By Dr Gyan Basnet (PhD)
Almost seventy years have passed since the establishment of the United Nations. The institution was founded in 1945 in order to replace the League of Nations and in so doing to bring about a new world order. The hope was that the new body would intervene in conflicts between nations and thereby avoid future all-out war. Today the organization’s structure still reflects the circumstances pertaining at the time of its founding, but in the meantime the world has changed dramatically. Modern history, as taught, tells us that this international organization has become an essential part of the system for dealing with international problems, but we need to ask how relevant the UN is in the changed political circumstances of today? How successful has it been in fulfilling its promises and living up to its ideals? Does it truly constitute a global voice? Just how successful has it been in maintaining the peace in every part of the world? It is time to place the international body on trial and to re-assess, re-visit, and re-define its significance in terms of its past outcomes. It is time to consider whether, in the interest of all nations, the body should be re-constituted to form a stronger, more adaptable organisation that better reflects the dynamics of a changed world order.
In nearly seven decades of its history the United Nations cannot be said to have achieved that much. It has been able to prevent the recurrence of war on the scale of the First and Second World Wars. It has been instrumental in maintaining an international balance of power. It has played a role in the demise of colonialism on the one hand and of apartheid on the other. Its agencies, such as the WHO, UNICEF, and UNESCO, have keenly participated in the transformation of the international social sector.
Moreover, despite being essentially a political body, it has provided a platform via its conventions and declarations for matters extra-political, e.g. human rights, women’s rights, climate change. Beyond these, though, its achievement has been less than outstanding.
The UN’s main objective is to ensure peace throughout the world, and under its Charter the use of force by states is prohibited.
However, it has failed to prevent over a hundred major conflicts resulting in the death of over twenty five million people. Its peacekeeping missions in several parts in the world failed, and it was unable to stop genocides in African countries such as Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Liberia, and Sierra-Leone. In Rwanda alone it was unable to protect over eight hundred thousand innocent people from being slaughtered. Similarly, it was unable to prevent massive genocides in the USSR under Stalin and in Cambodia under Pol Pot, and it failed to prevent the US and its allies entering an illegal war in Iraq. For decades Israel has taken unilateral action against its neighbours, but a resolution of the border crisis appears to be as far away as ever. The UN certainly played no role of any importance in major crises such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the war in Vietnam.
It was nowhere to be seen, too, when NATO bombs rained down on the former Yugoslavia. It failed to control the horizontal expansion and proliferation of weapons and arms, and the number of nuclear powers in the world continued to rise. Finally, it has failed to reflect the democratic and other aspirations of its people.
Today, trans-governmentalism is rapidly becoming the most widespread and effective mode of international governance. Harvard Professor A. Slaughter even argues that the present processes of interaction and interdependence are transitional only, and that the decline and ultimate demise of the state will lead to ‘trans-national class formations’ followed by ‘newer, more inclusive and larger social organizations’. The UN has been reduced to a talking shop where big and powerful nations show their might. Power politics and use of the UN as a tool for serving self-interest has reduced the relevance of the world body: it has become a hostage of the major powers, and it has totally failed to understand the present changed global political order.
The Changed World Order
The period immediately after its founding in 1945 was marked not only by the division of world politics into two hostile camps, i.e. the capitalist West and the communist East, but also by a confrontation between the North and the South as the latter at last gained a voice on the international stage. Since then, though, the world has witnessed huge political upheavals and social transformations such as the demise of the Soviet Union following the fall of the Berlin Wall and, much more recently, the Arab Spring.
The early post-colonial era was one during which the sovereign state was triumphant, and ‘break-ups and regroupings’ were, according to Professor Serge Sur, a ‘common phenomenon’. The Westphalia view of international law as a disciplinary force between nation states, each with its own economic, social and political authority has, however, now ceased to be appropriate in a global society where the power of non-state actors continues to grow. As cross-border activity and practices increase in number, Professor B. Sausa Santos argues that the nation-state is less able to maintain the level of control that it once had over the flow of persons, goods, money and ideas. The ease of capital movement and the increasingly powerful world financial markets and multi-national corporations, backed by fast communications and therefore information, have meant that parts of the world such as Asia, Africa, and Central and Latin America have been drawn into the global economy at an increasingly rapid rate. Now monolithic financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are the economic order of the day.
With the ending of the Cold War, these international institutions assumed a greater role in world affairs, resulting in an era of unprecedented internationalism. At the same time technological advances led to intense interaction within and between nations generating complex interdependence. Professor Jessica Mathews describes the world of today as ‘a shift away from the state up, down, and sideways to supra-state, sub-state, and, above all, non-state actors’. These new players have multiple allegiances and global reach. She goes on to observe that, simultaneously and consequently, the threats to peace and prosperity are growing in complexity. These range from terrorism to organized crime, drug trafficking, and ethnic conflict. Moreover, rapid population growth, environmental decline, and poverty lead to economic stagnation, political instability, and possible state collapse.
Increased globalization effectively diminishes the role of the UN. As Professor Serge Sur argues, General Assembly resolutions are relegated to a lower rank, and major UN conferences become things of the past. CNN becomes the world’s communicator, and in the new economic order, the WTO plays a far larger role than the UN. In short, the UN’s inter-state, collegial style of diplomacy has little relevance in the globalized world of today.
Too Late for Reform
The collapse of the League of Nations in the 20th century led almost automatically to consideration of how to replace it. A similar failure by the UN now is producing a similar reaction today. Kofi Annan once said: ‘We should not shy away from the need to improve and, where necessary, change the structure and function of the United Nations and other international institutions.’
However, reforming it alone would be like pouring new wine into old bottles. To Professor Anne Slaughter the 1945 world order is a chimera: she emphasises that the UN functions effectively only when it has the full support of the major powers. Not one of those powers would contemplate strengthening the international institution at its own expense: any attempt at change would inevitably produce a backlash. Nevertheless, the world must be willing to accept change, and that change must mean the establishment of a replacement institution.
At the time of the UN’s own establishment a huge part of the world’s population was living under colonial rule. This body of humanity was given no voice at all at the new international political forum, and even today the developing nations are excluded from its decision-making. What was conceived with a 1945 mentality is no longer adequate for a world that has moved so far since that date. The generation of the twenty first century, with globalization, rapid advances in technology, and especially the Internet, is justified in demanding a forum more attuned to current circumstances. Today, the nature and scope of the political organization should be determined by the nature and intensity of the world’s current problems.
Reform within the UN itself will not suffice in this changed situation. Fundamental change is essential. Just as the UN was established at a series of conferences in San Francisco attended by the victor nations of World War II, so a similar series of world conferences should now involve all countries. The aim should be to establish a new form of global institution to replace completely the current UN. The new institution needs to be inclusive and to be based on equal voices, equal power sharing, and with strong enforcement mechanisms adapted to the present political world order. It must represent all continents and nations and must provide a strong form of global governance. It must promise equal justice, equal distribution of world resources, a withering of the gap between rich and poor countries, and an all-out assault on climate change and environmental degradation. The need for this new institution to replace the UN is urgent: its mission must be to achieve in the 21st century peace, social harmony among all races and religions, and the full recognition of human rights.
Dr Basnet, who holds a Ph.D. and an LL.M degree in International Human Rights law at Lancaster University, U.K, is a Prominent Columnist, Researcher in International Human Rights Law and an Advocate in the Supreme Court Nepal. E-mail: [email protected]