The UN is only as good as its member states
Seventy-five years ago this month, the first General Assembly of the UN, attended by officials from 51 nations, convened at the Methodist Central Hall in London, and was followed a week later by the inauguration of the Security Council. Those were days of grave trauma resulting from the horrors of the Second World War, but also of hope, renewal and a great belief that humanity could end its habitual engagement with mass violence and bloodshed and take the path to a world in which universal values of peace, respect for human rights and linear improvement in the human condition were possible for the many, not the few.
A world in line with the principles of the UN would be one where justice and freedom prevail and states behave in accordance with international laws and treaties; not one where might makes right. The creed of this nascent world-governing body was based on a firm belief in equal rights for all people and all nations regardless of their relative power or status, and the declaration that its mission was “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”
Three-quarters of a century on, the UN’s universal vision is far from accomplished and, though the challenges ahead might not be as daunting as they were back in the aftermath of the Second World War, they are still formidable. It is sort of a pastime for some to blame the UN for the faults of the world whenever and wherever a war is not averted or brought to an end, the mass violation of human rights takes place, or poverty and under-development remains persistent. And it would be heartening to think that the UN could be greater than the sum of its parts. But this would require member states to overcome their tendency to see international affairs through the very narrow prism of their own national interest and instead invest in reaching for a broad consensus that serves their interests not at the expense of others, but in tandem with others. Regrettably, member states’ inability or unwillingness to do this diminishes the vision presented by the UN’s founders that is enshrined in its charter.
There was logic to the structure and powers entrusted to the different organs of the UN, predominantly the Security Council, which reflected the postwar conditions and the international balance of power at the time. The Security Council, seen by some as a visionary project and by others as a naive undertaking, was meant to become a kind of world Cabinet with sufficient clout to ensure peace and stability — a goal that was supposed to be aided by handing disproportionate power to the victors of the Second World War.
A relevant and effective UN should be one that is at the heart of the issues of concern to citizens of the world.
Today, it is only too evident that this structure is not fit for purpose. Over and over again we have seen it in a state of paralysis when confronted by a crisis, unable to prevent wars and mass atrocities, end the proliferation of nuclear weapons or eradicate inequalities. On all such issues, the permanent members of the Security Council have repeatedly proved that they operate along the old nation-state demarcation lines while supporting and maintaining their allies. The General Assembly is also far from being free of this partisan approach and, with its much more limited powers, is little more than a talking shop that reinforces divisions instead of aspiring to bridge them.
For too long, the debate over how best to reform the Security Council has failed to yield results. It was suggested that increasing the number of permanent members would better reflect the distribution of power in the current international system and introduce new members from Africa and Latin America. It has also been proposed that the UN secretary-general be granted comprehensive powers and be selected for a single, longer term that would make him or her less susceptible to the pressure from member states that comes with the need to be re-elected. Such reforms will not cure all the UN’s ills, but they would supply new impetus in the right direction.
Yet, despite the justified criticism and even disenchantment with the UN, we cannot ignore the fact that there is more to it than the Security Council and the General Assembly. In its wide range of committees, issues of global concern from gender empowerment to the peaceful use of outer space, food security, health, and atomic energy are discussed and policies are agreed between member states. The organization’s specialized agencies, programs and funds, such as the Development Program, Environment Program, UNESCO, UN Women and UNICEF to name just a few, are promoting peace, security and human rights through global projects that reduce inequality, enhance women’s empowerment, act as a voice for the environment, protect children’s rights, improve education, and protect historical and cultural rights. In an ocean of criticism — much of it justified — over the UN’s inability to influence core issues of concern in international affairs, it is worth reminding ourselves of these achievements.
In the midst of a devastating pandemic, it is becoming even more apparent that we would have all benefited from an efficient world governing body with the necessary resources, powers and firm leadership to deal with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). A relevant and effective UN should be one that is at the heart of the issues of concern to citizens of the world.
Nevertheless, as well as the COVID-19 challenge, there are other issues where the UN system has failed to play an adequate part, including the challenges posed by the increasing threat of climate change, the opportunities and disruptive effects of new technologies, record numbers of refugees and displaced people, and devastating outbreaks of intrastate, as much as interstate, violence. In all of these issues — as with its continued championing of the Sustainable Development Goals and efforts to make them a reality — the UN must regain the same degree of conviction that drove the visionaries who first created it.
However, such a transformation will remain wishful thinking until the dark shadows of unilateralism and nationalist populism, which have engulfed the international community and continue to threaten some of the progress made in the 75 years since the UN was established, have been dispersed.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.