Two recent events in the world have opened Pandora’s box regarding the relevance of the UN. First was the COVID-19 pandemic, which also provided the UN with the opportunity to reestablish its credentials. The second event was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which raised serious questions over the relevance of the United Nations.
COVID-19 initially raised questions over the credibility of WHO and the UN in handling the pandemic. But WHO and the UN helped by cooperating at the world level to arrest the spread of the virus and distribute vaccines. The second happening, however, came as a major blow to the UN’s efforts of rebuilding its image in the management of the COVID-19 crisis.
In 1945, delegates from 50 countries met in San Francisco to fashion an international body to promote peace and prevent future wars. The organisation’s ideals were stated in the preamble to its proposed charter: ” We, the peoples of the United Nations, are determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the UN’s failure to find an amicable solution to the issue and protect the sovereignty and integrity of the nation raises severe doubts over the continued relevance of the organization, its agencies, and international treaties. This reflects that the very purpose for which the United Nations was established is defeated.
After World War I, the League of Nations was established in 1919 to promote international cooperation and achieve peace and security. But it failed to prevent World War II. It failed due to institutional incapacity. In the aftermath of World War II, the UN was established to promote cooperation and peace among nation-states. Now the UN has failed in providing a platform for dialogue and diplomacy to Russia, Western countries and Ukraine.
What failed the UN is a million-dollar question. However, the answer is simple. Reluctance to change and reform in line with present-day realities is the most probable explanation. The UN does not represent the current geopolitical world order. It represents word order that existed before the Cold War era. The Russia- Ukraine war is not the only indicator of the declining relevance of the UN; it is just another reminder.
There are ample previous instances when the UN failed to fulfil its mandate. Nuclear non-proliferation, the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the Vietnam Crisis or the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Iraq invasion, the Syrian Civil War, the Rohingya Crisis, and many more issues.
The real purpose of establishing the UN was to ensure normative principles such as justice, equality, and fairness among members. Behavioural analysis shows contrasting outcomes of the UN. Instead of guaranteeing equality and justice among members, it widened the gulf between them. In an interview with the Guardian, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that the Security Council must either reform or risk becoming increasingly irrelevant. To find the remedy to bees relevant, it is imperative to know what the problems are with the present arrangement and composition of the UN.
Representation at the UN security council is skewed in favour of a few regions. Existing membership of the UNSC reflects a regional imbalance, with no representation from Africa or Latin America, and Europe being over-represented. Today’s world is characterised by a complex interdependence of states. Nations such as India, Japan, South Africa, and Brazil are rising in stature and need to be accommodated in the UNSC.
Furthermore, improper use of Veto power by permanent members has created many problems. The use of veto power to fulfil vested interests and protect erring allies has effectively disabled the UN.
Structural reforms are necessary to bring relevance to the UN. The UN General Assembly needs a greater role and more powers as UNSC remains paralysed due to veto power. China has misused its veto power to block the resolution naming Masood Azhar as a global terrorist. America has vetoed any resolution condemning Israel for its occupation of Palestine. To repair the damage caused by the misuse of the veto, there should be certain structural reforms, such as abolishing the veto or giving overriding powers to the UNGA.
Strengthening financial resources is also necessary to strengthen the UN. All 193 members are meant to contribute annual funds to the UN’s general operations based on the size of each country and its economy. These contributions are to be made in a time-bound manner. Only a few countries comply with time limits. Without proper financing, the UN will be handicapped in performing general operations.
A sound financial framework should be adopted to ensure timely contributions by member states. Provision for penalties in case of delays should be incorporated. An audit of UN programmes should be carried out to ensure accountability and transparency.
With all its shortcomings, the UN has been the most critical platform for dialogue and diplomacy. It has provided a platform for all developed or developing countries to voice their concerns. The UN has also been successful in peacekeeping operations. It has negotiated over 170 peaceful settlements that ended regional conflicts. UN special agencies such as the UN World Food Programme has helped mitigate hunger and ensure nutritional security.
As said by Harry S. Truman,” UN is the creation of member states and is therefore malleable to their wishes. It will succeed, if they wish, otherwise it will become a relic of the past”.