The UN At 75: A Glass Half Full Or One Draining Through The Cracks – OpEd


By Dr Palitha Kohona*

As the United Nations enters its 75th year, faded photographs stare down at corridors emptied by Covid 19 and ageless memorabilia faintly glisten in the semi darkness. Almost a sad reflection of the lofty dreams and aspirations of its founders not fully realised.

Three quarters of a century at its Charter mandated tasks, of saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war, reaffirming faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, establishing conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and promoting social progress and better standards of life “in larger freedom…” , it has been legitimately asked, as we toast our diamond jubilee,  whether the UN has been a success so far. It is certainly time to honestly take stock and review our performance and assess whether we have done justice to the hoary expectations of our creators.

The UN Charter, which was signed on 26 June 1945 by 50 states, encapsulated the hopes of a world devastated by war and it honestly aspired to avoid future wars and make the world a better place.

The right-wing media, in particular in the West, has tended to focus the spotlight on the UN’s failings and its cost.

Unusually this year, the deadly menace of the grim reaper, Covid19, hangs over the world with its vicious scythe reaping hundreds of thousands of lives.

After the creation of the UN, we went through a Cold War when the two superpowers of the day confronted each other in deadly earnest but did not fire their weapons and run the risk of mutual nuclear annihilation. The use of well-functioning conflict management mechanisms assisted in avoiding a mutually devastating catastrophe. More due to the efforts of sagacious diplomats working in foreign ministries and visionary leaders rather than the efforts of the world body itself.

But the UN and other mechanisms provided the fora for a range of patiently negotiated disarmament and arms control initiatives, despite the difficulties posed by the times. The world witnessed the conclusion of a nuclear non-proliferation treaty in 1968, a biological and toxin weapons convention in 1972, a chemical weapons convention in 1993 and the comprehensive test ban treaty in 1996. The arms trade treaty was signed in 2013. Not insignificant achievements, given the circumstances. In addition to the multilateral agreements, significant bilateral arms limitation and disarmament treaties were also concluded and the international community gratefully blessed them.

Eventually, one superpower forced the collapse of the other through sheer economic pressure. During the period of the Cold War, the UN could play only a low-key role, if any at all, in resolving the bloody conflicts and proxy wars instigated by the superpowers, as the resolution of most required their concurrence and people perished by the thousands. It was, nevertheless, convenient to blame the UN for the carnage.

The end of the Cold War restored the faith that the world body would be able to make more purposeful progress through genuinely cooperative efforts. Sadly, today we are witnessing a worryingly full-blown confrontation between the emerging power China and the US, the global hegemon for the almost a century. The confrontation spans military matters, trade, technology and even food, and is almost a replay of the 1980s when the US confronted the Soviet Union. The gauntlet has been thrown at China by the remaining superpower, the US, which was curiously its strategic partner since 1972. China is now designated the newly emerging strategic challenger to the US, economically, politically, technologically and militarily.

The Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy has identified Russia and China as revisionist powers seeking to undermine US global interests and is rapidly disengaging itself from China in multiple ways, including militarily, in trade, and diplomatically. While the increasing hostility between the two powers has encouraged some countries to side with the US for possible gain, the majority of the countries of the West Pacific and Indian Ocean regions will be required to balance their positions with tremendous sensitivity as the giant ships of state of the confronting powers send surging waves of instability crashing on to their shores.

Again, we are likely to witness a UN that is rendered impotent due to the Veto wielding two giants and the Russian Federation being unable to agree on many of the contentious issues. The hope of collaboration for the benefit of humanity has almost evaporated in a torrent of hostile actions and vicious comments rarely seen in diplomatic exchanges.

With regard to human rights, one could contend that although the aspired utopia of 1945 has not materialised, the world is a much better place today than in those dark days of the first half of the 20th century, largely due to the efforts of the UN.

