The formation of the United Nations in 1945 is no swindle to the post-colonial world. The UN and its forerunner the League of Nations set out in similar circumstances, yet the UN has been more subjected to unrelenting criticism. Sidesplitting is the thought that the UN, which started as an association of “all peace-loving countries,” and aimed to create a world where peace and harmony would reign supreme, has witnessed more wars and more bloodshed than at any time before its advent. Why? This is a much convoluted question as the UN, at one end of the spectrum has fuelled more global chaos — entailing structural, functional and scandalous criticisms — while on the other, the supporters of love and freedom still believe that it single-handedly holds solutions to the world’s greatest problems.
The introductory paragraph raises another imperative question: why the United Nations, at present, tends to face a multitude of gridlocks? While former ambassadors to the UN, Dore Gold and John R. Bolton have put in tenacious efforts listing the predicaments the organization faces, what still is to be found out is why it is in such a tribulation. I believe a few failed peacekeeping missions cannot lead to such havoc; there is certainly more to it.
Out of the prevalent criticisms, the most conspicuous is the one related to the outdated structure of the “world body”. The same five countries, the victors of the World War II, have been pulling the UN strings since 1945. The role of these elite countries (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and the United States) in UN seems to be absolute. These five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) are all nuclear powers and they have formalized an exclusive nuclear club. Their supremacy ignites the accusations that the UNSC addresses only their strategic interests and political motives, especially in humanitarian interventions. An example of this chronic bias is that the oil-rich Kuwait was safeguarded in 1991, but no aid or asylum was provided to the Rwandans faced with genocide in 1997.
An even bigger criticism is that a non-nuclear country may serve in the Security Council only as a non-permanent member; not a permanent one. It not only hinders the democratization of the organization, but furthers the ambitions of autocratic nations.
Moreover each of these ‘elite’ countries wields veto power — a permanent member can halt any possible UN action by vetoing the matter. This, over the years, has led to a virtual freezing of some major issues in the Council like the Syrian War and the Ukraine Crisis. One country’s objection, rather than the opinions of most countries, ties the hands of the UN rendering it unable to aptly respond to a crisis. Since 1982, the US has vetoed a staggering tally of 32 UNSC resolutions critical of Israel; more than the vetoes by other permanent members combined. Russia has also vetoed several resolutions including the notable endeavours to impose sanctions on Syria during the Syrian Civil War and to condemn Russia’s own annexation of Crimea in 2014. In the case of the latter, Russia’s lone veto overruled the thirteen other votes in favour of the condemnation. The veto is no less than a threat to human rights as it promotes the political self-interests of the P5.
It is due to this veto power that today many issues still stand unresolved in the UNSC. This, quintessentially, means that in the modern world of the 21st century, the UN lacks an effective instrument to bring to justice an aggressor country that has stolen the territory of another sovereign state.
The structural distresses of the UN have led to the erosion of its functional etiquettes and its effectiveness on the world stage. Although the UN forms a sprawling system, with 15 autonomous agencies, 11 semi-autonomous funds and programmes, and numerous other bodies, yet there is no central entity to oversee them all. The Secretary-General tries to coordinate their actions but he has no authority over many of them. The appalling dysfunction of the UN became elaborate when recently the World Health Organization (WHO) was blamed for the delay in recognizing the Ebola epidemic. This was sheer callousness that country directors of WHO in Africa reported the Ebola threat to the Africa regional director, instead of reporting it directly to the chief of the Geneva-based Organization.
Such drawbacks highlight the question: is the UN is even relevant in the 21st century? While the UN’s first and second Charter mandates require the organization: “To maintain international peace and security… (and if necessary to enforce the peace by) taking preventive or enforcement action,” however, due to its restrictive administrative structure, the permanent UNSC members have themselves prevented the UN from fully implementing its mandates. Without the unanimous approval and support of P5, the toothless UN can only observe, report on, or simply make recommendations regarding international conflicts.
