With UN toothless, who can prevent global catastrophe?

With UN toothless, who can prevent global catastrophe?

Attending the press conference given by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in Moscow last week, I did not expect that anything would surprise or reassure me about the troubled future the organization faces. I was not let down. 

Over the past several years, the UN has been tackling the deepest crisis in its history. The international community first expressed deep concerns regarding its efficiency more than 20 years ago and has been discussing reforms since 2000, without ever getting close to seeing them implemented. During last week’s press conference, the most popular questions amongst the audience were on this subject. 

The UN is failing not only on the level of the Security Council, which is paralyzed by the geopolitical rivalry of the US and Russia, but also among its other institutions that demonstrate an inability to tackle the challenges of the modern world, including the deteriorating political climate, human rights, ecology, cyber security, and the spread of extremism.

For all this interrogation regarding the UN’s failure to adapt to new realities, Guterres’ only answer was that the secretary-general has little power and he is not going to interfere, as this should be decided by the member states. He stated that the UN is “totally committed to a process of reform of the secretariat,” and that it is eager to transform from a bureaucratic institution into an effective instrument of coordination, working for peoples and countries. Is his response a matter of his limited power or an unwillingness to take responsibility? Pointing out that it is problematic to make the member states talk and come to conclusions is not a convicting argument to hear from the secretary-general of the United Nations. 

Meanwhile, the UN is losing its reputation and prestige. This did not start yesterday — it’s a long process that has developed over many years. One of the strongest blows was the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, which claimed more than one million lives and which the UN failed to avert despite stepping into the conflict with its peacekeeping forces. 

The UN has also struggled in tackling the world’s climate issues, with it being unable to force countries to work together on minimizing the damaging impact of their industries on the planet’s ecology. Meanwhile, military interventions not sanctioned by the Security Council, such as the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, created dangerous precedents that inspired others to cross the red line while proving to the US that it could act with impunity. 

 UN action on the conflict in Syria has been paralyzed by the rivalry of the two superpowers on the Security Council.

Maria Dubovikova

The 2011 international intervention in Libya was also not backed unanimously by the Security Council, but the text of resolution 1973 was interpreted by the NATO-led coalition as a legal basis for military action. The UN has since failed to negotiate an end to Libya’s bloody conflict in another sign of the dramatic decline of the organization. 

Meanwhile, UN action on the conflict in Syria has been paralyzed by the rivalry of the two superpowers on the Security Council. Since 2012, there has not been a UN peacekeeping force on the ground in Syria, while conflict settlement has been left to the countries with certain political and geopolitical interests, but which are not concerned with peace in the country. 

The situation around Palestine is another nail in the coffin of the UN. This nail, together with many others, is being actively hammered in by the US. The White House does not even hide its disdain toward the UN; it is merely an obstacle rather than an instrument of global regulation and management. The recent US withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council is very alarming as it downplays the whole UN mechanism. 

When asking Guterres a question about Palestine and whether the UN would step into the current situation, I already knew the answer. Guterres characterized the situation in Palestine as a deadlock, though saying that he himself “is a strong believer in the two-state solution,” with the capitals of the two states in Jerusalem. “This is the way to go. But we are now not moving in this direction,” he said. The most striking and painful aspect was his words that the “capacity of the UN is limited in a sense that there is not much that can be done by the UN itself. There’s a big division.” Stating that there is no “plan B” for the Palestine-Israeli conflict at the end of his vague answer to me, the UN secretary-general has unfortunately demonstrated that the UN has no idea how to proceed. This impotency gives a green light to Israel and the US to implement their plans, meaning Palestine will ultimately have no chance of achieving statehood.

The UN is no longer the instrument of regulation the international community needs to keep order and enforce the rule of law. In the absence of alternatives, the world seems set to be plunged into greater uncertainty, realpolitik and a more explosive global crisis. In attempts to secure themselves, individual countries will turn more to nationalism and protectionism, leading us toward disintegration. We are moving at high speed in that direction and it looks like there is no one left to step on the brakes. 

  • Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub). Twitter: @politblogme


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