Is the UN an outdated body?

Written on the 03/02/2016

By Fergus Radburn-Todd.

The United Nations, created on the 24th of October 1945 as a successor to the League of Nations, in an attempt to promote further cooperation between states to prevent war on the scale of World War II, is an intergovernmental organisation, with 193 member states that function on the principle of “equal sovereignty of all member states”, to seek to promote areas of peace at the expense of areas of conflict. After the Cold War era, the UN saw a rapid expansion in its peacekeeping duties, taking on more missions in ten years than it had in the previous four decades. Due to the changing nature of global order, and the reduction in conventional conflicts seen throughout the world, the legitimacy of the UN has been called into question, with many of its critics considering it outdated. While calls have been made for a more representative Security Council, or a less intergovernmental UN, the UN has proved itself successful and still hugely relevant in today’s international climate.

Indeed, since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ensuing collapse of the Soviet Union, the UN has seen its intervention in foreign states rise considerably, with such examples as the UN mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea, in which the UN was tasked with enforcing a ceasefire between the two states. This has shown that the UN is capable of evolving to suit a more unconventional political landscape. UN peacekeepers and the bodies various organs have overseen the democratisation of nations throughout the globe, along with the injection of resources to assist nations in capitalising states to promote competitive business spirit, increasing peace between unstable states through increased interdependence, not only through links with the developed world, but also increasing diplomatic relationships between developing nations. For example, the United Nations Mission of Support in East Timor from 2002 to 2005 was tasked with “ensuring security and stability in the state during the post-independence period. Equally, the UN’s operations in Timor-Leste aimed to “support government in consolidating stability, enhancing a culture of democratic governance and facilitating political dialogue among Timorese stakeholders, in their efforts to bring about a process of national reconciliation and to foster social cohesion.” More specifically, the main “nuclear watchdog” of the UN, the IAEA has in various cases contributed to this democratisation, partly through the assistance of implicating neo-liberal economic values into states. For example, in Africa the IAEA used “Nuclear and isotopic techniques” to create a more efficient environment for Africans to grow crops, trade, and so alleviate poverty through wealth creation. Moreover, in Uruguay the UN was successful in increasing the international competitiveness of their domestic exports through the irradiation of food to meet certain international standards, which has in time allowed them to export “irradiated citrus fruit to the United States.” This especially highlights the UN’s capacity to change, considering the questionable place of International Aid in politics today.

Despite this, the UN’s capacity to really evolve to suit “modern times”, in the eyes of its critics at least, is UN Security Council, a relic of more conventional times. James Traub argues that the primary flaw of the UN lies in the its lack of independent power, considering it is only as powerful as the UN security council allows it to be. He considers the UN to be a place where its members – diplomats from 192 sovereign states – gather to pursue their national priorities. He argues the UN secretariat, often composed of well meaning diplomats and humanitarians, is unable to circumvent the will of the organisation’s most powerful member states, which are frequently divided, deeply self-interested and too rarely motivated by a concern for the global commons. Critics of the UN Security Council further argue that the flaw lies in the VETO wielding security council members. On various occasion it does seem that the clashing of powerful states within the UN Security Council has undermined its effectiveness. Indeed, Ban Ki-moon has admitted that “power divisions” within the security council have prevented action to end a conflict that has resulted in the “biggest refugee exodus in a generation”. The UN Secretary General refereed to China and Russia in particular, “looking beyond their national interests”. Indeed, talks have stalled in the past over Iraq in 2001, and continue to do so in more recent times, such as Darfur in 2008.

Another key factor of consideration is the make-up of the Security Council. Critics of the UN, for example find it strange considering the active nature of the UN in Africa, that there are no African states within the Security Council permanently, only temporarily. Many argue that more permanent members should be invited to join the council, making it more representative of global order today. There are for example, no black of Moslem members of the permanent Security Council, despite India’s economic prowess against more developed states, and its army being the 4th most powerful on the Planet, above that of the United Kingdom and Germany. Europe, for instance, which accounts for barely 5% of the world’s population, still controls 33% of the seats. The existing VETO also ensures that just one of the members states on the security council can stop action happening. Russia and China for example, Vetoing more rigorous sanctions against Iran and Sudan. Many critics also argue that, as with the EU council of Ministers, decisions could be made by qualified majority voting, thereby protecting state’s national interests while making its easier to achieve a consensus. This development has been seen in various international and intergovernmental organisations in recent times, such as the quasi-intergovernmental EU, leading many to question the motive behind the lack of reform. Furthermore, while the Secretary General of the UN can highlight and publicise issues of global concern, it is the security council that will decide whether or not to take action. Unfortunately these members states often choose to place their national sovereignty first. Thus, Britain and America pushed for the war they wanted against Iraq in 2003, but equally Russia and China have put their own economic interests first in not allowing more rigorous sanctions to be imposed on Iran while breaking their own arms embargo on Sudan in order to sell more arms.

Despite this though, the UN has undoubtedly lead the way in the prevention of proliferation of nuclear weapons. For example, the IAEA was successful in coercing South Africa to remove their nuclear arsenal. South Africa was successful in the 1980s of producing nuclear weapons, but disassembled them in the 1990s. Furthermore, various Soviet Union states which previously held nuclear weapons have also disassembled them. Belarus, Kazakhstan and the Ukraine had previously held nuclear weapons, though following the collapse of the Soviet Union, transferred them to Russia and acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Indeed, in 1991 Ukraine held the third largest Nuclear Weapon stockpile on the planet, though by 1996 had voluntarily disposed of the nuclear weapons, with help from the UN. Despite this though, the IAEA has been criticised for its poor management after the Fukushima crisis, saying that the IAEA did not learn from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. He has accused the IAEA of “wilfully ignoring lessons from the world’s worst nuclear accident 25 years ago to protect the industry’s expansion.” Moreover, Najmedin Meshkati of University of Southern California says, “It recommends safety standards, but member states are not required to comply, it promotes nuclear energy, but it also promotes nuclear use; it is the sole global organisation overseeing the nuclear energy industry, yet it is also weighed down by checking compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.” Indeed, the IAEA has been entirely unsuccessful in preventing Nuclear Weapon development in North-Korea, perhaps highlighted by their recent “successful” Hydrogen bomb test.