The horrors of the Holocaust are behind us and we have persevered through the Gulags of the Soviet Union, the brutal suppression of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, the drenching Agent Orange rain in Vietnam, and the bombing of neutral Laos. Afghanistan and Iraq and other places where thousands of civilians were simply collateral damage are still with us. Massacres, genocides, deprivations, occupation of others’ lands etc. continue to occur but not on the same scale as previously.

On many occasions, the UN has been reduced to ringing its hands in mainly feigned anguish as the big powers restrained it.

The UN has been the convenient punching bag on many intractable global political issues such as the still unfinished business in the Korean Peninsula, the morass that was Congo, its impotency in Vietnam, the paralysis in Rwanda, its inability to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as old as the UN itself, to an end, its ineffectiveness as the Member State of Iraq was invaded, in the face of valid legal objections raised by many, the agony visited on Yemen, largely as a result of non-cooperation by the Veto wielding powers.

Nevertheless, the general acceptance of the common standards since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, is more widespread and violations happen less blatantly. (Some may disagree with this assertion).

Most people live in lot less fear today than in the inter war years, certainly in the West. The economic and cultural and civil and political rights of individuals, the rights of women and children, of refugees and migrants, of indigenous and differently abled persons and of workers are more advanced today than ever before.

History’s main violators have become the champions of the UN adopted standards. But credibility is still a long way away as the selective and politically motivated application of global disapprobation has robbed the UN standard setting instruments of their legitimacy. Sadly, human rights remain a political tool rather than a goal for making the world a better place.

Hunger and deprivation still plagues humanity. But to a lesser degree than before. It is unlikely that we will again be confronted by a deliberately created famine like in 1943 Bengal but still many, mainly children and women, die due to the lack of adequate sustenance and from avoidable diseases. However, UN agencies such as the FAO, have played a seminal role in augmenting global food production and staving off hunger. The UNDP also has contributed to alleviating poverty while the UNICEF has been a vital cog in the UN system addressing the educational and health needs of children.

The world body adopted the Millennium Development Goals in 2000 and the much more comprehensive Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. While the ambition demonstrated was commendable, the difficulties in achieving those goals have been highlighted by many, especially following the devastation rained on by Covid19.

The environment, especially on climate change, has been a major focus of the UN and under its auspices, has been adopting standards to arrest its decline since the late 80s. There is consensus that the UN sponsored measures with regard to the thinning ozone layer have been particularly successful.

Responding to UN standard setting, Europe and Japan have mainstreamed environmental issues and it is a rare politician in Europe who will challenge the overwhelming consensus on climate change.  Even the major polluters in the developing world, China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, have been moving in the right direction. While the US has been the major dissenter to the evolving global consensus, it is hoped that it also will join the global mainstream.

It was under the auspices of the UN that the law on the seas and oceans has been codified. The oceans are a much more clearly regulated space than ever before. Two protocols to Law of the Sea Convention have been brought in to force and a third on biological diversity beyond national jurisdiction is now being negotiated. 

The way UN’s constitution (The Charter) is formulated ensures that its powers are strictly constrained. At the same time the rights and privileges of those who won the Second World War are well and truly entrenched in a blatantly undemocratic manner in the Charter, causing much disenchantment in a world where the political, economic and social power centres have shifted significantly.

The Veto power conferred on the P5 in the Security Council limits its freedom of action to situations where the Veto wielders agree. The Cold War paralyzed the UN and its Security Council substantially, hobbling it during those dangerous years of East-West confrontation.

Similarly, North-South relations remain clouded by suspicions traceable to the now distant colonial experience. This constraint continues to influence attitudes and is not helped by an overbearing, “we know best” approach of the West. The Group of 77, originally intended to be the platform of developing countries on economic and social issues, is no longer 77. Relatively prosperous China (a P5 country), the second-biggest economy in the world, works with it and it has grown to 134.

