Toothless, but still humanity’s last hope
United Nations (UN), established on 24 October 1945 after the Second World War, was the modified form of the dysfunctional League of Nations that was founded on 10 January 1920 to prevent wars through collective security and disarmament, settle international disputes through negotiation and arbitration, resolve the territorial, political and trade-related disputes through negotiation, dialogue and multilateral treaties and conventions. But, geostrategic compulsions, the Great Depression, reparations of brutal war unjustly inflicted upon Germany, meteoric rise of Adolf Hitler, militant nationalism and waves upon waves of political instability that swept across the world due to loosening noose of colonial powers over the vast swathes of Asia and Africa caused the collapse of the League of Nations. The repercussions of the failure of this mechanism of conflict resolution through peaceful means were terrifying, dreadful and devastating. With the loss of over 50 million people, utter destruction of infrastructure of the social amenities and threatening demographic imbalance, the world leaders moved ahead to forge a global political alliance rather than regional or bilateral ones and to devise multilateral diplomatic frameworks through which legal, political and financial and trade-related issues could be sorted out amicably.
In many ways, the United Nations has proved more effective in preventing another armed conflict reminiscent of the previous global wars. The inclusive and participatory decision-making; coercive powers in the form of international law, Security Council-backed economic and military sanctions and peacekeeping military missions helped the UN emerge as a somewhat reliable third party that can be approached in case the bilateral engagements between the countries failed to secure intended objectives. The achievements of the UN in the realms of human rights, disarmament, institutionalization of international law, nonproliferation, decolonization and collapse of apartheid regimes are remarkable and have earned laurels from both opponents and ardent supporters of the organization. Different UN agencies like UNICEF, UNDP, UNESCO, WHO and many others are playing critical role in the enactment of new social order. Since 1945, the UN has helped successfully signing of 172 settlements that ended regional conflicts. Although the Bretton Woods Institutions – the IMF and the World Bank – crippled the ability of the UN to play a leading role in global financial matters, it did help countries to achieve socioeconomic advancement by promoting peaceful coexistence and enhanced connectivity. Although the UN was established with the exclusive aim of defusing political tensions, it gradually increased its area of jurisdiction and helped the world community forge consensus on health, education, climate change, law and other nonpolitical issues.
Despite relative success in reducing instances of war as an instrument of conflict-resolution, the UN failed on many occasions in preventing the flagrant breach of international law, the UN Charter and principle of peaceful coexistence that have resulted into loss of millions of innocent lives. The Srebrenica massacre of 1995 (Bosnian War), the recognition of Khmer Rouge regime out of political considerations, the criminal indifference during the Darfur crisis that caused the death of 300,000 Sudanese civilians, the Rwandan genocide that caused the extermination of more than one million people, the inability to implement its resolutions regarding the right of self-determination promised to the people of Palestine and Kashmir, particularly the recent worst abuse of state power amounting to the level of Crimes against Humanity committed by Indian and Israeli governments to suppress the legitimate demonstrations speak volumes about the failure of the UN to act decisively even in the areas under its jurisdiction: the resolution of disputes through peaceful means and enforcement of UN Declaration of Human Rights.
The dawn of the twenty-first century witnessed catastrophic failure of the UN which expedited the downfall of rules-based economic and political world order. It is extremely pertinent to unearth the underlying causes and factors that are undermining the ability of the United Nations to act decisively.
Partly due to historical burden in the form of organizational and structural weaknesses and partly due to fast-evolving geostrategic and geoeconomic environment, the UN is facing unprecedented existential threats. The undemocratic and even authoritarian decision-making in the form of highly prejudiced Veto Power is the very antithesis to the UN Charter. There is no denying the fact that the veto power was given to please the victors of the Second World War and was meant to maintain the supremacy of the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom and France – China was given the veto power later on for its demographic significance. The use of veto power, however, has been the subject of intense criticism as it helped prolong the authoritarian regimes, reinforce the occupation and legitimatize the blatant violation of human rights. It is worth quoting here that the US has used veto power 43 times to protect the Zionist state of Israel from resolutions condemning the illegal settlements and inhuman treatment meted out to the Palestinians. Without an iota of doubt, the lingering issue of Palestine is due to the stubborn, unconditional support of the US extended to Israel through veto power. On the other hand, Russia has also used the veto power to torpedo the UN Security Council resolutions aimed at curbing the severe human rights violations in Syria. Since the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2010, Russia has vetoed 11 out of 20 resolutions moved to remedy the Syrian issue, including those resolutions that demanded the immediate halt of the Syrian regime-led bombardment of Eastern Ghouta that caused the death of more than 600 people within weeks.