Another area for reform is UN’s lack of a Rapid Reaction Force. This is highlighted in situations such as in Rwanda in 1994, when the rate at which the UN could deploy troops was too slow compared to the rapidly developing crisis. In the case of the UN, a combination of practical necessities and political calculations by important global actors has meant that the post-Cold War “New World Order” has increasingly relied upon ad hoc arrangements. In a political environment increasingly characterised by fast-paced political developments with international implications, this does often not suffice, as seen in the case of the Rwandan genocide, where the Security Council decided to withdraw the majority of its troops leaving a token force under General Dallaire, which could only protect very few survivors in Kigali.

This further highlights the unwillingness of the Security Council to commit sufficient troops with a sufficient mandate to protect civilians. This has in various cases undermined the ability of the UN to function efficiently. This was for example instrumental in the failure of the UN peacekeepers in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995. In this case inparticular, despite the fact they were in a war zone, UN troops did not have the authority to combat aggression, and as the fall of Srebrenica illustrates, its troops were not even authorised to safeguard civilians under their protection. This further raises the question in regards to funding. Undoubtedly, the UN funding is flawed. The world’s militaries together spend around $800 billion on defence, though while the UN holds a force larger than the British army, it dedicates only $2 billion, 4% of the UK’s military budget. The financial burden upon UN member states is also questionable, with the US paying around 22% of the costs, Japan 19.5% and Russia and China only 2% each, despite China’s economy being set to overtake that of the US economy by 2017, in terms of GDP.

One must not ignore though the stance the UN has taken towards various modern issues, ranging from climate change to human rights. For example, the United Nations “Human Rights up Front” inititiave was launched by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in December 2013 to address the ‘systemic failure’ identified by an Internal Review Panel in meeting UN responsibilities to prevent and respond to serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law, such as Rwanda (1994) and Srebrenica (Bosnia & Herzegovina, 1995). Moreover, the Ottawa Treaty has been successful in reducing the number of landmines throughout the 159 countries, including most recently, Nepal and Rwanda that have been declared mine-free. At the same time, the UN millennium development goals, while perhaps not being achieved by the end of 2015, have introduced revolutionary changes to child labour, poverty and world hunger, creating better preconditions for peace and security, especially in the way that access to primary education world-wide has been increased hugely since 2000. Concerted action against Malaria, too, has lead to a 38% drop in Malaria deaths in the past decade, with the UN seeking the total elimination of the disease by 2025. The eradication of AIDS has also been targeted for 2020, with significant reductions in infection rates in recent years. Such medial, social and educational reforms will certainly create a more socially cohesive society, in which better educated people will reduce the chances of countries falling into social decline. The UN has also provided an active international forum for debate and scrutinisation of international law and policies. There are various examples of conferences designed to tackle issues raised by post-modernists and critical thinkers, highlighting the UN’s ability to listen and account for minorities. For example, the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Descrimination against Women met on the 7th to 25th of August 2006, along with the UN Climate Change Conference, which originally met in 2009, though met again in Paris in 2015, setting targets such as the unified attempt to maintain global climate change below 2 degrees centigrade.

Despite this though, such efforts to confont a dynamic, modern world are undermined by the endemic beuracratic issues within the UN, slowing growth and evolution of the body. UN Bureaucrats are not selected or advanced on merit, but to fulfil national quotas, creating a cumbersome administration. For example, in 2005 when the quota reform was discussed Pakistan, Egypt and Syria rejected American proposals for reforms such as allowing the Secretary General to select staff on the basis of ability rather than nationality. Similarly the UN Secretary General is selected by the UN Security Council, who will not want one that is too proactive. For example, Boutros Boutros Ghali only served one term as the US viewed him too pro-active, and was replaced with the more pliable Kofi Annan. Ban Ki-Moon according a particular US official was selected because “He is pretty faceless and does not have that much charisma”. This issue has been further highlighted by Zimbabwe’s nomination to head the UN’s Commission for Sustainable Development since it is “their turn”, despite their terrible record of social, economic and environmental degradation.

To conclude, while the argument that the UN does require reform is strengthened by various factors, from the failure of the UN to assist in the Rwandan genocide effectively, undermined by their lack of a RRF, and the various bearucratic inefficiencies within the UN, to the political gridlock experienced within the Security Council, such flaws are perhaps the result of a relatively ermbryonic international organisation, that in time through increased integration and dependancy could become more supranational, and most likely more effective in preventing conflict. Despite this though, in the shorter term the UN has effectively reacted to new world issues, such as Climate Change, AIDS, Malaria and the rising requirement for a more egalitarian society. For this reason, I disagree with the notion that the UN is in need of reform.


One thought on “Is the UN an outdated body?

  1. I can’t see how anyone could view the current structure of the United Nations as not needing reform, considering that the way the Security Council is currently set up allows for unbelievable bias by those countries who have seats therein it is a detriment to the entire structure. So much more could get done to solve Global problems if people were chosen not based on nationality alone but also on ability.


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