There are times when it seems like the United Nations is just begging the world not to take it seriously. Last week, South Africa, India, Portugal, Germany, and Colombia were elected to the U.N. Security Council, which is by far the organization's most important decision-making body. Within hours of its election, South Africa pledged to "synchronize" its agenda on the council with the African Union's—which apparently means lobbying for the deferral of Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir's International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) arrest warrant. Bashir, whose regime has supported and even coordinated genocide in both Darfur and the South Sudan, was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2008. The indictment means he could theoretically be arrested if he ever sets foot in another I.C.C. member state. But it also means that those states could torpedo the entire international legal system by refusing to arrest him, or by convincing other states or international bodies to simply ignore the I.C.C. indictment.
Regardless of what one thinks of the U.N. or the I.C.C., it's undeniable that South Africa's position could have horrible real-world consequences. The South Sudan independence referendum—and the war that could come as a result of it—is an issue that the Security Council will likely deal with during South Africa's term. Bashir now has an apparent ally on the Security Council, and it's one that has little respect for the U.N.'s main vehicle for prosecuting war crimes: namely, the council's ability to refer certain extreme cases to the I.C.C. That leaves him free to crush the South Sudanese independence movement, a movement which has the potential to free millions of people from a brutal dictatorship, with total impunity.
But South Africa's pro-Bashir activism wasn't the week's prime example of the U.N.'s ambivalence towards itself. That distinction goes to Canada's failed candidacy for the Security Council. Canada has a long and proud tradition at the U.N. Indeed, Canadians both conceived and commanded the first-ever U.N. peacekeeping force after the Suez crisis in 1956, and Canadians were some of the last peacekeepers on the ground during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. They're a troop-contributing nation in Afghanistan, and they haven't recently offered political or diplomatic cover for some of the world's worst regimes (which is more than can be said of both India and South Africa).
Yet Canada was basically eliminated in the first round of voting, offering further evidence of the U.N.'s tragic lack of seriousness towards some of the biggest problems on Earth. U.S. taxpayers are currently picking up almost a quarter of the tab for an organization that seems increasingly committed to its own irrelevance.