Other critics, and even its proponents, question UN’s effectiveness and relevance since in most high-profile cases, it has failed to resolve conflicts. For example, conflicts related to Israel have long occupied a large amount of debate, time, resolutions and resources of the UN. But, the UN still fails to focus proportionately on allegations of Israeli abuses.
The bureaucratic dimension of the UN has also been a cause of frustration. Between the start of the Somali Civil War in 1988 and the fall of the Siad Barre regime in January 1991, the UN missed, at least, three big opportunities to prevent major human tragedies. When the UN tried, though belatedly, to provide humanitarian assistance, it was outperformed by NGOs as their workers proved to be more competent and dedicated.
In addition to the criticism of the basic approach, the United Nations has also been a prey to a number of scandals. There were allegations of widespread corruption and abuse in UN’s Oil for Food Program especially that some of its profits were unlawfully diverted to the Government of Iraq and to UN officials. What outdid this scandal was the reports that there was a rapid increase in prostitution in Cambodia, Mozambique, Bosnia and Kosovo after UN and, in the case of the latter two, NATO peacekeeping forces moved in. The arrival of peacekeeping troops was associated with a rapid rise in child prostitution cases.
These ghastly censures do not end here. There is widespread behind-the-scenes jockeying for top jobs in the UN Secretariat and UN agencies, not to mention seats on key bodies like the Human Rights Council and the Security Council. It is often alleged that those who get the coveted slots are not the best qualified.
A rather more significant and the latest allegation levelled against the UN is that of globalization. In today’s world, the UN is seen as a non-state actor, wielding immoderate power, whilst simultaneously materializing the concept of a unipolar world. But this notion seems to threaten the concept of state sovereignty. The argument levitating on the world stage is: whether the UN wants to bring in the concept of ‘pooled sovereignty.’ As to a lot of realist critics, this idea is totally absurd for they forbid coexistence, because it seems to contradict with their ‘nation-state’s self-interest theory.’ However, these accusations give birth to a significantly important narrative.
This narrative withholds the question does the UN call for reformation, and if so, does it call for structural as well as functional reforms? Prior efforts to reform the Security Council have floundered. The fault lies not just with the five permanent members, who are not willing to share power, but also with regional powers competing for permanent spaces on an expanded Council.
There is an even more urgent reform required and that is changing the major powers’ attitudes toward prioritizing the UN when building the conditions for peace. The powerful states often treat the UN as if it were something to be tolerated rather than championed. They frequently marginalize the UN in the peacemaking process instead of putting it in front and at the centre.
Moreover, the entire body of the UN work, including peacekeeping and economic and social development programmes costs $30 billion a year — only 1.76 per cent of the $1.7 trillion that nations spend annually on arms. The UN has a lot to do but has too little money, as it is in a permanent financial crisis due to the unwillingness of many members to pay their contributions on time. Possible solutions to reform UN finances are a ‘reserve fund’ or even a ‘world tax’. As long as the UN’s budget remains tightly constrained, it cannot be effective.
General Assembly reform is another important issue; as it is usually only on the sidelines of mainstream debates and can only make non-binding recommendations. There have been suggestions to make GA resemble a bicameral parliamentary assembly and thus act as a ‘World Parliament’; whether this is likely, is questionable though.
The Economic and Social Council has been criticized, as it has become overshadowed by institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank, which are lacking democratic processes, transparency and accountability. There have been suggestions to replace ECOSOC with a smaller and more effective “Social and Economic Security Council”. Furthermore, a reform of international law should be considered. While the vast number of international law treaties affecting international trade, economics and human rights has proved very effective, laws prohibiting the use of force have been less so, as states primarily still follow their own interests, such as the forceful regime change in Iraq by the US-led coalition.
Conclusively, the United Nations does call for certain aforementioned pertinent reforms because its importance as a supranational power is what needs to remain static, for the world to work in peace and harmony. The United Nations would evidently flourish as a successful transnational peacekeeping organization if it aims to bolster the love and the indomitable role of our open minds, hearts, souls and spirits in our individual and collective ascensions to a truly better and more beautiful world.