The US has long been an ardent proponent of the UN and it played a critical role both in diplomatic and financial terms to strengthen the rules-based political world order. Even the very concept of the UN was the brainchild of the US president Franklin D. Roosevelt. It could also be argued that more or less, the US has exploited the system for its interests, but the UN did help eliminate the centuries-old social problems confronted by humanity. Now the unprecedented wave of populism as well as the authoritarian regimes ensuing from it has irreparably damaged the credibility of the UN to act as a neutral party in resolution of conflicts. In this regard, the astonishing electoral victory of Donald Trump could be quoted as the single most important factor that has shaken the decades-old edifice of multilateralism and globalization.
Donald Trump-led onslaught continues to bulldoze global political and financial system. Soon after entering the Oval Office, President Trump announced the withdrawal of the United States from Paris Climate Accord, which was an outcome of hectic multilateral diplomacy. He has taken many other controversial decisions as well; for instance, his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the Zionist state has almost killed the idea of two states and is a betrayal of the pledges made by successive US administrations; his slapping of tariff on Chinese steel and other products and a tit-for-tat imposition of tariffs on US imports of steel and aluminium from China is potentially a destabilizing measure for WTO as it could revive protectionism in national trade policies of countries. The most recent victim of the Trumpian onslaught is the P5+1-Iran Nuclear Deal, formally known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). At the time of its inking, the said agreement was hailed as the triumph of multilateral diplomacy as world community succeeded successfully in restraining Iran from acquiring nuclear arsenal in return for ease in economic and political sanctions. Despite the fact that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had certified multiple times that the Islamic Republic was fully complying with the deal, and in spite of desperate attempts by other signatories to convince him, Trump remained stubborn and adamant to quit the deal, mainly to appease his pro-Zionist, hawkish ministers and advisers. The inauguration of US embassy in Jerusalem, on 14 May 2018, further underlined the sheer disregard for International law on the part of Trump administration.
The over-reliance of the UN on big powers for its operational and administrative needs has severely eroded the trust in its much-trumpeted neutrality. The financial and political vulnerability of the UN became evident in the wake of voting for the UNGA resolution moved by Muslim countries to denounce Trump’s decision of recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, threatened, in clear terms, those countries that would vote for the resolution and intended to pressurize the world body through naked threats of scrapping US aid and assistance. The announcement of Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad of resigning as UN High Commissioner of Human Rights due to impossible working conditions does indicate how helpless and financially crippled the UN agencies have become amidst the paramount pressure mounted by big powers. The gravity of the situation can be gauged from the fact that the cut ($285 million) to the US financial aid to the UN caused the closure of dozens of overseas humanitarian projects executed by different UN agencies.
Notwithstanding the failures and criminal indifference on the part of the UN, it is extremely vital to keep the organization running as its abolition would cause the revival of militant nationalism, tribalism and protectionist trade regimes. It is an indubitable fact that the UN did help reduce the armed conflicts and foster the environment of connectivity, cooperation and peaceful coexistence. Therefore, empowering and strengthening the UN must be the utmost priority of world nations to ensure the survival of humanity against the existential threats of nuclear Armageddon and climate change-driven annihilation.
Structural, organizational and legal reforms must be the most important pillar of the efforts aimed at improving the performance of the world body. The dominance of a few countries over 193-member-strong world body is inimical to the broader objectives of maintaining international peace and security. This authoritarian power must be scrapped immediately and the UNSC must be restructured to give equal weight to all its members, whether permanent or nonpermanent. The UN Secretary General enjoys only nominal powers; he must be empowered by allowing greater operational and financial autonomy as it would go a long way in suppressing human rights violations, abuse of state power and illegal occupation. It would convince perpetrators that Secretary General wields more powers than merely releasing statements.
The UN General Assembly was envisioned as supranational legislature that would legislate in areas which are of direct concern for every human being. The dream hitherto remain unfulfilled. Instead, UNGA turned into a body that can only pass non-binding resolutions. Even the verdicts of the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court cannot be implemented without the consent of both parties to the case. The ICJ’s verdict regarding South China Sea was flagrantly rejected by China and there are many countries that consider themselves the champion of international legal system, flagrantly violated the verdicts or misinterpreted the decisions in their favour. It is high time the resolutions given the binding powers and UNSC implemented these resolutions militarily.
Stemming the wave of populism that is sweeping across the world is crucial for sustaining the liberal world order. In this regard, bringing radical reforms in capitalist economic system, providing space for cultural, political and national sovereignty, rectifying the impact of globalization, protecting the local industries and breaking the monopoly of multinational corporations is inevitable. The revived trust in the current global order would help the UN to regain the public trust and act in the best interest of humanity.
The United Nations as a platform to resolve the issues through negotiations so as to maintain global peace and security was a unique and noble concept. Although the organization is facing existential threats owing to structural and organizational vulnerabilities, it is high time we protected this institution from collapse – alternatives are terrible and hard to even imagine. We must bring about social, political and economic reforms to consolidate the foundations of the UN in order to eliminate the poverty, illiteracy, proliferation of WMDs and protect and conserve the life-sustaining environment of the Earth.