The 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly recently kicked off in New York, USA. At the UNGA session many global and regional issues will be discussed. However, it is also an undeniable reality that a host of such issues could have been solved had the United Nations, with all its organs, played its due role. Although it has failed on many fronts, yet the UN is such an embedded part of the global order that it still matters a lot. So much so that if it was to fail, falter or just fade away, it would further erode the stability of an already fragile global order. Here is a look at some key global challenges and the role of the United Nations in meeting those.
The refugee crisis is precisely the sort of issue the United Nations was made to tackle: a global problem crying out for a global solution. Around the world, there are currently about 21.3 million refugees, 3.2 million asylum seekers, and 40.8 million migrants, according to the UN refugee agency. The agency defines refugees as people forced to flee due to armed conflict or persecution, while migrants choose to move in search of a better life. The issue has captured the world’s attention more in the past two years than at perhaps any time since World War II, seared into the public’s consciousness by photos like that of a 3-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, who drowned in the Mediterranean and the flood of migrants into Europe.
A recent study, entitled Global trends, by the UNHCR estimated 65.3 million people were displaced from their homes by conflict or persecution in 2015, up by over five million from the prior year. Many are internally displaced within the borders of their own countries, but about 21.3 million are classified as refugees.
The 1951 Refugee Convention, which most nations signed, obligates countries to offer protection to all those fleeing war and persecution. But, country after country flouts that treaty, and the United Nations has been unable to do much to compel countries to help. In its relief efforts, the United Nations struggles to raise the money it needs to provide food, blankets and medicine to the ever-expanding number of people affected by conflict.
“This crisis is one of the most urgent tests of our time. Just as failure to act in the past — for example, by turning away Jews fleeing Nazi Germany — is a stain on our collective conscience. I believe history will judge us harshly if we do not rise to this moment.”
US President Barack Obama (Speech at Leaders’ Summit on Refugees )
War and Peace
Eliminating “the scourge of war” is one of the original goals of the United Nations, and the Security Council is the arm of the organization with the mandate, and the tools, to prevent and end conflicts. The Preamble to UN Charter says: “We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war…” However, despite these ambitious targets, what we see today is that the United Nations has failed to stop world’s worst conflicts. The UN Security Council has also proved to be ineffective, in large part, because one or more of its veto-wielding permanent members have backed one warring party or another.
Mass atrocities continue in the Darfur region of Sudan. In Yemen, a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the West is implicated in the bombing of schools and hospitals. The Council’s starkest recent failure has been over Syria, with Russia backing the government as the United States, Britain and France support some opposition groups.
The five veto powers and permanent members of the Security Council – the so-called victors of the Second World War… the old boys club of 1945… the five States that have corrupted the UN Charter and corrupted the work of the UN. Applying double standards and disregard for law, they have made the organisation primarily serve their best interests rather than serve its mandate.
Though the framers of the UN Charter vowed “to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security,” yet this has proved to be a distant dream till today. Even more perplexing is the fact that the United Nations peacekeepers themselves have “tarnished the reputation of the United Nations and, far worse, traumatized many people we serve,” admits the UN Secretary General himself. And peacekeepers have sometimes been accused of hurting the civilians they were sent to protect, with claims of sexual abuse in the Central African Republic and failure to prevent a massacre in South Sudan. Perhaps most damaging, peacekeepers have been blamed for introducing cholera to Haiti, killing more than 10,000.
“The despicable acts of sexual exploitation and abuse committed by a number of UN peacekeepers and other personnel have compounded the suffering of people already caught up in armed conflict, and undermined the work done by so many others around the world.”
Ban Ki-moon (UN Secretary General )
The United Nations was established to safeguard world peace and security, development, and human rights, yet it is undeniable that it sometimes fails to protect the rights of a great many people. The Human Rights Council is a UN body dedicated to taking action against countries that violate the rights of their citizens. But some of its members are countries which regularly violate those rights.
As with so much at the United Nations, the interests of member states trump everything else.
For instance, calls to establish a commission to investigate atrocities in Yemen, where a Saudi-led military coalition is battling ethnic Houthi insurgents, were rejected by the Human Rights Council in 2015. Saudi Arabia and its most powerful ally, the United States, are members of the rights council.
In 2009, the United Nations came under withering criticism for its failure to speak out on the widespread human rights violations at the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka. Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations, vowed not to repeat that mistake and established a policy urging employees to report gross rights violations.
States are far less willing to engage with protection activities because they impact upon the immediate situation within a country. And a key weakness of UN human rights bodies is that, while they are set up for dialogue and engagement, they lack the teeth to effectively protect rights where a state is not willing to cooperate. Unlike the Security Council, human rights bodies do not have enforcement powers. Unlike international financial institutions, the UN human rights machinery does not have any leverage over states that fail to comply with their obligations.
