York for five years. He is also a New College alumnus. 

Hannay named several failures and delays in the current objectives of the UN, describing them as a “bad patch” in a broader cycle. He warned that “it is not a wise thing to turn your back on the UN”, and expressed his opinion that the UN Charter works satisfactorily, but that “some reform is needed.”

Hannay acknowledged that the UN was “not doing enough” against climate change, future pandemics, or nuclear weapons, but said the “best way” to ensure this happens is to “keep giving support to the only organisation that can achieve this, but has not yet done so.” He concluded that the “UN will always be imperfect [and] it could be doing a lot better,” which is why it should receive support.

The motion passed, with 148 voting in favour and 90 against.

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Image Description: the Oxford Union chamber