Not all of its members are poor developing countries either. The per capita income of Singapore comfortably outstrips many of the developed world. Similarly, the Non-Aligned Movement, originally intended to be the group not aligned to the East or the West, has tended to pull in different directions with no cohesive non-aligned focus. Some have dropped out of this group. India, an original Non-aligned stalwart, today is participating in military exercises with the US, Japan and Australia (The Quad?) designed to confront and contain China.

The tendency of the Security Council, when the P5 works in unison, to adopt decisions binding on all member states under Chapter 7 of the Charter and which should properly be the legislative responsibility of the General Assembly, has also come in for criticism.

Consistent with the objectives of the Charter, the UN has been seminally responsible for the unprecedented development of the international rule of law. The Secretary-General’s office is the repository of over 550 multilateral treaties, the vast majority of them negotiated under the auspices of the UN. They cover almost every aspect of human interaction, including the environment, the oceans, aviation, trade, human rights, disarmament, terrorism, organised crime, the outer space, shipping, road rules, etc, and set a complex network of global standards for the conduct of individual states as never before. The international rule of law thus established, seeps down to national level in many areas influencing the development of the rule of law within countries.

Admittedly, the entry into force of a multilateral treaty or a state becoming party to a treaty does not per se advance the condition of individual persons. But the very existence of these universally accepted standards creates the incentive to strive for those higher goals. Sometimes with a little bit of added pressure.

An obligation to settle international disputes by peaceful means was consecrated in the Charter, together with a prohibition on the use of force in international relations. The mission of the International Court of Justice, created by the Charter, is to resolve inter-State disputes peacefully in accordance with international law.

The UN and its agencies have been successful in mobilising the international community on various issues. As the scourge of terrorism surged across borders and became a threat to many countries, the UN was able to establish treaty-based and Security Council sponsored rules and to mobilize states and resources to counter this threat. Expertise was assembled, resources were mobilised, training was provided to countries that needed it, and awareness was raised to a high level. In the absence of the UN and its agencies, it is doubtful if these advances could have been achieved at a global level. Much more remains to be done. The confrontations of the moment may deny the world of future opportunities to collaborate should such threats raise their heads again.

Similarly, the global response to health challenges such as the AIDS pandemic, the swine flu and avian flu threats that had the potential to cause havoc and Ebola epidemic were countered due to the existence of the UN, especially the WHO. And now Covid 19. Despite the criticism piled on the WHO by the US, it is the first and last resort for many a poor country in this crisis. The UN has developed an impressive ability to raise awareness rapidly and mobilise member states to respond quickly to threats of this nature. The WHO dealt with the Covid 19 pandemic in a much more impressive manner than many better-resourced countries.

The manner that the world body has responded to natural and man-made disasters has saved countless lives and alleviated much misery.

The UN has been successful in restoring normalcy to a number of global situations that threatened to cause untold violence and misery. Cambodia has emerged as a stable and increasingly prosperous country after a decade of conflict largely as a consequence of the Australian initiated, and UN-brokered peace and the subsequent peacekeeping operation.

Timor Leste, after a quarter-century of conflict, has established itself as a peaceful member of the international community.

South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy and majority rule was painstakingly facilitated by the UN despite the difficulties posed by some Veto wielding members of the UN. The role of the world organisation in guiding the Former Yugoslavia’s successor states to peace, after the initial explosion of violence, was not insignificant. Even the complex legal question of succession was dealt with imaginatively by the world body, especially its Office of Legal Affairs.

This brings us on to a vital and expanded area of UN activity – peacekeeping. Since its first peacekeeping operations on the borders of Israel and between India and Pakistan, its peacekeeping role has expanded substantially, with peacekeepers being given multidimensional mandates. Today the UN is actively engaged in peacekeeping operations in 16 countries. It has over 120,000 personnel, performing peacekeeping functions, including civilian, police and military personnel, contributed voluntarily by 122 Member States, mainly by developing countries.