“The international community must move beyond “grand statements of principle… [and] work to make human rights a reality in each country.”
Kofi Annan (Former UN Secretary General )
“The UN is too political, too uncoordinated, too focused on process rather than outcomes and follow-up, and too far removed from the people who actually deal with the problems of terrorism on the ground to make much of an impact, or even to appear relevant.”
Richard Barrett (Former Coordinator of UN’s Al Qaeda and Taliban Monitoring Team)
The United Nations was set up at a time when conflicts erupted among nations, and peace was negotiated among them, too. But, as terrorist groups have emerged as a pressing global problem and the menace of terrorism spreads around the world, becoming the top security priority for many countries, the United Nations has failed to adequately respond to, or even define, the problem, which doesn’t easily fit within the UN’s state-centric view of the world.
The Security Council has imposed sanctions on individual terrorists, freezing their assets and banning travel. But there is no internationally accepted definition of terrorism, and not everyone agrees on who is a terrorist.
Moreover, United Nations peacekeepers are not prepared for counter-terrorism operations, though they occasionally find themselves in the thick of war zones where known terrorist groups are active. Troops with the peacekeeping mission in northern Mali, for instance, have frequently been targeted by insurgents affiliated with Al Qaeda.
“The UN has been unsuccessful in confronting the question of state-funded terrorist activity, in dealing with the political, economic, and social root causes of terrorism, and in agreeing and promulgating a global narrative on countering violent extremism.”
Former Prime Minister of Australia
The United Nations Charter states that “The United Nations shall place no restrictions on the eligibility of men and women to participate in any capacity and under conditions of equality in its principal and subsidiary organs.”
Gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world. Providing women and girls with equal access to education, healthcare, decent work, and representation in political and economic decision-making processes will fuel sustainable economies and benefit societies and humanity at large.
In 1995, the UN adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the most progressive blueprint ever for advancing women’s rights. The Platform for Action made comprehensive commitments under 12 critical areas of concern. It imagined a world where each woman and girl can exercise her freedoms and choices, and realize all her rights, such as to live free from violence, to go to school, to participate in decisions and to earn equal pay for equal work.
But, 21 years after the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action established a target of 50/50 gender parity at the professional and higher levels, progress even in Un’s own ranks is simply too slow. In 2013, of the 32,000 staff employed by the UN in professional categories worldwide, 41.6 percent were women. But they are fewer in the upper echelons of the secretariats, and system-wide, only 30 percent of Directors are women. Above that, the air is even thinner for women, who represent only slightly more than a quarter of all top executives.
How can the UN, which is supposed to spearhead the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, including Goal 5 on gender equality, be a credible actor for change when it finds it so difficult to reach parity among its own staff, when talented women moving up the ranks still face a glass ceiling and institutional bias and when many of its meetings and panels feature only men?
“Girls are one of the most powerful forces for change in the world: When their rights are recognized, their needs are met, and their voices are heard, they drive positive change in their families, their communities, and the world.”
Kathy Calvin (United Nations Foundation President & CEO)
Climate change is now affecting every country on every continent. It is disrupting national economies and affecting lives, costing people, communities and countries dearly today and even more tomorrow. People are experiencing the significant impacts of climate change, which include changing weather patterns, rising sea level, and more extreme weather events. Without action, the world’s average surface temperature is projected to rise over the 21st century and is likely to surpass 3 degrees Celsius this century—with some areas of the world expected to warm even more. The poorest and most vulnerable people are being affected the most.
Under Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations has focused on climate change as the top issue. His greatest legacy stands to be an agreement that the nations of the world reached in Paris in December to curb carbon emissions. Much of the impetus for the deal came from China and the United States, the world’s two biggest polluters, which together vowed to stave off the worst effects of climate change.
It showed that the United Nations can come up with global solutions to global problems — but only when the world’s most powerful countries let it.
“The UN has helped the battle against climate change mostly by creating political moments that add pressure on governments and focus the public’s attention on this most vital issue of our time.”
Annie Leonard (Executive Director Greenpeace USA)
Despite all it failures and successes, the UN has many core strengths. It has unmatched international legal legitimacy and is capable, therefore, of speaking with a universal voice. The only need is that the UN must re-invent itself and assume a more proactive role to maintain international peace and security by taking effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace. We need a UN which structurally integrates its peace and security, sustainable development, humanitarian and human rights agendas as a strategic continuum. We need equally a UN with a comprehensive ready-reaction capability, both as an effective provider of security stabilisation and emergency humanitarian support, to deal with crises which erupt without warning.