Major changes needed to bring the UN into the 21st century
When the UN was founded in 1945, following the end of the Second World War, it replaced the League of Nations, which had failed to prevent that war. The new organization consisted of 51 member nations, with special powers for the five key Allied countries that won the war — the US, the Soviet Union, China, France and the UK.
Those five nations ratified the UN Charter, which defined how the new international organization would operate, creating a General Assembly for all members and a Security Council for the five founding members. Resolutions agreed in the UNGA are advisory but carry moral weight, while UNSC resolutions are enforceable as international law.
The UNSC can also make recommendations to the UNGA on admitting new member states. UN membership has now more than tripled to 193 nations.
At the time the UN was founded, the major focus was on preventing another world war and, almost immediately, it faced its first major obstacle when the Cold War erupted between the US and the Soviet Union. This divided the world once again, not in outright conflict but in a diplomatic conflict and limited military incursions.
The UNSC today consists of 15 members, including the five founding permanent members and 10 additional seats that change hands each year. But the UNSC is handicapped by the ongoing ability of any of the five permanent members to issue a veto to block any decision, even if a majority of the council’s 15 members agree.
The UNSC is handicapped by the ongoing ability of any of the five permanent members to issue a veto to block any decision
That veto power has been the key factor that has undermined the ability of the UN to change with the times. Over the past 78 years, many things have changed. The year 2023 is so much different to 1945, yet the UNSC continues to operate like an old jalopy that struggles on despite its broken engine and worn-out seats.
The UN needs change. Real change. Change that gives all members of the UNGA a stronger voice in world affairs, while respecting population-weighted variances between countries. For example, China is today home to 1.4 billion people, while Qatar has a population of just 2.7 million.
In fact, while the UN has 193 members, there are actually 234 recognized countries and “dependent territories” with independent governments, nearly five times the number the UN represented 78 years ago. For example, Puerto Rico is an American territory but it has its own provisional government and wide-ranging, divergent interests.
The point is that the UNSC holds the world hostage to the divisions that exist among the five permanent members, with any one of those five members able to block progress by using their veto for any reason and without review.
That problem could easily be addressed if the UN Charter was changed. For example, any UNSC permanent member that uses its veto should be required to get the backing of a supermajority of the UNGA membership. So, if, for instance, the US vetoed a resolution condemning Israel’s war crimes in the Occupied Territories, that veto would have to be supported by 66 percent of the UNGA’s 193 members — 128 countries — for it to be valid.
This would prevent the UNSC’s permanent members from acting like global dictators and would give the UNGA a say on the world events that are addressed by the UNSC. The permanent members would be forced to defend their vetoes and convince at least 128 member nations that their actions were in the best interests of the world, rather than merely themselves and their client states.
Likewise, the change would prevent the Russians from vetoing UNSC resolutions that defend Ukraine, which has been forced to defend itself from a military invasion that Moscow launched in February last year. Without any pressure from the UNSC or muscle from the UNGA, the war will continue endlessly, resulting in tens of thousands of military and civilian fatalities.
The UN is needed to enforce the laws that protect those who are less powerful and are victimized by the powerful
The UN was created to prevent exactly this kind of war from starting, but it has not been able to do that. Not in Ukraine. Not in the Middle East. In reality, nowhere. So, the UN has failed in the mission it set out for itself in 1945.
However, at no time has a functioning UN been needed more than it is today. The power of individual nations, regardless of population size, has now increased beyond simple measures of military manpower, armaments and weaponry to include cyberwarfare, which has proven to be destructive and debilitating.
What needs to happen is for the UNSC to create a review committee that has the power to recommend changes to the UN Charter. It then needs to facilitate a process through which those changes can be implemented.
Unless this is done, the UN will continue to be eclipsed by the growth of so many other international “mini-UNs,” like the G20, BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which all impact global governance in a way that was originally intended to be done by the UN. In fact, one could argue that these cliques were created specifically because the UN has failed to effectively address the global issues raised by their individual member states.
The problem is, of course, that if the world leaves the challenges to these groupings, the solutions will be driven by individual need rather than by global imperative. The nations in BRICS, for example, only consider what is best for their membership, rather than what is best for the world.
The UN is needed to enforce the laws that protect those who are less powerful and are victimized by the powerful. The principles of the rule of law and the International Court of Justice are sacrosanct, though they have been willfully ignored by some nations whenever it suits them.
Human rights is not a regional issue but rather a global issue. Climate Change, humanitarian assistance for the needy and the challenges facing refugees, as well as the need to have one forum for all that weighs up the rights and wrongs of military conflicts, are all things that need a world body, rather than a narrowly focused club.
The first club that needs to be changed is the UNSC. Until there is true global equity, the UN will never be anything more than a platform for self-promotion and angry debate with no results.
- Ray Hanania is an award-winning former Chicago City Hall political reporter and columnist. He can be reached on his personal website at www.Hanania.com. X: @RayHanania