The cost of peacekeeping exceeds seven billion dollars, making it the costliest aspect of UN operations. Now, UN peacekeepers may be permitted to play an offensive role to defend their mandates, including the protection of civilians.

While there are impressive success stories, peacekeeping related criticisms also abound. The UN’s peacekeeping efforts may meet with greater success if their mandates are formulated with better information originating at ground level and following more structured consultations, including with host governments if the mandates are clearly defined and the peacekeeping troops are better briefed, equipped and selected on the basis of experience and training if operations are regularly reviewed and exit strategies are well defined. Unfortunately, there has been a tendency for some missions to be extended indefinitely.

As the world moves forward there is an increasing clamour to reform the United Nations to reflect contemporary political and economic reality. The most difficult challenge will be to reform the Security Council which substantially reflects the power structures of the post-World War world. Two of the P5 are Europeans and members of the EU. Three of the elected members would also be members of the EU.

At the moment, the WEOG group in the Security Council with Belgium, Estonia and Germany (to be replaced by Norway and Ireland) has six members out of 15, which is grossly disproportionate in every sense. Africa has three of the elected members, Latin America and the Caribbean two and Asia two plus the Permanent seat (China). Asia is underrepresented given that almost half the world population lives in Asia and world economy is dominated by it.

Italy, the UN’s sixth-largest funder, provided leadership to a movement known as the Uniting for Consensus in opposition to the possible expansion of permanent seats. Core members of the group include Canada, South Korea, Spain, Indonesia, Mexico, Pakistan, Turkey, Argentina and Colombia. They would like to see the creation of a new category of seats, still non-permanent, but elected for an extended duration (semi-permanent seats). The G4 group, India, Germany, Brazil and Japan, have been campaigning to expand the P5 category to 9.

While the Security Council, an entity that reflects the privileges of the victors of war concluded 75 years ago, may not be reformed by another war. the dramatically altered global socio-economic realities might help to change attitudes.

Making the international civil service of the UN truly effective has been another challenge. Constantly criticised by the major contributors, it has chugged along for 75 years. While intermittent efforts have been made under different SGs, especially during the tenures of Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon, to make it more dynamic and responsive to contemporary needs, it is probably the time to approach this task in a comprehensive manner. Creditably, Ban Ki-moon succeeded in bringing large numbers of women in to managerial positions.

The ability of the Organisation to deliver on its mandates efficiently to the satisfaction of member states continues to be questioned by its main funder. A former US Permanent Representative, John Bolton, once suggested that the secretariat building could be reduced to 10 floors and the world would not know the difference.

The UN has been described as a private club. Its members decide what the club should do. Although the world at large may have other higher expectations, the UN is able to deliver only what its sovereign membership and the Charter would permit it to do. The most effective results are achieved where a consensus is obtained.

But as Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold so succinctly proclaimed, the UN was not created to send humanity to heaven, simply to stop it from going to hell. Likewise, it has been said that if the UN did not exist, we would have had to invent it.

Given the current global suspicions and rivalries, it is unlikely that we would succeed in creating a UN today from scratch. Despite all the criticisms for its failures, it has achieved much in its 75 years of existence. Just that successes do not garner headlines. It could be described as the most successful and truly global political organisation ever created.

In retrospect, one could say that the UN has navigated through the crashing waves of global discord and survived so far. It has also enjoyed moments of euphoric glee of success. On the whole, as was hopefully observed by Georges Bidault, Minister for Foreign Affairs and head of the French delegation to the San Francisco Conference, in the past 75 years, it has performed admirably, “Reconciling the requirements of the ideal with the possibilities of the real”.

*Dr Palitha Kohona, Former Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations, Former Chair of the UNGA Sixth Committee and the Former Co-Chair of the UN Ad Hoc Committee on BBNJ.


IDN-InDepthNews offers news analyses and viewpoints on topics that impact the world and its peoples. IDN-InDepthNews serves as the flagship of the International Press Syndicate Group

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *