Autumn season holds a special place in the international system for two reasons; first it commemorates the establishment of the world’s largest organization, the United Nations, as the charter was put into force on 24th October, 1945 and second, leaders from all over the world fly to New York City as the General Assembly sessions begin in this season. The UN was founded in the aftermath of the Second World War to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”. The destruction and devastation that the world faced between 1939 and 1945 led to the realization that war benefits no one and it is better to come on a single forum to discuss issues rather than to resort to violence. Today it has 193 members with an annual budget in billions of dollars. It has six main bodies including the UN General Assembly, the UN Security Council, the International Court of Justice, the Trusteeship Council, the Secretariat and the Economic and Social Council along with several specialized agencies.
Expert opinions on the success and failures of the UN are very divergent but the answer to this inquiry cannot be given in black and white terms; it is grey territory. The UN as former Secretary General Hammarskjöld said “was not created to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell”.
In its almost 73-year history the UN has made life better for millions of people particularly in the developing countries. UN Women has achieved many successes in fighting gender inequality and helping women achieve their true potential. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), World Health Organisation (WHO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) are working hard day and night to carry out welfare activities, to provide food in war-torn regions of the world, to promote education and cultural activities and to combat environmental degradation. Individuals, leaders, states and organizations all over the world are striving to accomplish the Millennium Development Goals. Perhaps the biggest success is that a major global level conflict has not occurred since 1945.
Through its peacekeeping activities, it has alleviated humanitarian crises in some places in the world.
At the same time, if one looks at the UN as a political entity, it is an utter failure.
The Indian atrocities in Kashmir, the Israeli state terrorism in Palestine, the shift of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar as part of an ‘ethnic cleansing’, genocides in Rwanda and in a UN-protected Zone in Bosnia and Herzegovina, wars in Yemen and Syria which have resulted in one of the biggest humanitarian crises in the world and the waves of extremism and xenophobia have all been talked about at the UN forum in some away or another but it has been “all talk and no action”.
Even in specialized agencies, scandals of corruption like in the 2004 Oil-for-Food Programme have caused uproars. Many have accused the UN for being the breeding ground of neo-colonialism. Diplomats and representatives make long, articulated speeches but the practical outcome to deal with political issues has been inadequate.
One is forced to think why such an enormous entity has failed in political terms. The basic reason to this lies in the structure of the UN and the fact that it started its journey with very idealistic goals.
The heart of the problem is the veto power of the five permanent members of the Security Council (USA, UK, France, China and Russia) which allows them to block any proposed resolution unilaterally.
It is quite ironic that the structure of the organ with the “primary responsibility to maintain international peace and security” by adopting legally binding resolutions is exactly the reason of its purpose not being fulfilled.
The veto is like a poison seeping through the United Nations system. In recent years, several resolutions against Israel or the Syrian regime have been blocked by the USA and Russia respectively. T
he resolutions of the General Assembly are not legally binding and can only serve as political pressure. Another problem is the financial aspect.
The UN does not generate its own revenue and depends on the contributions by the member states. It goes without saying that the biggest donors are the richest countries such as the USA and any entity cannot go against the source which keeps it functioning.
The International Court of Justice cannot force states to bring their cases to it unless they bring it themselves through consensus.
The system of the UN is essentially rigged in favour of the powerful, rich states. Thucydides, a Greek historian wrote thousands of years ago that the strong can do whatever they want and the weak must do what they are told to do and this principle is as valid today as it was then.
Some people might say that if the UN is in such a deplorable condition then it should be abolished but they forget the positive change it has brought through its specialised agencies.
In an interconnected and interdependent world, an international organization is certainly needed.
Therefore, the rational choice has to be reforms in the United Nations. The biggest reform has to be brought in the Security Council because “the world is bigger than five”. When the UN was created after the war, the need for five permanent members with veto power was understood but the world has changed and the organization must adapt to it lest it become obsolete.
The veto can either be abolished completely with no permanent members and the Council can be elected after every few years, the number of permanent members can be increased to include Africa, Latin America and the Muslim world, there can be established a norm of justifying a veto before it can be enacted or it can be made possible that at least one-third of the Council members use their veto power to block a resolution. Whatever option is taken; it must redistribute power in the Council to make the UN relevant to all countries not just a few.
Furthermore, the UN needs to find a way to generate some of its own revenue to reduce its dependency on powerful states. General Assembly resolutions should be made more than just tools of political pressure.
In the Secretariat, the Secretary-General’s appointment must not be a political appointment to cater parochial interests and the international civil servants must uphold the highest level of neutrality and integrity particularly in the matters of their homelands.
In a nutshell, the United Nations Organization is a very important part of the international system albeit with a few structural and mechanical problems but with substantial reforms, it has the utmost potential become the entity we, the citizens of the world, have all hoped for.